April 1 :: Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck”

It seems very appropriate to me to begin this year’s blog with a post from Adrienne Rich, who passed away at the end of March and whose work and passing is very much on our minds right now.  I love this poem about the poet’s task.  Armed with a knife, a camera, and a book of myths, we poets plumb the depths of experience in search of the thing itself, not “the story of the thing”.  Listen to Rich read the poem, and you can hear the urgency of her plea.  As she reads, we descend with her into the search for the lost remnant.  Her lack of commas throughout the poem pulls us in to a momentum of descending rapidly.  There is something in that wreck that doesn’t make sense of experience, rather the wreck is the experience.

This month, I want to continue the task that Rich demands of us.  Where do we find “the damage that has been done / and the treasure that prevails”?  How do we know we are in the place where we “breathe differently”?  I am thinking about this because I feel like it’s where I am at so often with my  work: a constant grinding of the sadnesses I cannot let go of and the joys that I feel await me every morning.  It’s the beauty of poetry, the image, the thing.  It’s the driving force.  I feel like Adrienne was giving one version of that with this piece.  What do you think:

Diving Into the Wreck

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

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30 Days of Poems 2012

As National Poetry Month 2012 approaches, it’s time to dust of my blog about poetry.  Last year, I posted a different poem by a different poem each day of the month.  This year, I am going to come up with thirty new poets and thirty new poems.  No repeats.  Each poem and/or will get a write-up ruminating on my engagement with the piece, a close read, or some other from of analysis.  The point is to share some of the poems I really love by some of the poets I really love.  Since I burned through the bulk of my “favorite” poets last year, this year should serve to broaden my personal list and challenge myself to find new work.

I am appreciative of the support I received as I did this project last year and I look forward to engaging wit the public about these poems and my thoughts about them.  So comment, challenge, call me out if you like.  It is, after all, National Poetry Month.

*PS: Peek through last year posts, too.  Keep me honest.

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April 30 :: Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to Criticism”

Who is your favorite poet?  is a question that is about as concrete to me as What are you having for dinner?  Many of the poets I have featured during this month of reflection have been among my favorites for years: Szymborska, Espada, cummings, Ferlinghetti, WCW.  Many are poets who are favorites under certain circumstances. When I am lonely for home (Ohio or sometimes Berlin), I look to Rita Dove.  When I am lonely for Chicago, I go to Gwendolyn Brooks or Carl Sandburg.  Other poets conjure up a specific time and place in me.  Lucille Clifton, for instance, will always be with me walking near the Atlantic Coast.  Nazim Hikmet will be a rainy walk in Istanbul on my 35th birthday. I am pretty sure that I will go the rest of my life with these sense memories.

Some of the poets on the list are people I know personally.  Krista Franklin and Adam Cline, for instance, both of whom were involved with the Mad River Poets, a group of poets in Dayton, OH 1995-99 (give or take) who used to do readings together and make work together and just be together.  I can’t not say that they are among my favorite poets.  And if April were sixty days rather than thirty, perhaps I would get to include Mark Owens, Larry Sawyer, Ken Haponek, André Hoilette, and Folade Mondisa Speaks among my favorites.  I was very much invested in that group during a crucial period in my life.  So much so that I got our logo tattooed on my arm (the only tattoo I have).  Next April.

The poet I have known the longest is North Carolinian Mat Gould. Many of his poems hit me in the right way — honest, sparse, rugged.  I have known him since 1982, when were we both seven years old and I moved into his neighborhood.  The truth is, we fought the first week or so we were in town.  But we eventually became friends and I am happy to say that we are still in contact and still close.

Poets who didn’t get in this round who certainly could have: Anne Sexton, David Wojahn, Rodney Jones, Charlie Smith, Rumi, Carolyn Forche, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Victor Huidobro, Lupe Fiasco, Ernesto Cardenal, Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Gottfried Benn, Anna Ahkmatov, William Blake, Sarah Menefee, Kevin Bowen, Stefanie Marlis, Wallace Stevens, Countee Cullen.  Then there are the Chicago poets I came to know who definitely deserve a nod for influencing me: Jenn Morea, Kevin Coval, avery r. young (in the place to be), among others. And the people I met in Berlin: Moon, Paula Varjack, mr. oCean, MC Jabber, Alistair Noon, and Cathy Hales, to name a few.

But I reserve this spot, the final day, for someone who is often found at the end of the question, Who is your favorite poet? For many reasons could he be considered my favorite — the Elemental Odes and Canto General come to mind.  Then the love poems.  Then his precision.  His images.  His ability to make everything seem like it’s perfectly placed.  He is some kind of Taoist trickster, I think, some kind of chaos with order.  Some kind of order within chaos, all of it happening simultaneously.  But none those reasons really bring it home for me.  For me, it all has to do with Rome.

When we were living in Berlin, we had the opportunity to travel to some fantastic places: Amsterdam, Istanbul, Warsaw, Dubrovnik, Sarajevo, most of Spain.  Occasionally we’d travel separately, too.  I went to England on a poetry tour.  Cindy went to Hungary and Romania on a bike tour.  I went to Utrecht and Bremen.  One time, she flew to Rome to visit her friend who was summering there.

Whenever we went places, I liked to buy a book of a poet from that area translated into English.  In Poland, I got books by Polish poets I read with that night.  In Istanbul, I got Hikmet.  In Prague, I picked up a book by Saluman (who is Slovenia, but the press who published it is based in Prague). When Cindy went to Rome, I asked her to bring me a book by an Italian poet.  She brought me Pablo Neruda.

He’s not Italian.

I couldn’t find any Italians.  And this one is also in Spanish.

For a good stretch, we’d lay in bed at night before going to sleep and read the poems aloud.  I would read the English and she would read the Spanish.  Or she would read the Spanish and I would try to guess the meaning based on the cognates and the limited Spanish I did know.  For all his great work, it is this experience that makes me love him so much, for what his poems brought to my life.

In that spirit, I want to end my April 2011 blog with this poem, which speaks volumes about what is so tragically wrong with poetry — the damn know-it-all critics and their oft-misguided belief that poetry is for an elite class of intellectuals.  Or even those who take what is simple beauty and turn it into an intellectual exercise that only serves to make them look good.  But Neruda, not being a cynic, also gives us in this poem what is so wonderfully right: that you don’t need people like that to make poems for the people in your community and your life.

Ode to Criticism

I wrote five poems :
one was green
another a round wheaten loaf,
the third was a house, a building,
the fourth a ring,
and the fifth was
brief as a lightning flash,
and as I wrote it,
it branded my reason.

Well, then, men
and women
came and took
my simple materials,
breeze, wind, radiance, clay, wood,
and with such ordinary things
walls, floors, and dreams.
On one line of my poetry
they hung out the wash to dry.
They ate my words
for dinner,
they kept them
by the head of their beds,
they lived with poetry,
with the light that escaped from my side.
came a mute critic,
then another babbling tongues,
and others, many others, came,
some blind, some all-seeing,
some of them as elegant
as carnations with bright red shoes,
others as severely
clothed as corpses,
some were partisans
of the king and his exalted monarchy,
others had been snared
in Marx’s brow
and were kicking their feet in his beard,
some were English,
plain and simply English,
and among them
they set out
with tooth and knife,
with dictionaries and other dark weapons,
with venerable quotes,
they set out
to take my poor poetry
from the simple folk
who loved it.
They trapped and tricked it,
they rolled it in a scroll,
they secured it with a hundred pins,
they covered it with skeleton dust,
they drowned it in ink,
they spit on it with the suave
benignity of a cat,
they used it to wrap clocks,
they protected it and condemned it,
they stored it with crude oil,
they dedicated damp treatises to it,
they boiled it with milk,
they showered it with pebbles,
and in the process erased vowels from it,
their syllables and sighs
nearly killed it,
they crumbled it and tied it up in a
little package
they scrupulously addressed
to their attics and cemeteries,
one by one, they retired,
enraged to the point of madness
because I wasn’t
popular enough for them,
or saturated with mild contempt
for my customary lack of shadows,
they left,
all of them,
and then,
once again,
men and women
came to live
with my poetry,
once again
they lighted fires,
built houses,
broke bread,
they shared the light
and in love joined
the lightning flash and the ring.
And now,
gentlemen, if you will excuse me
for interrupting this story
I’m telling,
I am leaving to live
with simple people.

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April 29 :: William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow”

David Wojahn has a great poem about WCW in a hospital watching Elvis on the television in which he writes the line: “The sonnet / like the tube / is a fascist form.”  The irony, of course, being that the poem is a sonnet.  In a collection of sonnets about rock n’ roll.  The book, Mystery Train, is one of my favorite books that I left in Berlin.  There is also an incredible poem about Bob Dylan visiting Woody Guthrie in the hospital.

I tried to use that poem to teach a group of teenagers: “I want you to imagine your favorite poet writing about a cultural icon.”  It was meant to be a lesson in voice.  It turned ugly about five minutes in, when the clicking of cell phone keypads overtook the room like crickets across an Indiana meadow.  Lesson learned.

I labored over which WCW poem to include, because there are so many which I find inspirational.  This and “This is Just to Say” are the first two WCW poems I read.  Back in high school, in Mrs. Miller’s English class, around time I found Whitman and Ferlinghetti.  I decided to go with this one because it’s a bit like a mystery that has never been solved.  Williams himself said that it’s nothing, that there is no narrative behind it, that the beauty of the image is what matters.  But I feel like he’s short-changing what the beauty of the image actually could: a narrative linked to infinite emotions and experiences that help define for us what beauty is.  To me, so much rides on this person getting his work done, which he can’t because of the rain.  I floated that in a course last semester and a particular lit student disagreed with great gusto: “I don’t see a farmer anywhere in here.”  Fair enough.  You don’t have to.

Perhaps, there is something to WCW’s assertion.  Perhaps the fact that we talk about the poem at all means that that is what is so important.  He’d probably disagree with that, but that’s fair enough, too.  He is granted that. I am not sure that being the writer gives you final say.  I am also not sure that lit students should have the final say.  Or professors or MFA students or anyone.  I like it better when there is no final say. That said, in my mind, there is a farmer who cannot perform his chores because the rain is bad.  So as he sits on his porch watching the wheelbarrow and the chickens, he actually has a sort of epiphany, which includes a realization that he must sometimes not work.  The dependence is on the lesson of enjoying the beauty of the world around you and not working.  The dependence is also the fact that by not working, he may lose some profit.  They needn’t be mutually exclusive.

Poetry is by nature a plural word.  It is not one thing that does one thing.  It can’t be of the people and do that.  Nor can the interpretations of it, in many cases.  This is one of those cases and I feel like there is a lot riding on it.

The Red Wheelbarrow

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

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April 28 :: Gary Copeland Lilley’s “Sanctuaries for the Deacon’s Sons”

I met Gary Lilley in Chicago, when we were both working at YCA.  He was a masterful teaching artist with enough life story to fill a submarine.  Speaking of submarines, Gary spent time in the Navy submerged in the frozen waters of the Arctic circle and many of the poems in his collection The Subsequent Blues make mention of that.  There is a coldness about those lines, proving Gary’s ability to use the poem to sing the blues the way a guitarist uses the guitar.

When his book dropped, Gary asked me to come play some blues tunes at a reading at the Acme Arts building.  I brought along my banjo and played some songs.  So did Malcolm Palmer, if I am not mistaken.

The whole book deals with these types of blues.  Women leaving, lonely apartments, fast cars driving into the belly of an often unrelenting home.  It’s a book infused with bargaining with the devil, dealing with the consequences of those bargains, and negotiating some sense of redemption at the tail of those consequences.  The characters in the book are folks I find myself rooting for, no matter how selfish or fractured they appear to be.

Last I heard, Gary was in North Carolina, but I think maybe he’s in Washington state now.  This from a recent post by 826 Seattle advertising a workshop with Gary called How To Write Like I Do in June.  If I lived in Seattle, I would go to this, for sure.  And anyone who knows me knows that adore enjambment.  Nothing sticks in my craw than missed opportunities with regard to enjambment.   “a liar, a cocaine thief, and nothing”

That’s how you write like Gary Lilley.

Sanctuaries for the Deacon’s Sons

This is the poem where my brother becomes
me in the pulpit at his Pentecostal church
and the faithful lean forward in their seats
as he witnesses having been a womanizer,
a liar, a cocaine thief, and nothing
could touch him, how he’d laid on the side
of a lean shot glass until late in the day
with God over him, how he jack-hammered
holes in the streets, bandana dripping
and him pushing the blade, how the summer
was the heat, and trouble and love simmered
to a circumstance, getting sanctified strength
in lockdown, the right shoes to walk parole
and the blues, Lucifer playing the steel strings.

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April 27 :: Tyehimba Jess’ “mistress stella speaks”

I first came across Tyehimba Jess’ book Leadbelly by way of Krista Franklin, whose collage adorns the cover.  Leadbelly, for those of you don’t know, was a guitar player and singer in the early part of the 20th century, a contemporary of Woody Guthrie with an incredible story.  From 1915 to 1933, he was in an out of prison three times: for carrying a gun, for killing a relative over a woman, and for stabbing a guy.  The second time, he sang his way out.  The third time, he was sprung by folklorist John Lomax.  Or so the stories go.

There is an incredibly uncomfortable video of a reenactment of Leadbelly’s release from prison and into the “employment” of John Lomax that shows Lead prostrating himself to Lomax out of appreciation for his release.  What Jess, I believe, is trying to do in his book is to allow Lead (and the people around him) to tell their story, not the story as told through the filter of the Lomaxian view of history.

Of the poems in the book, this is by far my favorite.  It’s a great poem to teach and I have taught it in Germany, England, and the Netherlands.  It’s a great personification piece and the writing prompt that goes along with it is to have the students write about something intimate to them from that thing’s perspective.   It’s usually a fun exercise because it makes the students consider that objects have life, opinions, ideas, and that those things might actually have thoughts about them, which can be a new idea for them.

mistress stella speaks

you think i’m his property
’cause he paid cash
to grab me by the neck,
swing me ‘cross his knee
and stroke the living song from my hips.

you think he is master of all
my twelve tongues, spreading notes
thick as starless night, strangling spine
till my voice is a jungle of chords.

the truth is that i owned him
since the word love first blessed his lips
since hurt and flight and free
carved their way into the cotton
fused bones of his fretting hand,
since he learned how pleading men hunt
for my face in the well of their throats
till their tongues are soaked with want.

yes, each day he comes back
home from the fields,
from chain gang fury,
from the smell of sometime women
who borrow his body. he bends
his weight around me
like a wilting weed
drinking in my kiss
of fretboard across fingertip
’til he can stand up straight again,
aching from what he left behind,
rising sure as dawn.

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April 26 :: Adam Cline’s “Poem” & Nexus Magazine

Before it was wack, Nexus was a leader in cutting-edge literature both world wide and for the Wright State/Dayton community.  There was a run of editors (Mark Owens, Larry Sawyer, Adam Cline, André Hoilette, Mindy Cooper) who committed themselves to printing great poetry.  Among the poets who resided between the covers: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Ira Cohen, Wanda Coleman, Judith Malina, and others.

It reminds me of my first trip to NYC, hanging out in Valery Oisteaneu’s apartment smoking tiny cigarettes.  The snow fell outside as Larry and I walked with Ira back to his apartment, where we were staying.  There was a boxing match on the tv through the window of the pizzeria.  It was a great trip.

The Nexus years were some good years.  Ira Cohen sat on our couch and talked for seven and a half hours about Morocco and Burroughs and what not.  We did a reading were we passed around Jim Turner’s afro wig.  I have pics of that night that I will post when I get home.

Here is a poem from Adam Cline, who passed away about a year and a half ago.  He loved Nexus and put out some great issues when he was there.


Straddle earth’s zenith 
   To feel the tremor of
Insect heartbeats in sidewalk
   Cracks in Smalltown, 

& hear shuffling of feet
On Kilimanjaro summit
Of beings who don’t belong

*I was looking for this page yesterday when I did the post.  Thanks to Larry Sawyer for sending it along!

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