Sunday, July 28, 2019

Barbara Swift Brauer: Rain, Like a Thief

In my continuing series of reviews of collections by Marin poets, I turn to Barbara Swift Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2019). I had the privilege earlier this year of hearing Brauer read at Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael, Ca. I found her deceptively simple poems an apt counterpoint to the lush, dark poems of Camille Norton, another Sixteen Rivers Press poet. Although Brauer's Rain, Like a Thief explores the weather of our existence that is often "...wind [and ] black clouds," they are also are perennially infused with light. And it is this light, sometimes only "brief sun" or a "small globe flicker[ing]" we are able to lean into for solace and comfort. Brauer's collection is divided into four sections. I have attempted to share the best example of her writing from each.

From section I, "You Think This Is You," the poem that remained with me longer than other poems emblematic of Brauer's light/dark poems, was "The Professionals." Those "loose materials... [that] arrive in any freighted crate / or on a sun shaft / through grimed windows" seems about right for the way poetry comes to me.

The Professionals

     Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up 
     and get to work.
          --Chuck Close

We are busy getting on with it,
every day surveying the loose materials
scattered about the studio.

They arrive in any freighted crate
or on a sun shaft
through grimed windows.

Soon we are hammering
a new apron to broaden the stage,
seducing form into brazen acts

of primary color, ever
exploring the intimate cracks
in the surfaces of things.

Tonight an evening from long ago
rumbles into memory
with the passing of a truck.

I am here at my desk as an old light,
long extinguished,
spreads everywhere in the room.

How to tell you of the age-darkened walls
of that once-summer cabin--
kerosene lamp on the table,

flowered tea service
thought from the kitchen.
What was it we talked of,

my grandmother and I,
the lake outside knocking
softly on its shores?

The conversation vanishes,
only the light remains.

A vastly different take on light and dark--one that widens into racial and socio-political realms--emerges from "Brothers," a poem from section II, "Our Brittle Doors."


     It cannot be ruled out that the earliest paintings were
     symbolic expressions of the Neanderthals.
          --Alistair W. G. Pike

     Sin crouches by the door.
          --Genesis 4:7

We knew them from the caves,
their handprints on the wall.

Held our own palms against them,
our five fingers matching.

We were not alone.

Just over the hill,
their fires and dark burrows.

Someone knew us
as certainly, warily, as we knew them.

We were not alone. Knowing
comforted and chafed.

By dark, we watched from the distance.
By day, we found them at the hunt

bloody over their kill, the fat herds startled
and out of reach. We turned back in hunger.

By the lakes they gathered,
the streams fouled and muddied

in their wake. It chafed and galled.
We coveted the caves,

the forests and fields, first strike
at the bison, the calves, first chance

at the eggs in the nests. We coveted
and then we struck. Surprised them
from behind, struck and struck again.

In section III, "The Mountain Is Our Weather," I find the title poem particularly compelling because of the specificity and compression of its diction, paired with its ubiquity of content.

The Mountain Is Our Weather

     A Traveler's Notes from Denali

Skim-milk moon
above Igloo Creek,
fireweed at the door.
Is someone knocking?
Savage River with its glacial song
glides through the dimming light,
disappears far down the valley
like a great flock of birds.
Site 142 with its knee-high
quaking aspen, mosquitoes
easy to swat from the sky.
That wind, black clouds.
Brief sun, redemptive.
This thick stand of spruce,
minyan of elders,
keeps its own counsel.

I look for clues, omens
whenever I meet
what's larger than myself.
Here at Wonder Lake
it's all abut the mountain:
our last view at night,
the first each morning.

The mountain is our weather,
our darkness, our light.

In section IV, Brauer gives us this short elegy to a mother that encapsulates a life in fourteen lines. "Temporal," could be a final poem in this note-worthy collection--like Janus, looking backwards to our origins and "what remains in this world," and forward to the tasks before us...


I recognize my mother's body
as I soap in the shower: the soft undersides
of my arms, the round of my hips.

Year later, I am washing her,
face and neck, withered legs,
her small hands between my hands.

Now I wash the dishes
from her cupboard,
lay the places at my table.

How careful we must be
of what remains in this world,
how careful of ourselves,

fragile vessels, and the light
through these small windows.

Barbara Swift Brauer is a freelance writer living in San Geronimo, California. Her first poetry collection, At Ease in the Borrowed World, was published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2013. Her poems have appeared in journals and anthologies as well as in art exhibitions and installations. With portrait artist Jackie Kirk, she is coauthor of the nonfiction book, Witness: The Artist's Vision in "The Face of AIDS" (Pomegranate Artbooks, 1996).

Saturday, June 22, 2019

A World-Class Poetry Journal in Marin: Nostos

As the new poet laureate of Marin County California, my project is "Poetry as Connection." I won't elaborate on all that might entail over the coming two years, but one thing I'm doing is making as many personal connections as I can with poets, as well as people and organizations in Marin that read and support poetry.

A few weeks ago I met with Lawrence Tjernell, editor of Nostos, a relatively new literary journal published in Marin. This post is a brief summary of what I learned from Tjernell about Nostos, and a review of its latest issue: Volume II, Number 2 (2018).

Those of you who know your literary history will remember that in Greek Nostos refers to a hero, such as Odysseus, returning home by sea. The name is an apt one. Tjernell is a former professor of literature at San Jose State University, and has long dreamed of founding a literary journal that brings serious literature by local and national authors to the page. After visiting with this knowledgable teacher, and reading this 3rd issue that demonstrates his exacting editorial skills, I am impressed with what he has accomplished in a short time. And I'm convinced that the erudition evident in this issue is only the beginning of what he will accomplish over time.

Each issue of Nostos is themed. The theme of this issue is "familial"-- the relationships between and among father / son / mother / daughter. Tjernell could not have picked a more appropriate series of poems than Louise Gluck's Telemachus poems to open with. Rebecca Foust, Marin Poet Laureate Emerita, writes of them in the foreword:

The poems by Louise Gluck in this issue of Nostos are from Meadowlands, a collection that looks at The Odyssey in a new way, embodying Penelope and Odysseus in a contemporary marriage conversation resonant with the domestic minutiae bickering that can overlay fundamental and tragic conflict...Gluck show[s] that her themes of love, grief, and loss are timeless and universal.

The first seven of Gluck's eight poems are from the point of view of Telemachus, each speaking to a different facet of his experience as the son of an adulterous, absent, hero father and a courageous, albeit stoic, distant, and in-denial, mother. Telemachus' detachment, guilt, kindness, dilemma, fantasy, confession, and burden are examined in turn.

In "Telemachus' Kindness" we learn that instead of blaming his parents for his trials: " practical terms, hav[ing] no father; [and having a] mother / [who] lived at her loom hypothesizing / husband's erotic life," Telemachus "...gradually / realized no child on that island had / a different story...." Gluck ends the poem with these lines that resound throughout the entire series: "I can look at my parents / impartially and pity the both: I hope / always to be able to pity them."

The eighth poem, "Reunion," is in omniscient third person.  After returning home and killing Penelope's suitors Odysseus motions for Telemachus to leave. Standing before Penelope,

...he tells her
nothing of those years, choosing to speak instead
exclusively of small things, as would be
the habit of a man and woman long together:
once she sees who he is, she will know what he's done.
And as he speaks, ah,
tenderly he touches her forearm.

It is with a tender touch that Tjernell reaches out to readers of Nostos, giving them credit for their familiarity with and appreciation of the growing literary canon, without presenting material so obscure or opaque as to lose their interest--above all, quietly assuming their longstanding love of the written word. And there is much to love in the stories and poems by these authors, a complete list of which appears at the end of this review. Most of them, if not residents of northern California, have roots there.

Six poems appear by Rebecca Foust, each honoring an iconic family image. In "Mom's Canoe" the poet remembers the life of a mother and a canoe, each with poignant images that inform one another. "Remember how it glowed like honey in summer / rubbed with beeswax and turpentine / against leaks, cracks, weather and time." And then later in the poem and later in the life of mother and canoe: "I still see you rising from water to sky, / paddle held high, / river drops limning its edge." And then later still: "Parting the current, you slip / silently through the evening shadows. / You, birdsong, watering, slanting light, / following river bend, swallowed from sight."

All of Foust's poems are noteworthy. In "No Longer Medusa" the poet positions the transition from the time "I turned men to adamantine / with a glance" to when "I am alive / all night with fear for you, undone / by your sweet, milky breath, / the bobcat tufts on your ears, / your pink ribbon gums" with the birth of a daughter, " mirror / the chink in my armor." In "Preparation for Pirouette," "Hangfire," "Ice Skating at Night," and "fearsome & wondrous," Foust uses no less gorgeous diction and spot-on imagery to connect deeply with readers, both cognitively and emotionally.

Before reading Nostos, I knew Lisa Rappoport as a letterpress printer creating poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press. Now I know her as a poet, equally capable of working in free verse as in form. Her "Coffee Cake" presents lines of rumination between recipe directions to give readers not only the ingredients of, no doubt, a family recipe, but the recipe for a family: "...powdery memories of your mother's kitchen, / entire, fragmented, smashed, a mishmash of love, regret cracked hope, nourishment bestowed / and withheld, acrid white dust. Leaven[ed] with / 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder, for levity, even / chemically induced; for ease, / whatever is light, what rises, what floats."

Her final poem of four, "Proud Flesh," is a Shakespearian sonnet depicting a daughter as "the scar of parents, not their child." Instead of a hero's journey that ends in either redemption or utter loss, Rappoport's character approaches the final couplet with "By speaking now I hope to find a way / to soften angry edges, or atone," setting up the qualified resolution: "so healed or not, the proud flesh and its ache / hold life beyond that long ago mistake."

Tjernell doesn't make a false step or a wrong turn in his journey from Gluck's account of the trials of an ancient Greek family through the voice of Telemachus to the trials of a modern California family in the aftermath of a divorce precipitated by an affair, complete with custody problems, power plays, the burning down of the house where they used to all live, and the ensuing trial in "Disneyland Dad," a short story by Heather Altfeld, and the journal's final piece.

Along the way, the editor guides us seamlessly through multiple genres on an obviously predetermined route, while treading so lightly as to make us feel we are voyeurs looking in on the private lives of families different enough from ours in regards to their superficial trappings to be interesting, but similar enough in the depths of their pathologies and ecstasies, to be hauntingly familiar. The following are particularly emblematic of this process.

In Javier Zamora's "Then, It Was So," a father, age 19,  speaks of the agony of leaving his family to find a better life for them all.

To tell you I was leaving
I waited and waited
rethinking first sentences in my sleep,
I didn't sleep,
and my heart was a watermelon
split each night Outside,
3 a.m. was the same as bats
and you were our kerosene lamp.

Zamora's "Postpartum" is a lamentation by a mom, age 18, that begins:

My son's in the other room. This little
burlap sack of rice came out yellow,
some deficiency, got incubated, hasn't
stopped crying--his father wasn't there,
he was "out fishing."

And then ends with:

Maybe he hears, I wish he hears my moans
when he's on to of his whores.
Like I don't know. I am crazy, but not
estupida. If I catch him, me las va pager.
Me las va pagar, that dipshit
deep in debt over a fishing boat
he can't catch nothing in. My son
won't drink from me. I pump breasts,
rub sugar and honey on them,
why won't he drink from me?

In Troy Jollimore's "The Arrow Man" we meet Nate, stuck in a going nowhere relationship whose difficulty in meeting people or making new relationships presents itself as people confusing him with the actor who used to play a vampire on the TV show, The Undead Chronicles. Or worse, as the vampire himself.

In the second of Lorna Stevens's diptychs, Cross Purposes, two child-like renderings of a house is overlaid on itself as if in four dimensions, implying the passage of time. Centered in each are two sentences set at right angles, intersecting at the "A" shared by the middle word,"WAS." In the first image: "BEN WAS SORRY" (vertical), and "MOM WAS ANGRY" (horizontal). In the second: "BEN WAS SAD (vertical), and "MOM WAS SORRY (horizontal). Afterimages of these sentences fade into the background as echoes or reverberations.

Who doesn't remember stories from their parents about when and how they met, as in the opening lines to David Rollinson's "Watching Dance with the Dancers?"

I always knew there was dancing.
My parents danced the ballroom dances:
my handsome father with his black,
slick hair and his pencil thin black mustache,
my pretty mother with her Andrews Sisters hair
and shapely calves--they
could dress up beautifully and go out dancing to "peg o' my
their cocktails on a white tablecloth
at their table near the bandstand.
Somehow, I got to be there.

Who has not accused their parents or has been accused by a child of ruining their lives, so well documented by Meryl Natchez in "Theodicy" / or How Evil Enters the World. After what seems a lifetime of sleep deprivation and crying, and giving up the pleasures of being a childless adult,

...they learn how to walk,
to swim, to read, and you've paid for the orthodontist

and endured the teenage years, and paid for college and
helped out with grad school and they're launched,

with their own lives, their own ways of salting meat
and slicing it, their own partners and opinions,

here they are, flawed human beings with adult problems
for which it turns out you are the cause.

Finally, to celebrate what may be an appropriate universal response to our families--natural or otherwise--and to the words and images of these poets and writers and artists about them, here are the final lines of Karen Poppy's poem, "On Your Birthday."

Rain dampens the leaves, lacquers their mottled beauty.
I touch them as if they were slick skin
And swallow in their swollen scent.

Their veins open to the air,
Spread through their star-shaped bodies,
Glistening fire on my hands.

Such temporal brilliance.

Come winter, leaves under snow,
My teeth cold, and the air strongly mineral,
I will say your name
Against the pure, colorless sky.

Such temporal brilliance...I will say your name...

The name is Nostos. The editor is Lawrence Tjernell. The contributors are listed below.

Contributors to Vol. II, Number 2 

Louise Gluck's collection The Wild Iris won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1993. The author of twelve books of poetry, she teaches at Yale University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Born in El Salvador, Javier Zamora published his first collection of poems, Unaccompanied, in 2017 (Copper Canyon Press). He is the co-founder of "Undocupoets," an advocacy group calling on publishers to extend grants and first-book contest awards to writers with DACA status or Temporary Protected Status.

Rebecca Foust's books include Paradise Drive (2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry), reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, The San Francisco Chronicle, and the Georgia, Harvard, and Hudson Reviews. She is Poet Laureate Emerita of Marin County, Poetry Editor for Women's Voices for Change, and an Assistant Editor and Team Leader reading fiction for Narrative Magazine.

Lisa Rapport is a letterpress printer and book artist, creating artist's books and poetry broadsides under the imprint Littoral Press, as well as a book designer and poet. Her poetry collection, Penumbra, was recently published by Longship Press.

Troy Jollimore is the author of three books of poems: Tom Thomson in Purgatory (2006), At Lake Scugog (2011), and Syllabus of Errors (2015). He teaches at CSU, Chico.

Lorna Stevens is a mixed media artist whose work has been acquired by the Brooklyn Museum, di Rosa, the New York Public Library, and Numakanai Sculpture Garden, and the SF MOMA Research Library. She teaches collage and sculpture at City College of San Francisco.

Keleigh Friedrich received an MFA in writing from Mills College in 2009, where her thesis won the Amanda Davis MFA Scholarship Award. For the last 12 years she has served as a volunteer for the Awareness Institute. She lives in Northern California.

David Rollison moved to San Francisco in the late summer of 1963 to study with Kay Boyle, John Gardner, Leonard Wolf, Jack Golbert, and others. His recent collection is Ghost Poems & Wetland Ballads, and he has published several poems in early editions of Nostos. 

James Tipton is the author of Annette Vallon, A Novel of the French Revolution (HarperCollins, 2008), based on the true story of William Wordsworth's great love. Tipton is also a poet. Gary Snyder called Tipton's book of poetry, Sacred Places, "keen, taut, and skillful."

Grace Marie Grafton has published six collection of poetry. The most recent, Jester, was published by Hip Pocket Press. Ms. Grafton taught with CA Poets in the Schools, earning twelve CA Arts Council grants for her teaching programs.

Meryl Natchez's most recent book is a bilingual volume of translations from the Russian: Poems From the Stray Dog Cafe: Akhmatova, Mandelstam and Gumilev. Her book of poems, Jade Suit, appeared in 2001. Meryl is a board member of Marin Poetry Center.

Sharon Pretti works as a medical social worker at Laguna Honda Hospital where she also runs a poetry group for seniors and disabled adults. Her work has appeared in Spillway, Calyx, MARGIE, The Bellevue Literary Review, The Comstock Review, The Healing Muse and other journals.

Karen Poppy has work published or forthcoming in The American Journal of Poetry, The Gay and Lesbian Review Worldwide, ArLiJo, Wallace Stevens Journal, and Blue Unicorn. She has recently compiled her first poetry collection, written her first novel, and is at work on her second novel.

Joanne Esser writes poetry and nonfiction in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A teacher of young children for over thirty years, she earned an MFA in Creative Writing from Hamline University and published a chapbook of poems, I Have Always Wanted Lightening (Finishing Line Press, 2012).

Heather Altfeld is a poet and essayist. Her first book of poetry, The Disappearing Theatre, won the Poets at Work Prize, selected by Stephen Dunn. "Disneyland Dad" is her first short story to be published since 1997. Heather teaches at CSU, Chico.

Editor's Note: Themes of future issues include "East Wind" (The influence of Asian art and literature on Western writing), and "Loss." For more about Nostos and Longship Press, click WEBSITE.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Stephan Delbos: Light Reading

Many poets and teachers of poetry have spoken about poetry happening in the white space between the lines. Many implore their students to subvert the reader's expectations. Few poets write poems that demonstrate, so graphically, both of these strategies simultaneously. Even fewer do it well. It may be hyperbole to state that Stephan Delbos, in Light Reading (BlazeVOX [books], 2018), breaks new ground, but it would not be going too far to state that he crumbles clods, previously unbroken, that have lain untouched since the first pen plowed poetry's open field.

These first two poems are emblematic of the first of three sections titled "Light Reading." The capacious white space on the page enacts the title section of the book, and the position of the titles following the poems, not only subverts the reader's expectations, but also provides an interaction between title and poem not available when the title appears before the poem. (Please scroll down to see poems.)

(shakes speaker)


I think I
will still
to survive

-'s static
soundtracks me

Twenty-first Century Man

"A bagatelle," Delbos tells us in the Notes, "is a French term meaning a trifle. It is most often associated with short classical music compositions." In Delbos's second section, "Bagatelles for Typewriter," poems come closer typographically to what we've become accustomed to upon opening a poetry collection. However, they are anything but ordinary in diction or in their references to persons, places, and things. Fortunately for us, there are enough connections with common experience, and the language is so gorgeous, that even without consulting the Notes in the back of the book, we can enjoy these poems. I found that reading them twice, once before and once after the Notes, enhanced my experience. The two examples I share below are the only two that appear with lines that the formatting of my blog will accept. The others are lines stepped down, stepped up, spaced out, and spaced with variable margins unique to almost every line. It would be unfair to present them in the altered form made necessary by the limited word processor in my computer.


April shows a nipple but only one. For five days

I have sold my waking hours. A fool, like the cook

who walks ranting from the closet kitchen with plates

shaped like frisbees long slow prayer of spring

park afternoon, perfect toss unlabored, hovering

may not deign to sink unlike my plate

of tofu, rehydrated mushrooms, yellow peppers,

ginger slop and rice; half-drunken lunch. Never

was I so alone. Such lunch! Tu Fu's buddy Li Po

died trying to hug the moon with sodden arms

reflected in a river. In my mind sometimes I am

in China, falling through the Chinese air,

pockets filled with teriyaki chicken wings. I live

a six-month journey from my parents, wear

their ages, a grandfather clock earring. Pain.

What the T'ang poets took for granted: language

outlives us. The waitress asks do you want chopsticks?

Of course but rice is difficultly singular so I lick

surreptitiously the plate when she goes. Spicy


Apart from the luscious language in the titles that does not weaken once we enter these poems, my comment about Delbos' bagatelles is that the lines read on the page longer than they do aloud. Notice the many decasyllabic phrases and sentences that seem to have the diction under control in this poem: "April shows a nipple but only one." "For five days I have sold my waking hours." "In my mind sometimes I am in China." And yet the lines continue beyond these complete sentences, crowding, sometimes intruding upon, the white space as if language itself had grown hungry and restless in the previous section, and is now having its way, or being allowed to take its head for the first time in the collection. Although I doubt that the poet calculated a language of invasion at lines' ends, it is interesting to examine what words actually do push against the right margin beyond those ten syllables:

"...A fool like the cook
...with plates
...Li Po
...sometimes I am
...wings. I live

These bagatelles' titles promise much; and the poems do not disappoint.


Thoughtless on a sunny day | empowered by the radiance | let us pray

forgive the merciless | indifference we pay | tabernacle

and tackle box | how easy tiny joys | elude us

Joy eludes us | yet we | preening | pride

in the annihilated need | to kneel before anything | unless observing

ceremonies necessary | to get ahead | to heaven or the boardroom


As an altar boy I loved | velvet silences of sacristies

brass taper-holders | bell-shaped snuff that flamed a hand

to reach me as I | mischievous | melted old wax

with a wooden match | hollered | in my head the Devil

I felt had found me | a moment before | returning to

the grim serenity of God

This bagatelle goes further than the first, giving us added visual cues for alternative line/breath breaks, and further enacting, with a typographical variation of the previous poem, what the "Light" of "Light Reading" is always doing: waxing and waning.

The final section ("III. Arrangements") is a logical extension of the first two, combining terse statements of prosody, such as those found in poetry assignments or prompts, with aphorisms of philosophical and historical import, often juxtaposed, anachronistic, or tongue-in-cheek. Ten poems of ten numbered lines round out this brilliant collection of minimalist pieces, bagatelles and what Norman Finkelstein has called "tongue-in-teach suggestions for his fellow poets [that] turn out, ironically, to be wise advice despite themselves." Here are the first, fifth, and final. My apologies to Stephan that the way he titles these poems (Roman numerals inside "less than" and "greater than" signs) are symbols that my blog misunderstands. I have simply used the numerals.


1. A poem in terza rima
2. A poem of 18 lines
3. A poem containing the phrase coin slot
4. A poem rhyming beguile and tinfoil
5. A poem with two mirrored meanings
6. A poem under the sign of Scorpio
7. A poem undertaken in November
8. A poem that knows it is a poem
9. A poem titled "Apostrophe"
10. A poem that never asked to be born


1. A poem in bio-waste bag font
2. A poem holding its breath
3. A one-lung poem
4. A poem that cannot hear itself think
5. A poem getting on my last nerve
6. A poem huffing oxygen
7. A poem title is the last line
9. A poem with seven mono rhymed lines
10. A poem curing emphysema


1. A poem on a dryer sheet
2. A poem with static cling
3. A poem stuck to that first May
4. A poem losing its virginity
5. Pediddle poem a punch buggy
6. A poem that could save any Amy
7. A poem that hasn't read Ulysses
8. A poem that hates talking
9. This is and isn't the end of the poem
10. A poem with too many doors

Light Reading is a poetry collection with plenty of front doors, back doors, and side doors. Some stand open, some have to be opened, and others have to be knocked down. Most are visible from the outside, although I'm sure there are plenty of secret doors leading to hidden staircases, basements, attics, and personal cubby-spaces where only the poet can be made comfortable.

But the main feature of this collection is its windows that let in the light of illumination, the heat of passion, and the movement of language through its pages that will motivate poets to write, and readers to read. All with a bit of humor thrown in. What more can we expect from art or life?

Stephan Delbos is a writer living in Prague. His poetry, essays and translations have been published internationally. He is the editor of From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Litteraria Pragensia, 2011). His play Chetty's Lullaby, about trumpet player Chet Baker, was produced in San Francisco in 2014. His co-translation of The Absolute Gravedigger, by Czech surrealist poet Vitezslav Nezval, was awarded the PEN/Heim Translation Grant in 2015 and was published by Twisted Spoon Press in 2016. Deaf Empire, his play about Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, was produced by the Prague Shakespeare Company in 2017. He is the author of the poetry chapbook In Memory of Fire (Cape Cod Poetry Review, 2017), and the poetry collection Small Talk (Literary Salon, 2019). A Founding Editor of the web journal B O D Y, he teaches at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Cathryn Shea: Backpack Full of Leaves

In Cathryn Shea's Backpack Full of Leaves the poet is not sure about the location of her voice in relation to others, but it doesn't matter, she still hears "the rendering voice of the storm." And even though she inhabits a world of powerful sensate experience, she is given only clues as to its nature.

A Poet I Read at Night

I'm in there somewhere, not lost
but no map and no cell,
exact location not important
because I'm in a different century
anyway, and there's a blizzard
cloaking Arizona before Advent
was invented. The sky in its azure
vestment hides from the whiteout,
a choir of mute dromedaries
beds down away from Siberian
hunters drunk on potato vodka.
(One is the ancestor of a czar.)
Venison turns on a spit
in a hirsute shrine,
the rendering voice of the storm
all hallowed in the interstice
between whiskers.

Sifting through Shea's backpack of leaves--I love the reference to Whitman and Larry Levis--the reader is struck with the inventiveness with which the poet creates an explanation for her world. Illusions and reflections of reality are given poetic priority over "plain clouds" and "still trees." Instead of a representation of the world, Shea's art creates a narrative, not of understanding, but of a blessing on what is pieced together, the "seeds of thought, / ...from bird feeders" by the mind. She does not attempt to transform "the deceit" or "the illusion of a perch / look[ing] safe at twilight," but in order to "know the self," she "look[s] to the oak" to construct an explanation that may, or may not, be accurate. The reader infers again, that it doesn't matter, it's the inventiveness of constructing that explanation, and its consistency that makes it a valid world, parallel to the reality from which it grows.


How plain the clouds
this evening. How still
the trees.
The mind pecks
at seeds of thought,
from bird feeders
clipped to the clothesline.

Let the deceit
of the kitchen window's
shiny glass
continue its reflection
of branches.
The illusion of a perch
looks safe at twilight.

When I want to know
the self, I look to the oak,
study its bark,
toothed leaves, and galls.
I pretend to understand
growth rings.

In her title poem, the poet perhaps gives her readers the most insight into what she has collected on her quest, a language pilfered from innumerable sources, as disparate as the literary canon she identifies elsewhere and the oft referred to magazines and newspapers, used to call out the pervasive falseness in the world. As in all of Shea's poems, the poet's lens assists the reader's peripheral vision to brighten the dim light on the edges, "like the 4:00 o'clock splash / in the backyard bird bath," or the "button noes and lilliputian nails / just born to a distant cousin,"--important because "something there seems real," more real than a center that may not hold.

Here's My Backpack Full of Leaves

I steal words from magazines and newspapers
like a magpie falsely accused
by the BBC of stealing shiny baubles.
I stole the word "backpack"
and then packed it full
of pilfered "leaves"
instead of troubles.

Nothing that happens in California is real.
I stole "California" so I could feel
something's real in this state. Loving
sneaks into my limbic monkey plumage
and makes me wonder more.
Like the 4:00 o'clock splash
in the backyard bird bath.
Something there seems real.

And something good that would
cheer up anyone: a baby girl
just born to a distant cousin.
Her button nose and lilliputian nails.
And my cat
is why I have a cat.

That final stanza is emblematic of what is found in Shea's backpack: details from a world "that would / cheer up anyone," rendered in a musical language that causes readers to "feel something[ ] real." And we are better readers and better poets for having sifted through the "leaves" of her book.

Cathryn Shea resides in the San Francisco Bay Area and is the author of the chapbooks "The Secrets Hidden in a Pear Tree" and "It's Raining Lullabies," both from dancing girl press. [Thank you, Kristy Bowen!] Cathryn's poetry has appeared in Poet Lore, New Orleans Review, Gargoyle, Tar River Review, Tinderbox, Permafrost, Rust + Moth, and other journals. Her poetry has been nominated for Sundress Publication's Best of the Net. Cathryn served as editor for Marin Poetry Center Anthology and volunteers there. See and @cathy_shea on Twitter.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

David Watts: Having and Keeping

In Having and Keeping (Brick Road Poetry Press, 2017),  David Watts writes lyrical narrative poems about people and events that, undoubtedly, matter to him most, piercing not only memory's smoke, but also reality's skin with keen-edged words that probe a "father...made / of dust and intelligence," a "mother...made from music and culture," a soldier brother, " deep in camouflage / even his blue eyes // are like cinders." Less hazy with time are his poignant poems that give us one son's epithets like, "I remember things behind things," and his other son's answers to father's calls. A lover is "beautiful / in the manner in which there is so much beauty / it almost cancels itself." But above all, or inside or both--who knows?--is the observer, the universe become conscious, the poet, the "Man at the Window:"

He stands at the window baffled
by pleasure and how brief it is.
Pleasure followed by the memory
of pleasure. Light
then dark with a splinter
left in. Something like that.
The woman in the chair is reading,
drinking tea in the ground glass
haze of evening.
The sudden swell he feels
watching her
illuminates the past she spent
getting to this place:
a lover who left, perhaps. Time
setting her kitchen in order, or maybe
gathering artichokes from the field.
The moment opens in a diorama
of impermanence, seeping away
at the edges even as it is breathed
into vision the first time. He holds out
his arms. He wants this moment
in the body, to feel there
the pleasure it holds, and then
whatever it is that pleasure
leaves behind,
which is all he can keep.
The strange quality of light
dissolving like smoke in air,
slipping away
in the sun's diminishing gaze.

Life's simple pleasures--the music of "the forest hum[ming]. / Even the Johnson grass sque[eking] / as it grows," the work of "driving nails / with the same muscles / that lost baseballs over West Texas outfields," and a hundred more--are contrasted with memory's "imperfect forgetting." Here are two passages that are true sample of the poet's musings on memory and its role in life and art. The first are closing lines from "Broken Jar."

...I'd like to think
what memory wants us
to think, sitting securely
on its fence post
lifting particles of light
from the broken jar.
But the world is beyond us
even as we live inside it--
The sun comes and goes.
The moon breathes and circles us
with reflected light,
while the soul holds the body
carefully in its arms
as we walk through the perforated dark.

I Tie Knots in the Strings of Memory

and tighten them against forgetting.

They cannot imitate her hungry look,
eyes glazed, lips parted, but they prevent
imperfect forgetting. With my fingers
I choose what I own of the past,
arranging flashes of light
the way a movie wants to be told,
part accuracy, part fiction,
part what the body wants to keep
of its bumblings in this world,
late at night when it pans the past
for gold, the lines tangling and un-
tangling in the swift undertow
of the strong passing current.

Many poems in this collection can be seen as ars poetica. Indeed, Watts is masterful "with [his] fingers, choos[ing what] to keep / of its bumblings in this world, / late at night when it pans the past / for gold, the lines tangling and un- / tangling in the swift undertow / of the strong passing current." Panning the past for gold, would be a spot-on subtitle for this collection.

Many poems in this collection can be seen as Staffordesque. Deceptively simple lines belie deep truths. The final poem informs us "How to Survive the Cold." "Shovel a path," the poet says, "to the storm cellar." And while you're there, absorb "the lava red glow / of raspberries." "Gather wood from the shed," we are told, because "Winter is only waiting for you / to build a fire." After you "Prop your feet to [it],"

Then settle for the long evening.
Read a poem. Sing a hymn.
How many years has spring listened
for your distant song?

Pick any poem from this masterful collection, and you may inhabit this poem. We have waited forever for David Watts's songs. And we are so happy they have arrived, heralding a spring beyond any winter our world is capable of delivering.

David Watts grew up in Texas, thus the scattered references throughout [Having and Keeping] to the characteristics of the terrain and subtle tonalities that capture the personalities of the people there. The "can do" attitude that characterized his family helped him to move forward into many fields, medicine, classical music, scientific invention, radio, and television hosting and production, and finally, after mid-life, to become a poet and a writer.

His literary credits include seven books of poetry, two collections of short stories, a mystery novel, a best-selling western and several essays. He has received awards in academics, medical excellence, television production and for the quality of his writing. He is a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California San Francisco and Professor of Poetry at the Fromm Institute at the University of San Francisco. He lives in California with his wife and two sons.

Reproduced from the "About the Author" page in Having and Keeping.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Joan Baranow: In The Next Life

Editor's Note: As of this month, I am the new (sixth) Poet Laureate of Marin County, California. My project for the next two years will be "Poetry as Connection." I intend to serve the poets of Marin by helping them connect with other poets, and with a wider audience and readership. One way of accomplishing that will be to publish reviews of as many books published 2019-2021 by Marin poets, as I possibly can. This is the first in the series--a review of In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), by Joan Baranow. (See Joan's bio below.)

Like Baranow, many poets take their readers on journeys to other worlds. Melana Morling, for example, in her opening poem to Astoria (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006) begins: "If there is another world, / I think you can take a cab there, / or ride your old bicycle / down Junction Blvd." I love Morling's proximity of transcendence, and how, throughout her collection, she journeys there via the ordinary.

However, in Baranow's new collection, In The Next Life (Poetic Matrix Press, 2019), the poet assures us that we need not even leave our rooms to experience the totality of existence, because all worlds are available through poetry. And the worlds she selects to show us with her poems possess delightful divergencies that are rigorously probed with both the precise language of science and the ineffable language of poetry. In her poem, "Ars Poetica," after exploring the relationship between poetry, prosody, and people ("Why do words, when chimed, make you weep?"), she states:

And so...
(a deft ellipsis brings me back)

to gravity, my theme.
Or beauty? Both, like train cars
coupling, pinky finger-linked for miles.

Pain and joy--
even atoms want their mates.
Though also unpredictable:

nerves, like lightning, have their own agendas.

When there's much to say you close the door.

You type it up then write back into it.

What you're looking for--
a canteen flung in road dust,
a neighbor with a crowbar
splintering the door--

you can't help but swear

somewhere, between the lines, it's there.

Baranow knows about negative capability--Keats's ability to hold two diametrically opposed positions simultaneously--and her poems never forget this capacity either, illustrated above with those  wonderful "train cars...pinky finger-linked," and that "Pain and [italics mine] joy--"

In her opening poem, "Believing," the poet makes it clear that she lines up with modernism, the idea that the solution to humanity's problems lies within humanity's inherent capabilities:

I believe in wrapping the baby in the blanket.
I believe in the father jingling his keys.

I believe in forgiving the one who dented the car,
the daughter who lost her new shoes.

I believe in recess at school, reasonable roads,
neighbors who sleep late on Saturdays,
who lend you eggs for the cake.

I believe in sharing the cake.

I believe in symphonies and rock concerts.
Otherwise, small groups will do--
poetry readings and the like.

I believe in nature's wallop, floodwaters,
wild lilies, the slipperiness of minutes,
the usual moon and tides.

But the poet also makes it clear that she stands in the shadow of Whitman's "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself."

I believe, too, in the mania of the many--
countries counting munitions,
subtracting soldiers from the list.

I believe nothing will change this.
Not prayer, nor uniformed officers.

Peace and terror forever,
like the heart's swell and cramp,
like our wish to rescue the vanishing wolves.

The joy of reading Baranow's poems is found, in part, by experiencing poetry that is connected to the canon, but that also has its own unique metaphorical sensibility, the same kind of sensibility I wrote about in my previous post about Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion. (See "Poet Pairings: Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion," 2-10-19.) Her poems are not simply rife with gorgeous metaphors, connecting disparate elements, representing all things in this world in a new light, but Baranow has also created an entirely new world--hinting throughout her book of a "next life" that holds worlds both mimetic and anti-mimetic, where art mimics life, and life mimics art--"a world without edges, reflective, // like looking into a spoon / at your own / estranged features."

At Eye Level

Gnats like being eye to eye,
unlike bees and flies and,
well, most creatures.

On a bench you'll be surprised
by a passing squirrel's
dropped seeds, half an acorn

gnawed through the middle.
A fly might light on
an open book,

but he's otherwise occupied.
Those frogs along the water's rim,
one looking that way,

one another, rest there
like old men
(minus arthritis).

And fish! What do they see
of trees and sky
but a world without edges, reflective,

like looking into a spoon
at your own
estranged features?

Baranow ups the emotional stakes as her poems progress from these tantalizing hints to more direct statements, culminating in the title poem and its neighbors in section three. Witness her investigation into the relationship between the realities of nature and art in "From This Distance:"

An ant clambers onto my sandal,
strikes out across my toe,
is joined by others like water

sucked through a straw.
Is it awe I want to feel?
Am I supposed to know

about these furry-edged leaves
whose berries are bluing?
To my left an aspen snapped

at the waist. Several here
have avalanched
as if with sappy brains

they've judged their own heft
and heaved over. We can't be everywhere
though to touch a particle

alone in space
jars another. Even an eight-year-old
can see the empty swing

sway. But this is simple.
Explain instead the moth's physics,
its unsteady flight

dipping and doubling
back with blind, frenetic tack
though it sees

with fifty more eyes
than ours. What am I asking?
The sun grows the shadows,

I'm tired of the strict music in my head,
"the wind's entreaties,"
which are not the wind's

but my own grief
gasping its speech, poetry's

Distrust. Distrust.
Pick the bee's legs of their pollen.
Thrust your hand down

a snake's throat. Wheel yourself
into the operating room.
Watch how lovingly they scrape

the bodies out. Cough up
something sick. Is this it?
What? Have we finished

gnawing our bones?
Have I?
An ant is dragging

a dead larva
three times its size towards me.
I know that you know that

but I won't stop the words.
They are beating out the --O--
briefest pilot light. Inferno.

In the final two stanzas, the poet's logic is inescapable. Even though she "know[s] that you know that [an ant can drag a dead larva three times its size], [she] won't stop the words." Poetry, and by extension, art, has as much ontological priority, and as much vulnerability to extinction, as the physical world--the "briefest pilot light. Inferno."

But the purpose of these poems is not didactic. Although much can be learned from them, they are not primarily instructive in nature. They celebrate this life--all that it contains--and whatever comes next. Here then is the title poem, "In the Next Life." Read it aloud to experience all of its gorgeous, musical language, allow it to connect previously unconnected synapses, and to reinforce those neural pathways that bring delight and hope!

In the Next Life

You'll slip into the ocean's
inky dungeons, reborn
as a two-ton squid,
or reappear as that same
mosquito you squashed
while hiking through
New Jersey's pine barrens.
You'll feel your should squeeze
into Rush Limbaugh's manic
descendant, a baseball cap
distributor for the northeast coast,
a man who fled home
only to find himself pawning
the slim sliver necklace
his grandmother had given him.
You might be snow packed
into a girl's acrylic mitten
or a taste bud
as she licks the snow.
You may wince while clipped
from the dictator's mustache
or shine in the small
jar of polish his wife likes.
If asked, I'd choose something
simple, more mute
than my present incarnation,
to return as a wild strip
of loosestrife I glimpsed once
while riding up front in a truck,
or else a June bug
stuck to a screen, mating.
I'd like to try being
a breeze that touches the hot
cheeks of a bawling infant,
to enter her lungs
and cool the cramped
muscle of her heart.
Think of it--someday
your flesh will feed
stinkbug and jewel weed.
may your spirit tumble
in the moist tower
of a troublesome

Joan Baranow is the author of Living Apart and two poetry chapbooks. Her poems have appeared in The Paris Review, The Gettysburg Review, Spillway, and elsewhere. A VCCA fellow and member of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley, she founded and directs the Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Dominican University of CA. With her husband, David Watts, she produced the PBS documentary HealingWords: Poetry & Medicine. Her feature-length documentary, The Time We Have, presents an intimate portrait of a young woman facing terminal illness.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Poet Pairings: Alicia Ostriker and Peter Campion

For the past week, I have been making final edits on my essay, "Metaphor and Love in the Poetry of Alicia Ostriker," that will be published soon on the companion website to the University of Michigan's recent collection of essays, reflections, and interviews about Alicia Ostriker's capacious and virtuosic body of work, Everywoman Her Own Theology: On the Poetry of Alicia Suskin Ostriker. [Editor's note: the essay is now published and can be accessed HERE]. In it I cite an excerpt from a letter to the editor of Poetry, published in the December 2009 issue, wherein Campion states what he means by "metaphorical sense." Upon re-reading the letter, I immediately knew that my next blog post would pair Ostriker with Campion. Here is the quote:  

By "metaphorical sense" I mean a type of inventiveness that can appear even when metaphor seems absent. It's not merely a knack for crafting comparisons without "like" or "as," but the ability to establish far-reaching connections, as well as disjunctions, in examine and re-examine motifs [that] begin to constellate a whole climate of thought and feeling as amplitudinous as any symbol system. Metaphorical sense always implies the vision of a larger shape of being (228-229).

The work of many poets "implies the vision of a larger shape of being." But no two poets have "metaphorical sensibilities" that are more acute, more overlapping, and more comprehensive than Ostriker and Campion. Even though Ostriker's body of work spans more than six decades, and Campion has only been alive for barely four, these two poets seem to be speaking to one another, particularly when they write about metaphor. (Ostriker says in her "Eros and Metaphor" that metaphor "is what language uses to show that the world is full on connections.") Let's "listen in" to the conversation that takes place between two of their poems.


Ambition. Jealousy. Adrenaline.
The fear that loneliness is punishment
and that corrosive feeling draining down
the chest the natural and just result
of failures. . . . What delicious leisure not
to feel it. What sweet reprieve to linger
here with these ovals of purple and flamingo
plumed from the tree or splayed on pavement.
If only for these seconds before returning
to the open air those flowers keep
pushing out of themselves to die inside.

Peter Campion, from The Lions (The University of Chicago Press, 2009)

Middle-Aged Woman at a Pond

The first of June, grasses already tall
In which I lie with a book. All afternoon a cardinal
Has thrown the darts of his song.

One lozenge of sun remains on the pond,
The high crowns of the beeches have been transformed
By a stinging honey. Tell me, I think.

Frogspawn floats in its translucent sacs.
Tadpoles rehearse their crawls.
Here come the black flies now,

And now the peepers. This is the nectar
In the bottom of the cup,
This blissfulness in which I strip and dive.

Let my questions stand unsolved
Like trees around a pond. Waters's cold lick
Is a response. I swim across the ring of it.

Alicia Ostriker, from The Crack in Everything (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996)


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Poet Pairings: Melissa Stein & Maw Shein Win

Last September I had the pleasure of hearing Melissa Stein and Maw Shein Win read poetry together at Rebound Bookstore in San Rafael, California. Toni and Joel Eis always are the consummate hosts at their poetry readings. They provide the quality refreshments--really good wine and cheese and, according to the season, other goodies. They give all of the proceeds from books sales to the authors. And they will rent their bookstore anytime for a modest price, if you want to schedule a reading outside of their ongoing series. In addition, they will take local authors' books on consignment. Rebound Bookstore is worthy of support.

I had heard Melissa Stein read before, and so I was excited to attend this reading. I hadn't heard Maw Shein Win. I was very pleasantly surprised. Usually when two poets read, one is far superior to the other. Melissa and Maw complemented one another beautifully. And they did something that I want to expand on in this post: they spent part of their reading time alternating poems from their latest books--Stein's Terrible Blooms (Copper Canyon, 2018), and Win's Invisible Gifts (Manic D Press, 2018). The result was an answer and call performance that was superb. I don't remember what poems they paired together, but I liked the idea so much that I wanted to introduce the idea to you, as a regular feature of this blog. And I can't think of two more appropriate poets for my first such post than Melissa Stein and Maw Stein Win.

Before I share a poem from each of their two books that I think pair nicely, I want to apologize to them both for such a brief treatment of their work. Due to deadlines with other writing projects, I am writing a short post this week. Be assured that in the near future I will post complete reviews of each of these books. For now, enjoy a teaser--a tasting of their books, if you will, with a poem from each.

The opening poem to Stein's Terrible Blooms:


If you're going to storm,
I said, do it harder.
Pummel nests from limbs
and drown the furred things
in their dens. Swell creek
to flood, unhome the fish.
Everything's gone too cozy.
Winnow, flush. Let's see
what's got the will.
Let's watch what's tender
choke or breathe. Try
to make a mark on me.

And then a poem midway into Win's Invisible Gifts:

The Indexing of Sensation

Jean comes into the library and passes wildflowers into my hands.
Put these in water, darling, and have a brilliant day.
I push the cart down the carpeted aisle.
The repetition of movement is a meditation.

The Art of Benin, Paula Ben-Amos                    N7397N5C5

Anno's Counting Book, Mitsumasa Anno          PZ7A5875

The Forgotten Ones, Milton Rogovin               TP820.5R64

The Balloon--A Bicentennial Exhibition           TL615B34

Maps of countries that don't exist anymore.
The archiving of fantasies.
The referencing of systems.
The indexing of sensation.

Melissa Stein is the author of the poetry collections Terrible Blooms (Copper Canyon Press, 2018) and Rough Honey, winner of the 2010 APR/Honickman First Book Prize, selected by Mark Doty. Her poems have appeared in Ploughshares, American Poetry Review, Tin House, The Southern Review, New England Review, Best New PoetsBeloit Poetry Review, Harvard Review, and North American Review, among others.

Maw Stein Win is a Burmese American poet, editor, and educator. In addition to the full-length poetry collection, Invisible Gifts, she is the author of two chapbooks, Ruins of a glittering palace and Score and Bone. Her writing has appeared in many literary journals and anthologies, including Cimarron Review, Poetry International, and Fanzine, among others. She frequently collaborates with artists, musicians, and other writers.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Best of The Best American Poetry 2017

No, that "2017" in the title is not a typo. I just got around to reading my copy of last year's BAP, guest edited by Natasha Trethewey. When I finish reading all of the books I own, I'll read (perhaps even purchase) BAP 2018. Of course by then the 2019 issue will probably be out...mercy, a lot of reading to do.

But I like reading poetry. I always learn a lot. In the case of BAP, I find new poets to include in my canon, poets to research and read more of their work. But you know that. What you don't know is what poems in BAP 2017 I thought were interesting enough to read a second time (or even more times). And, if you read this blog, you know that's my new definition of what a good poem is--one you want to read again and again and again.

So here's my list of poems I want to re-read. They were written mostly by poets whose work I already know and like. And there were several poems by poets I normally like, whose work in BAP 2017 I didn't care for enough to read again. Probably different from the poems you would select. But, hey, no poem of mine was in the anthology. And probably not one of yours either. That's why John Ashbery, when invited to be the guest editor a few years ago, asked David Lehman if the title could be changed from "The Best..." to "Pretty Good American Poetry." Best is hard to measure. So I guess I should change my title to "Pretty Good Poems from The Best American Poetry 2017." Here they are in the same order (alphabetical) as they appear in the anthology, with a comment or two as to why I will re-read them.

Mary Jo Bang, "Admission"

This poem's first enjambed line was interesting: "My mother was glamorous in a way I knew I never / would be..." But by the time I got to the fourth line, I was hooked:

...Her / bow mouth was forever being twinned to a tissue.

And the remainder of the poem lives up to that terrific verb form of "being twinned to a tissue."

David Barber, "On a Shaker Admonition"

I will re-read this poem countless times in order to allow Barber's list of objects related to locking things up that would be "needless" if everyone followed the admonition of the epigraph:

All should be so trustworthy, that locks and keys shall be needless.

The poem is a two-page delight of articles added to the needless "locks and keys" in such a world. The first two stanzas and the last two will give you the idea of why this list poem made my list:

Needless, useless, pointless, moot: stripped of every honest purpose,
           nothing so haplessly worthless now, so meaningless.

Needless, needless: the deadbolt, the strongbox, the padlock
           lolling from the tall spiked gate, the little metal teeth
all jingle-jangling mindlessly on their rusting ring, the all too obtuse
           fitfulness of pin and tumbler, every chain known to man.

...[and then the last two stanzas]

No senseless wishfulness, no useless ruthlessness, no goods to get on us
            to bust or traduce us, no clauses to bind us, no cause
for redness, no one on the loose, on the make, on the case, nothing for us
            to jimmy or pick, nothing gone missing, not a thing amiss,
no No Tell Motel, no Big House, no Pale beyond us, no tragic chorus in a rumpus
            over the worst in us getting the best of us in spite of us,

just all of us lapsing less and less regardless how rootless, witless, gutless, pissed,
            all that thankless cussed nonsense now behind us: just us, just us.

Vievee Francis, "Given to These Proclivities, By God"

Here is the epigraph and the first few lines to give you idea of this poem...

...bound by sin's galling fetters

And like every sinner, I prayed,
"Take this sin from me" but
the sin was mine, and how to take it
and not call it stealing? And why
place my sin upon another? So

I ate my sin. Like any good sinner
I have an appetite. I could eat as much
as I drink. And you know how much
I like a neat Mark. I don't think twice.
     I swallow it down.
     Two fingers, no water.
Once, then once more. So it burns?
     What won't?

Amy Gerstler, "Dead Butterfly"

In addition to the luscious language that Gerstler's poems typically posses, this one has poignant lines that also strike home with universal meaning. The final line of this excerpt contains my favorite in this poem:

dead empress of winged things
weightless flake of flight
you rest in state on my desk
more delicate and flatter than
this scrap of foolscap you lie on
flatter even than my dad's voice
when he was mad        like death
anger drained him of color
but his temper was gentle
flare-ups were rare
and of course nonexistent now
since he was found
lifeless in bed       a cut on his head
how did he make it down the hall
after he fell do you think? homing instinct?

Terrance Tales, "Ars Poetica with Bacon"

In addition to its quirky title, I love how quickly things move in this poem. From a family's anxiety "about its diminishing food supply" in the first two lines, to "the paddle my mother used to beat me with," in line 7, we get to a homily in line 11: "...jealousy / [does] not, in fact, begin as jealousy, but as desperation." The narrative moves as quickly, with even more interest, as the poem develops...

Tony Hoagland, "Cause of Death: Fox News"

I don't think I need to say anything else about this poem in order to have everyone's appetite whetted.

Yusef Komunyakaa, "from The Last Bohemian of Avenue A"

For me, there are multiple poems within this poem, and I love them all. Komunyakaa always seems to have jazz licks, if not in the entire poem, at least in a few lines. If all this poem had was its third stanza, I would still read it for the rest of my life, if only for its atmospheric rhythms and tones.
But there is so much more...

Even if loneliness arrives
around 3 a.m., it isn't easy
to touch myself because
it's a sin. But now & then
I must hold on to something
to keep me here on Earth,
in the middle of an old tune
& a new one--I touch myself
as a face blooms in my head
& somehow worlds collide
gently. What did she step 
from, or was it on my last gig
at Smoke? Or, maybe she was
wearing a garden of orchids
when we passed, or the face
of a waitress among changes
in a Trane solo as I almost
walked in front of a taxicab.
When I touch myself I am
reaching for some blue note
on the other side of an abyss.
Mary Travers stands before me
in Washington Square Park
in a silvery dress, whispering
"Where Have All the Flowers Gone?"
as I lean against Garibaldi
reaching for his sword,
& blow riffs of luster,
ready to die; go to hell.

Danish Lameris, "The Watch"

A tight poem whose conceit remains consistently good throughout!

Dorianne Laux, "Lapse"

Since it is a short one (an American sonnet, or almost one, depending on your definition), I will include the entire poem:

          Poem beginning with a line from Gwendolyn Brooks

I am not deceived, I do not think it is still summer. I
see the leaves turning on their stems. I am
not oblivious to the sun as it lowers on its stem, not
fooled by the clock holding off, not deceived
by the weight of its tired hands holding forth. I
do not think my dead will return. They will not do
what I ask of them. Even if I plead on my knees. Not
even if I kiss their photographs or think
of them as I touch the things they left me. It
isn't possible to raise them from their beds, is
it? Even if I push the dirt away with my bare hands? Still-
ness, unearth their faces. Bring me the last dahlias of summer.

Philip Levine, "Rain in Winter"

And oh, how I love this serendipitous placement of Levine's sonnet beside Laux's poem!

Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day is fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.

The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won't appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.

Judgon Mitcham, "White"

A few lines from the end of section 1 of 4 sections will suffice to give you the flavor of this one:

...and this is a poem

of dumb, sputtering astonishment
at the ignorance of our lives--we who went
                                          to our churches and our homes
and our history classes, where no one said a word,
we who lived each day like blank pages,
                                          mistake after mistake after mistake

in the history book.

John Murillo, "Upon Reading That Eric Dolphin Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Birds,"

The first eight and a half couplets of a forty-nine couplet, gripping narrative poem (once again demonstrating how well couplets convey narrative), that I couldn't stop reading, and want to read again and again...

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this--the one

bird frantic, attacking I thought, the way she swooped
down, circled my head, and flailed her wings in my face;

how she seemed to scream each time I swung; how she
dashed back and forth between me and a blood-red Corolla

parked near the opposite curb; how, finally, I understood:
I spied another bird, also calling, his foot inexplicably

caught in the car's closed door, beating his whole bird
body against it. Trying, it appeared, to bang himself free.

And who knows how long he'd been there, flailing. Who
knows--he and the other I mistook, at first, for a bat.

They called to me--something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer--to do something,

anything. And like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak...

Joyce Carol Oates, "To Marlon Brando in Hell"

A five-page anaphoric poem that delightfully names the reasons Brando should be in hell ("Because you suffocated your beauty in fat. / Because you made of our adoration, mockery. / Because you were the predator male, without remorse..."), ending with the lines "Because you have left us. And we are lonely. / And we would join you in Hell, if you would have us."

Sharon Olds, "Ode to the Glans"

Need I say more?

Gregory Orr, "Three Dark Proverb Sonnets"

There is no way to give you any part of these 42 lines without giving you all of them.

Carl Phillips, "Rockabye"

Great first lines:

                       Weeping, he seemed more naked
than when he'd been naked--more, even, than when
we'd both been...

There you have it--my "Best of the Best [of the best]" as Will Smith said mockingly in Men in Black--with apologies to Dan Albergotti, Dan Beachy-Quick, Cyrus Cassell, Billy Collins, Carolyn Forche, Robert Pinsky, Michael Ryan, David St. John, Charles Simic, A.E. Stallings, Christian Wiman, Dean Young, Kevin Young, and Matthew Zapruder--all poets whose work I admire, but whose poems in BAP 2017, although they were good, did not motivate me (at the time) to read them again.

So, just as Will Smith was leery of his fellow candidates for recruitment into the elite band of Men in Black, who were pronounced "The best of the best of the best," readers should be suspicious of this particular selection of mine from BAP 2017. I might pick different poems on a different day. But if the volume is setting on your shelf unread, I suggest you pick it up and try a poem or two from my list, and move on from there. Read a few poems from it each day, until you either finish it, or decide it's not worth finishing, in which case you can get rid of it and make room for something that brings you more joy. Because, after all, if a book doesn't bring you joy, why should you keep it?

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Writing Sentences: The Long and the Short of It

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

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


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

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

Chapter 2
Sunil Yapa: The Long Sentence

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

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

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

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

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

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


1) Prior to writers arriving I distributed handouts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13) I asked for volunteers to read their poems.

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

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

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


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

Chapter 2
Sunil Yapa: The Long Sentence

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

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

Example 2: Using modifiers to define a character…

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Chapter 14
Melinda Moustakis: Ellipses

Example 1: Images without the verb…

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

Example 2: The powerful partial…

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


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

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

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


Example by Gerald Stern:

Winter Thirst 

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

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


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

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


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

By Terry Lucas

From In This Room (CW Books, 2016).