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). 

Monday, January 14, 2019

Prartho Sereno: Indian Rope Trick

             In the opening poem of Indian Rope Trick, “We Can Stop Asking,” Sereno lays out what’s at stake in this collection. These poems grapple with the pull of time on everything in the flow of existence, inevitably carrying us all toward death and beyond, like the Ganges sweeping along “…miniature boats / from her banks, heaped with marigolds / making the river sob purple and orange.” But, the poet reminds us, our journey is not as straightforward as getting sick and old and dying at river’s end: “…time passes like smoke—a pungent furl / of nearly nothing, more delicate than silk.” Even so, we desire to turn the mystery into something more palpable, more useful:

            We would like to sew a dress from it
            and wear it to the wedding. We would like
            to make a tent of it to carry on our backs.

            Then in the final stanza, Sereno transposes her metaphors into similes, and shifts her nouns to verbs, underscoring our inability to capture time’s essence, and emphasizing its action on us, rather than contemplating its characteristics:

            But time is not a river or smoke.
            It’s more like the billow and sway
            the smoke and river do. More like
            the surge and swell of morning light—
            a sneaker wave aimed for the shore,
            a hunger in the water that wants us,
            every last one of us, back at sea.

            This is an appropriate ending to an apt opening poem. The “hunger in the water” provides a backdrop of longing for the specificity Sereno’s images provide in poems that follow. In “The First Rule” we encounter “the hairs on your head,” “the snow flakes filling the pines,” “a river, riotous with alligators, / a migratory cloud of monarchs,” and a “lone whale lost at sea.” In “My Daughter Falls in Love,” we find “the rustle of wingbeats in the air,” and “ a raindrop on the head of a pin, / …almost too much for us to bear.” This haunting and gorgeous language works toward the climax of section I, the title poem:
            Indian Rope Trick

                  Steps have to be followed, but sometimes
                  they can wonder away from you.
                                                --from a student essay

            It’s the mystery’s favorite trick: weaving
the intricate rope of someone’s life, then
lifting it for them to climb and somewhere
near the top…disappear.

Two weeks ago my brother told me
he’d shot nine holes. Pain was lousy, he said,
but went on to try out punchlines he’d been
practicing for his meeting with the Maker.

I’m not afraid to die, he said
with that curious wonder he had
since the diagnosis. But this time
he added he had no regrets.
None worth counting, anyway.

I’d taken my phone on my walk and was talking
to him from the mountain, at the level of ravens
and hawks. He’d had a wonderful life, he said,
which caused the rope of it to rise and grow taut
so we could see it in all its color: There in his yellow

cowboy pajamas with his champion Alaskan yoyo.
There in the glow of his cherry-bomb days.
There at the helm of the stolen tractor on a joyride
over the gold club greens. And look: now he’s doing

figure eights on his forklift in the basement of Kodak.
Now he’s blasting off, bottle-rocket-style, to
international VP. See him there in Paris and Philly?
See him adrift on South Carolina’s inlet seas?

Here come the whole buzzing swarm
of friends drawn in by the honey of his ease.
Ah…we seem to have followed that rope
right up through the clouds.

I couldn’t have asked for more, he said.
And his exhale filled the valley
So the hawks lifted up on the rising air.
And we said goodbye.

            I hate to point out my only quibble with Sereno’s mostly masterful book with an example from the title poem, but I must. As in the actual Indian rope trick, where a stand of rope is suspended in the air without visible support, while a person pulls herself up and out of sight, the trick in making a good poem is in using just enough language for clarity, without sacrificing mystery. For this reader, the final line is not only unnecessary, but actually detracts from that mystery by stating something better left unsaid. If the poem were to end on “so the hawks lifted up on the rising air,” I would have been both satisfied, and left aching for more. Better too little than too much, in my opinion.
            The few places where Sereno’s poems stray, it’s not for lack of gorgeous language, fresh imagery, or interesting narrative, it’s for including just one image, one line or, in the case of “Piano,” one stanza too much. “Piano” is one of my favorite poems in the collection. It has a dark narrative arc about a boy who played the piano next door until he died. The story flows perfectly across its tight stanzas that eventually rip apart in stanza three to enact what must be a sibling practicing scales, showing the same “hesitation” and “plunge” of notes from a beginner by spacing the words seemingly at random on the page. All the while the poet is

…eating [her] lunch in the garden—
soup and lettuce, last night’s fish.
The book whose plot can’t hold me
lies open in my lap, when, after a gap
that seems to signal the recital’s end,

the instrument             somehow
catches its breath and through
its hundred vocal chords sets loose
a winged thing—a music deep and holy,
as if every c-minor, b-flat, g-sharp—
every chord—has been summoned
to sound again.

            A beautiful poem that ends on the high point of emotional intensity, allowing the space below it to echo the disappearing act of the Indian rope trick, and all emptiness and loss. But, no. The poem continues:

            As if the grief-knot has come
            undone and love has been freed
            to pour down again
            over us and our parched gardens
            like summer rain.

            There is nothing wrong with these lines in themselves. It is just, in the opinion of this reviewer, that the stanza is a kind of denouement. It is explaining to us—poetsplaining?—what it is we have just read and experienced in the previous stanza. And I prefer my poetry straight, undiluted, without a net to break my fall. 
I am aware, however, that many readers do like their poems to end in a neatly tied bow, rather than to have loose strings, or in the case of Sereno, loose strands of rope, hanging about. And so I applaud the poet for not ending each poem in Indian Rope Trick in the same manner, managing to subvert readers’ expectations as to what will transpire in its final lines. And there are plenty of poems whose endings sound a note of mystery. “Notes from the Field” is emblematic of such a poem, albeit one whose ending is foreshadowed in the epigraph--necessary I think, in order to make sure that final "wonder" is not mistaken for a typo. In this poem, and in many others in Indian Rope Trick, Sereno achieves the balance that most poets and writers strive to achieve: mystery without opacity, and accessibility without blatant derivation or cliche. Thus, it can be read as an ars poetica, and an apt ending to this review.

Notes from the Field
And so we begin. Well, not exactly we, more like me
all by myself, taking my first step onto the field.
Blindfolded. If you listen to Science Friday, you know

where this is leading. It’s the same for everybody,
the researcher proclaimed this morning, giddy
with a certainty yet unknown to science: Blindfold

any person and aim her into an expanse of grass.
Soon enough she’ll be walking in circles. Yes!
the researcher says with relish: Everyone.

In decades of trials on the vast and motley they’ve yet
to find an exception. He’s dizzy with it: our profound
inability to walk a line. And I’m so there with him

in that dizzy. Well, not exactly there, of course,
but here where we started. And not exactly we
(I remind myself) but me in my little quorum of one.

But I’m procrastinating. Steps have to be followed.
Blindfolded. Without you. One foot at a time, though
I’m pretty sure they’ve already started to wonder away.

Indian Rope Trick by Prartho Sereno, Blue Light Press, 2018, $15.95 paper

Prartho Sereno is author of four poetry collections, including Elephant Raga, Call from Paris, and Causing a Stir: The Secret Lives & Loves of Kitchen Utensils (illustrated by the author). She is Poet Laureate Emeritus of Marin County, California and lives a little north of the Golden Gate Bridge. Indian Rope Trick is the winner of the 2018 Blue Light Book Award.



Sunday, January 6, 2019

Michael Waters: The Dean of Discipline

The Dean of Discipline is an appropriate name for Waters’s twelfth poetry collection. Not only does the title character make its appearance in “Detention” as an administrator at “Christ the King HS,” where the narrator “…coaxed   the Dean of Discipline / To make bad boys read books” instead of “stand[ing] face-to-wall   hands clasped   behind back[s],” it is also an appropriate description of the poet. This Dean of Poetic Discipline, like the former, holds to principle while allowing for evolving tactics of control. Emblematic of this collection’s negotiation between loose and tight properties, each of the fourteen decasyllabic, precisely-crafted lines is allowed to breathe, with extra spaces between words serving the function of commas, but providing a more relaxed meter and visual rendering of pauses. And instead of depending upon end rhyme to top off a lock-step melody, Waters mostly deploys his camouflaged, slant rhymes inside the lines’ interior, where they do their work of creating music undercover.
In a 1998 interview with John Hoppenthaler, Michael Waters traced his evolution as a poet from the early belief “that it was the power of the poet that made the poems, and it was the poet’s idea that informed the poem,” coming to believe “more in the power of language rather than in the power of the poet... that the poem might suggest where it wanted to go, and it would do so through language, through word choice, rather than through idea.” In multiple books since his early poems of the ’70s, Waters has written poems that embody that belief with a muscular, musical diction that is at the forefront of his lyrical narrative poems. There are none better being written today. 
The Dean of Discipline, while in places departing from the syllabic and “written by ear” prosodies hovering around ten syllables per line that readers have grown to expect from this poet at the height of his powers, never swerves from looking to language to explore universal longings through the particularities of human existence. In “Cannibal,” for example, a poem that begins “Among the survivors of the Donner / Party—idiom’s black sense of humor—,” with images of “…flesh / Flaked between the fluted bones of a wrist,” and “charcoaled tongue or poached heart,” quickly moves to … “Jeffrey Dahmer ladl[ing] a young man’s head into a pot, / The water simmering, lightly salted, / New potatoes, leeks, and scrawny carrot / Floating past eyes uplifted toward Heaven.” Two-thirds into the poem, Waters shifts hunger’s attention away from body as food, to body as lover:                      
        How my mouth covets your body,
Teeth grazing buttocks, shoulders, each nipple.
How I want to cradle you inside me
As you clasp me within, to celebrate
Our secular, primeval communion.

The first twenty-two lines are uniformly decasyllabic. In the twenty-third, final line, the poem reaches for something beyond with an eleventh syllable. It is noteworthy that the only word containing more than one syllable—the word that makes the line more than ten—is “poems.” And yet when reading it aloud, “poems” can be voiced quickly enough to sound as one syllable. Thus it is a pivotal word, living in two worlds at once, pushing the syllable count over ten, but not upsetting the baseline rhythm of the poem. This one word becomes the hinge that allows the poem to extend beyond itself, while remaining true to itself. 
This enactment of the idea by the form is not coincidental. It is primary to the way Waters writes, and one secret to how his poems throb so palpably with desire, both particular and universal. The dedication “for Mihaela” “…inscribe[s] this desire / Bite mark by bite mark” into particularity. The poem itself, the very ink scripted on the page, and the language read into the air, joins itself to a different “you”—all who would bring the same hunger to its reading. Understood in this way, the poem can be seen as an ars poetica: “What can I do but write these poems for you?” It is as if we are listening in on a private conversation, only to discover that the conversation is about us too.
            Waters crafts his placement of poems as carefully as he does each line. Across the page from “Cannibal” is a poem titled “lesire —>.” With a decasyllabic first baseline, around which the remaining lines pulse above and below—and often return to—ten syllables, the poem begins with a reflection on the previous poem, echoing the poet’s other poems that begin with longing and plunge inevitably into darker places: “I keep thinking the meaning of the word / Must be desire, so want to follow its arrow / To wherever it’s pointing….” Then halfway through the poem we encounter “But the meaning of the word is Exit, / Meaning, therefore, death, that space I’d rather / Avoid….” The remainder of the poem is a sample of Waters’s sparsely used, but always-effective combination—a visual cue bordering on concrete poetry, followed with an onomatopoetic diction that makes for a knockout punch.
                        an absence, abyss, an abscess
Raw as a screech chalking a blackboard
Or, louder and rippling outward,
Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz,
Unlike the seizure-inducing strobe
I keep pretending desire is.  

            Reading this stanza aloud, one experiences the poem with multiple senses. The eye sees the void—that absence of words in the blank line—slightly before the throat feels the gap in the flow of air with each of the sibilant sounds in “ab-sence,” “aby-ss,” and “ab-scess,” carrying into the next line with the necessary break in the voice between “screech” and “chalking.” The ear is introduced to the beginning sound work that is sustained throughout the stanza—so much so that if it were not read aloud, one might miss some of the Zs in “Zero’s…buzz,” and  “the seizure-inducing strobe” that “desire is.” Waters leaves no detail unattended. I cannot conceive it an accident that the only line with ten syllables in this stanza is the antepenultimate line, “Zero’s ceaseless, starless, staticky buzz.” After eight lines of at least ten syllables, in the final lines, the poet varies syllabic count, much as a concert pianist employs different dynamic levels for contrast and emphasis—in this instance with a decrescendo to mezzo forte, a crescendo back to forte, and finally another decrescendo in the ultimate line.
            In addition to the pleasure I always get from reading Waters’s lyrical narrative poems that sing, revealing under closer examination a precision of craft and depth of feeling that is not achieved by many, the joy for this reviewer is that Waters is not content to write book after book utilizing only his signature moves. In The Dean of Discipline, the poet broadens his repertoire with poems that expand prosodic devices previously dabbled in, introducing nonce forms that remain true to his poetic sensibilities. 
Although he has used the drop-down line effectively in many poems, I have not seen Waters begin a collection with a zipper poem—two columns of offset lines that work three ways. Each line can not only be read across the page, but each column can be read down the page as well. Even here, Waters gives language free reign, not compromising word choice in favor of formal rigor, each column moving down the page with a stumbling kind of sense, as if the vodka tonics were taking hold. Even within, or perhaps because of this form, word choice and language seem to be primary. Rather than an experimental exercise in form, the poem’s structure seems to emanate from its diction and narrative thrust. The opening lines are sufficient to make this point:
            Kim, Kathleen, & I
                                                                        stumbled toward the hammock,
            Careful not to spill
                                                                        our communal vodka tonic.
            We flopped onto our backs
                                                                        & let the netting sway,
            Three fiery tongues
                                                                        below two venerable oaks.
            Two foxes yawped
                                                                        two fields away.
                                                                        we traded sorrows, mild jokes,
            Lists of lovers—         
                                                                        three bodies swapping intimacies
            In a hammock  
                                                                        wide enough for two.

            The obvious step down before the threesome “stumbled toward the hammock;” the “Three fiery tongues” as cognates for the three separate poems within the poem; the swaying back and forth between the lines of the poem as enactment of the hammock; the coupling and uncoupling of the lines in the same way the three bodies do “In a hammock // wide enough for two,”—all are perfect examples of the delightful enactment of content with form. 
            If this first poem of the book, titled “Novae” (can the dedication, “for K,” refer to Kim, Kathlene, or both?), is a new kind of ars poetica for Waters, the final one is more typical. “Poetry” is a reiteration of the poet’s commitment to the line, to the genre, and to writing it as a full-time, perhaps I should say as an all-the-time, endeavor—not merely “ris[ing] in the night to pencil words,” but keeping watch, “hunched on narrow ledges / Sighing bird sounds…this is where poetry originates.” And we readers are so lucky that Waters remains vigilant and hungry on that ledge, always ready to scavenge some “flash below” and translate it into poetry. 


                        —filches dreams from birds,
            Pigeons with twisted grins or crooked feet,
            Their thumb-thick heads tucked under wings
            On cornices overlooking traffic
            That throbs and sparks along the avenue
            And shivers vibrations up building walls.
            These birds drowse despite fumes and noise—
            Never vexed by money, or sex,
            Or how thoughts wane in lazy minds.
            They don’t rise in the night to pencil words,
            But remain hunched on narrow ledges
            Sighing bird sounds—coos and trills—
            Which are translated without knowledge
            Of avian language by insomniacs
            Whose brains hiss with fire as they scrawl
            Gnomic verse in the blunt circle of light
            Thrown down on the desk near the window.
            A flash below…a flax seed beckoning…
            This is where poetry originates
            Some nights, swiping the reveries of birds
            Who quit their perch as morning commences
            To scavenge the bus stop for croissant flakes
            Fallen from plump lips of dazed commuters.
            One finds a button. Another plucks up
            A keychain bead—nothing to be eaten,
            But how chic it speaks in the busted beak.

The Dean of Discipline by Michael Waters, The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018, $15.95 paper