April 8 :: T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

It’s been a long weekend and I am tired.

Good luck.


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April 7 :: Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry”

Somebody on Facebook asked for suggestions for poems about place and ancestry and immediately this one popped into my head.  I like many of Etheridge Knight’s poems, especially “Hard Rock Returns from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane” and “A Wasp Woman Visits a Black Junkie in Prison”.  What each of these poems shares in common is a strong sense of place.  You may or may not know Knight’s biography, but he spent a considerable amount of time in prison and was an addict, and you can see how each of the three poems I have mentioned here deal with those things.

In terms of place, and what interests me about “The Idea of Ancestry” is the antithesis of the claustrophobic (the prison cell) and the expansiveness of a) the family tree and b) family history.  I think a lot about family in my work recently, particularly with regards to location and home.  I am never at home.  Not to say that I am never in the house where I pay rent, rather, I am never at Home.  From 1993-2003, I lived in twelve or fourteen or twenty different places.  Since then, it’s been four cities in two countries and three months in Spain going from bungalow to hotel to hostel to apartment.  The house I live in now feels like home and so does, weirdly, New Jersey.

This is contrary to Knight’s experience in his poem.  He is in one place while the family moves around on the outside.  They do not move without him though.  And he is not stationary without them.  The photographs stare at him from across the cell, which I gather is not a long space, metrically speaking, but is in other ways.  That space is the last image hanging out there, the final proposition of the poem, the lacking and the fulfillment of the rumination.

The Idea of Ancestry

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st & 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.
I have at one time or another been in love with my mother,
1 grandmother, 2 sisters, 2 aunts (1 went to the asylum),
and 5 cousins. I am now in love with a 7-yr-old niece
(she sends me letters written in large block print, and
her picture is the only one that smiles at me).
I have the same name as 1 grandfather, 3 cousins, 3 nephews,
and 1 uncle. The uncle disappeared when he was 15, just took
off and caught a freight (they say). He’s discussed each year
when the family has a reunion, he causes uneasiness in
the clan, he is an empty space. My father’s mother, who is 93
and who keeps the Family Bible with everybody’s birth dates
(and death dates) in it, always mentions him. There is no
place in her Bible for “whereabouts unknown.”
Each fall the graves of my grandfathers call me, the brown
hills and red gullies of mississippi send out their electric
messages, galvanizing my genes. Last yr / like a salmon quitting
the cold ocean-leaping and bucking up his birthstream / I
hitchhiked my way from LA with 16 caps in my packet and a
monkey on my back. And I almost kicked it with the kinfolks.
I walked barefooted in my grandmother’s backyard / I smelled the old
land and the woods / I sipped cornwhiskey from fruit jars with the men /
I flirted with the women / I had a ball till the caps ran out
and my habit came down. That night I looked at my grandmother
and split / my guts were screaming for junk / but I was almost
contented / I had almost caught up with me.
(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix.)
This yr there is a gray stone wall damming my stream, and when
the falling leaves stir my genes, I pace my cell or flop on my bunk
and stare at 47 black faces across the space. I am all of them,
they are all of me, I am me, they are thee, and I have no children
to float in the space between.
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April 6 :: Ernest Thayer’s “Casey At the Bat”

Baseball.  Ah, it’s back.  Yesterday was the official Opening Day (despite two games earlier in Japan between the A’s and the Mariners).  Today is the Twins first game of the season, against the mighty Orioles of Baltimore.  Tomorrow, I am heading down to Baltimore to see my beloved Twins for the first time since 2007, when Cindy and I road tripped up to the Dome to watch them play the hated Chicago White Sox.

When I cam home from teaching yesterday, I was able to flip on the tv and catch the bottom of the ninth inning of the Phillies/Pirates game.  Jonathon Papelbon was taking the mound with a 1-0 lead after Roy Halladay had tossed eight innings of two-hit ball.  He knocked the Pirates out 1-2-3 and that was it, the game was over.  And though I’d missed most of it, I was happy to have caught even a half inning of day ball.

Thayer’s poem is probably the most well-known baseball poem out there.  It’s not a poem I am particularly educated on, but I think it’s a fair entry for today.  Check out this video I found, as well:


It’s pretty fun.  Enjoy the poem and play ball!

Casey At the Bat

The Outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, if only Casey could get but a whack at that –
We’d put up even money, now, with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey’s getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despis-ed, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile on Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ’twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one,” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore.
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And its likely they’d a-killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two.”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered fraud;
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville – mighty Casey has struck out.

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April 5 :: Louis Simpson’s “American Poetry”

A lot has been made / is still being made about the function of poetry.  American poetry, particularly, is a passion of mine and so I am continually attempting to define and redefine what exactly “American” poetry is.  Firstly, I think the label “American” can be problematic.  Admittedly, we are talking about U.S. American poetry, after all.  We never consider Neruda to be American, though he hails from South America.  I suppose it has everything to do with that “America” appears in our full name.  That, too, is semantically awkward.  Are the fifty States the only united states in all of all America (the western hemisphere)?  Are Hawaii and California united at all?  Not physically.  I suppose it’s all to do with philosophy and common interest.  Tell that to Michigan and Ohio on the final Saturday of any given college football season.  Or when jobs from the north go south in favor of cheaper labor and laxer restrictions.  United, indeed.

But for the sake of the discussion, American poetry is poetry from my home country, the U.S.A.   And there are a lot of poems, particularly throughout the modern and postmodern eras, that deal with this.  We write poems, but still constantly grapple with what it is we are writing.  Louis Simpson’s poem is not what I would consider to be a “great” poem, whatever that means.  (What does that mean?) But I think it’s a cool poem. I think it spells out a lot of what the concerns of our country were at the time of its publication — 1963.

The declarative opening line ends just in time to give us a sense of something important to come.  After all, there is little room to argue with “it must have”.  To say that somebody must have a stomach for something suggests that they must be able to endure. “He tried to be a surgeon, but he didn’t have the stomach for the blood.”  Here the stomach must be able to break down a handful of material goods essential to the mid-century lexicon: “Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.”  Flexibility, power, nuclear power, other worlds, other other worlds (or words).

The sentence stanza creates an extended metaphor that requires me to pause a moment and mention that none can mention the shark without me thinking of the near end of Annie Hall.  As they sit on an airplane, Annie and Alvy break up and Alvy says that a relationship is like a shark, it has to move forward or it dies.  “What we have here is a dead shark,” he finally admits.  Is this relevant to the reading of Simpson’s poem?  Maybe not.  The shoe in the shark’s stomach seems more like Jaws than Annie Hall, and I admire its ferocity.  “Eat the whole damn thing, American poetry, clothes and all.”

The final two lines are excellent examples of antithesis:  the shark swimming through the desert suggests that though the poems are sharks, they cannot be too comfortable in their natural habitats.  And though the words are certainly in human language, the best it can do is to strive for “cries that are almost human”.   In some ways, Simpson answers nothing.  Not that he has to.  Why should he?  He only enters into the register his own idea of what American poetry can be.  I don’t know, maybe it is a great poem after all.

American Poetry

Whatever it is, it must have
A stomach that can digest
Rubber, coal, uranium, moons, poems.

Like the shark, it contains a shoe.
It must swim from miles through the desert
Uttering cries that almost human.

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April 4 :: Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s “Daddy, We Called You”

I hit my first AWP Conference this year in Chicago.  It was quite a trip.  I saw some old Chicago friends and met a few new ones.  I walked up Wabash in the beating, slushy rain.  I ruminate all around town on the rattling El.  It was also an opportunity to spend some time with Daniel Wallace, who jetted off to England about a week later.  I caught a few good panels and peeped some cool presses at the book fair.  By far, my favorite reading of the week was off-site.  Poet M.L. Liebler has compiled an anthology of work poetry called Working Words, which features a lot of poets I enjoy, including Jim Daniels and Woody Guthrie.

One of the poets in attendance that night was Maria Mazziotti Gillan, a fellow New Jerseyian.  She read the following poem, after which I remarked to my pal Mark, “now that’s a poem.”  I love the honesty of the poem and the admission of the transgression and the guilt it engenders.  That final image is so heartbreakingly beautiful and satisfying.

It makes me think about my own parents.  Not specifically them (I mean, yes, them), but also Parents.  What happens to us that we are somehow embarrassed by our folks?  What was it for me?  I am sure if I interrogate it, I will find it, and I will make that my challenge.

Daddy We Called You

“Daddy” we called you, “Daddy”
when we talked to each other in the street,
pulling on our American faces,
shaping our lives in Paterson slang.

Inside our house, we spoke
a Southern Italian dialect
mixed with English
and we called you “Papa”

but outside again, you became Daddy
and we spoke of you to our friends
as “my father”
imagining we were speaking
of that “Father Knows Best”
T.V. character
in his dark business suit,
carrying his briefcase into his house,
retreating to his paneled den,
his big living room and dining room,
his frilly-aproned wife
who greeted him at the door
with a kiss. Such space

and silence in that house.
We lived in one big room-
living room, dining room, kitchen, bedroom,
all in one, dominated by the gray oak dining table
around which we sat, talking and laughing,
listening to your stories,
your political arguments with your friends,

Papa, how you glowed in company light,
happy when the other immigrants
came to you for help with their taxes
or legal papers.

It was only outside that glowing circle
that I denied you, denied your long hours
as night watchman in Royal Machine Shop.
One night, riding home from a date,
my middle class, American boyfriend
kissed me at the light; I looked up
and met your eyes as you stood at the corner

near Royal Machine. It was nearly midnight.
January. Cold and Windy. You were waiting
for the bus, the streetlight illuminating
your face. I pretended I did not see you,
let my boyfriend pull away, leaving you
on the empty corner waiting for the bus
to take you home. You never mentioned it,
never said that you knew
how often I lied about what you did for a living
or that I was ashamed to have my boyfriend see you,
find out about your second shift work, your broken English.

Today, remembering that moment,
still illuminated in my mind
by the streetlamp’s gray light,
I think of my own son
and the distance between us,
greater than miles.

silk worker,
night watchman,
immigrant Italian,
I honor the years you spent in menial work
slipping down the ladder
as your body failed you

while your mind, so quick and sharp,
longed to escape,
honor the times you got out of bed
after sleeping only an hour,
to take me to school or pick me up;
the warm bakery rolls you bought for me
on the way home from the night shift.

the letter
you wrote
to the editors
of local newspapers.

silk worker,
night watchman,
immigrant Italian,
better than any “Father Knows Best” father,
bland as white rice,
with your wine press in the cellar,
with the newspapers you collected
out of garbage piles to turn into money
you banked for us,
with your mouse traps,
with your cracked and calloused hands,
with your yellowed teeth.

dragging your dead leg
through the factories of Paterson,
I am outside the house now,
shouting your name.

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April 3 :: Lorine Niedecker’s “Poet’s Work”

As anybody who knows me knows: I am a cheerleader for the Midwest.   While I believe that regional and civic pride can dangerously turn into nationalist tendencies, I am guilty of contradicting myself and give the MW a big whoop-whoop when necessary. For that reason, I am often keeping my eyes open for Midwestern-born and based poets.  Today’s poet, Lorine Niedecker, was born and raised and lived and died in Wisconsin.  My friend Nissa Lee is a big fan of Lorine Niedecker, though I am not sure geography has anything to do with it.  I think for Nissa, Niedecker’s Objectivist tendencies influence her work.  If you know Nissa’s work, I think you can see it, though I am not trying to reduced it down to such simplistic terms.

Niedecker wrote, in a letter to a friend: “Objects. Objects. Why are people, artists above all, so terrifically afraid of themselves?”  What an important question.  I have know so many poets who would rather be disemboweled by Leda’s swan for all of eternity than to ever admit that they have a personal biography.   I am not going to go on a rant about that.  It’s their choice.  But it’s something I notice and something that I think informs Niedecker’s work.  For her Objectivist leanings (and her personal relationships with Objectivist heavy-hitters, including Louis Zukofsky, who fathered a baby she aborted — at his behest), Niedecker maintains a pretty demotic idiom, which is what I love.  Speaking of being reductive, I tend to think that many Midwestern poets do this, and that I endeavor to be a part of that tradition (Wright, Masters, Knight, Sandburg, Van Duyn, to name a few).

Building on the previous two posts, I would like to share “Poet’s Work”:

Poet’s Work 

advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoffs
from this

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April 2 :: Philip Levine’s “What Work Is”

Last year, Malik Abdul Jabbar, Nabina Das, and I ran a tear up the Jersey turnpike to Madison, NJ, to catch Philip Levine read at Drew University.  Edward Hirsch “opened” for Levine, one of Malik’s favorite poets (maybe the favorite).  We were meant to meet on campus, but we missed each other and I biked home.  Malik called: “Where are you?”

“In my kitchen.”

“I’ve got Nabina.”

“We’ll never make it.”

“I am coming to get you.”

Traffic.  Doubt.  Hope.  We walked in — this is no joke — just as Phil Levine was beginning his reading.  The three of us split up and didn’t see each other in the forty-five minutes that followed.  We slipped into the place you slip into when the poet is reading and a tiny version of yourself sits on the edge of the podium gazing longingly into the words their lips make.

After the reading, I was introduced to poets Patrick Rosal and Aracelis Girmay as we drank wine and ate cheese cubes in the basement of the hall where the reading took place.  (An aside: what would happen to the cheese industry if poetry readings were suddenly outlawed?)

Speaking of the cheese industry, my father is a cheese man.  He grew up on a dairy farm and, after the Air Force and after marrying my mom, he took a job in Rochester, MN at a cheese plant.  I was born in the Olmsted County hospital in February of 1975.  My mom says that if I had come a week earlier, I’d have been born at home.  So much snow, the town shut down.  My dad went from the floor of that cheese plant to the offices.  He went from there to corporate headquarters.  He quit that gig and now works for a cheese company in Wisconsin: the cheese-maker’s paradise.  He’s worked his whole life.

My mother’s worked, too.  Her father was an iron ore miner, like his father before him, in the brutal earth that is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  She’s worked as a retail clerk, a day care instructor, a bank teller, and currently works in some capacity for the government, helping people file claims for illnesses they incurred on the job.  When she wasn’t doing that, she worked, as a child, raising her siblings and, as a mother, raising me and my brothers.  She’s worked her whole life.

My brothers are both younger than me.  The older of the two is finishing his degree in special education (only three more weeks!), whereupon he will get a full-time job in a field he is clearly made for.   There is nobody I know on this planet with the compassion and mettle this kid has.  He and his wife are raising to two kids in Ypsilanti, a small college town in the hard-hit palm of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.  We know the Michigan story: closed auto plants and rampant unemployment.  We’ve seen the Chrysler commercials with Eminem and Clint Eastwood.  That’s where he has lived for twelve years and never thought to leave it.  I have lived in in five cities in the same amount of time.  Before going into education, he worked landscaping.  Long days in the dirt.  Sore muscles and sunburns.  Aching feet and canned beer.  His wife works at the university medical center.  Then she chases the two year old.  Then she puts the daughter to bed.  They’ve worked their whole lives.

My youngest brother is a cook.  He knows when a steak is done by laying a fingertip to its surface.  He can braise just about anything.  He has comfortable shoes and wears chef pants.  He has worked in almost every conceivable type of kitchen: burger joint, family-style dining, fine dining, barbecue.  He works sometimes at two places at once.  He lives in the town we grew up in near Cincinnati, where he and his wife are raising three children.  She works in property management.  When they are not on somebody’s clock, they are on the kids’ clocks.  Dance practice, baseball, diapers.  Cheerleading, homework, bedtime stories.  They’ve worked their whole lives.

This is not meant to be a post about the grind, though it is.  I mean, in all that, they all find time to play golf, to vacation, to go to ballgames, to read.  But I guess my point is: mine is not a family who has ever rested on a pile of money or trust-funded our way to our dreams.  I told my parents at age nineteen that I wanted to be a poet and they were appalled.  I skipped the office job (with the exception of a stint as a classified ad writer for the Dayton Daily News) and worked in a lot of low-wage, thankless service industry jobs.  As long as I could write, I was feeling like I was serving the purpose I set out for myself in this life.  Currently, I teach writing at a university.  When I find myself complaining, I remember having to stick my hand in the drain of the Trolley Stop and scoop out uneaten potato soup and hamburger buns after washing six hours worth of dishes.

The part of Phil Levine’s poem that twists in my soul every time I hear it is when “you think you see your own brother / ahead of you”.  How it’s not my brother, but somebody else’s brother.   I love my brothers, too, and am flooded with that love, too, when I hear this poem.   The work Levine talks about in the poem: it is the work of waiting for work, it is work of learning German and practicing Wagner and coping with Wagner (indeed: “the worst music in the world,” and I have heard  Chinese Democracy), it is the work of loving your brother, and it is the work of realizing that you are not loving your brother.  And it’s the work.  It’s Detroit or the factory, that’s easy.  But what is the work that we do?  Is this work?  Sitting in my bed on a Sunday morning while the dishwasher flushes and belches downstairs?  The quiet of the house save for that dishwasher and the clacking of my keyboard, the feeling-lessness of sitting alone while Cindy jogs, and me, here, wanting to call my brothers — both of them — and say, come over, let’s go outside and play catch?  How can the quiet of the house arrange itself so sinisterly?  What are my brothers doing right now?

I love this poem for its sadness, but also for it’s hope.  I hope you can see some of it:

What Work Is

We stand in the rain in a long line
waiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.
You know what work is—if you’re
old enough to read this you know what
work is, although you may not do it.
Forget you. This is about waiting,
shifting from one foot to another.
Feeling the light rain falling like mist
into your hair, blurring your vision
until you think you see your own brother
ahead of you, maybe ten places.
You rub your glasses with your fingers,
and of course it’s someone else’s brother,
narrower across the shoulders than
yours but with the same sad slouch, the grin
that does not hide the stubbornness,
the sad refusal to give in to
rain, to the hours of wasted waiting,
to the knowledge that somewhere ahead
a man is waiting who will say, “No,
we’re not hiring today,” for any
reason he wants. You love your brother,
now suddenly you can hardly stand
the love flooding you for your brother,
who’s not beside you or behind or
ahead because he’s home trying to
sleep off a miserable night shift
at Cadillac so he can get up
before noon to study his German.
Works eight hours a night so he can sing
Wagner, the opera you hate most,
the worst music ever invented.
How long has it been since you told him
you loved him, held his wide shoulders,
opened your eyes wide and said those words,
and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.

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