Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Sandalwood Horse

Alas, not online.

This is a wonderful Engrish poem that immediately made me think of Jane. The message is "we would like to sell you a three-inch tall carved sandalwood horse". The voice is one that does not speak English as a native language, and perhaps one that is not interested in being terribly pedantic about its advertising copy.

The speaker starts off by letting you know that sandalwood is a good material to make things out of:
There are in world, many kinds of sandalwood, like white
and black...
.... It will avoid all types insect,
so keep happiness and luck safe.
Then, on to the horse, which
is best work of art and worth to collect and appreciate.
Griffiths uses repetition to hilarious effect:
We know
you may like the likeness of this horse which is 3 inches
rearing lifelike.
And it all ends on an optimistic note.
We hope to ship you horse or other sandalwood thing.

Griffiths was evidently a woman of many voices. I thought this one was pitch-perfect.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A Sort of Ode to the Poem Lady (or You Don't Have To Be a Hypochondriac, But It Helps)

Can't find it online.

By the middle of the first strophe, I want to punch the Poem Lady directly in the face. Witness:
She is too weak to walk herself; she comes swooning
from a room thick with the scent of sinister blooms:
hellbores, opium poppies, lilac, pallid orchids.
She writes of her weakness, of her womb
which is connected to the moon by silvery strands,
and her sacred suffering self, her sensitivity,
her swollen heart, which bleats like a sacrificial lamb.
Barf. (This is not a complaint about the poem; just a complaint about the character of the Poem Lady, whom I'm pretty clearly meant to dislike anyhow.)

There's lots of interesting flower symbolism. (I'm going to do the photo trick again, because I find that it really helps to know what the flowers in poems look like.) So first, flowers that the Poem Lady likes.

Here's hellbore.
According to Wikipedia, there's a legend claiming that hellbore "sprouted in the snow from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give the Christ child in Bethlehem." This seems completely in keeping with the Poem Lady's character.

Opium poppies, of course, are what you use to drug yourself with. Here is a pretty red one.

I'm not sure what the lilacs are meant to represent. Wikipedia says that they are a symbol of love, and also that they are the state flower of New Hampshire.

I am not sure whether a "pallid orchid" is just an orchid that is pallid, or whether it's the common name of something. (Google suggests the former.) Orchids are delicate, temperamental cultivars, much like the Poem Lady. Here's a Cattleya cultivar. (At my house, I have a Dendrobium hybrid, exact type unknown, which I have managed not to kill for three years. I think it is hardier than the Poem Lady.)

Our narrator brings the Poem Lady "a bouquet of peasant flowers", but "they [turn her] away with curled lips and curses". What's in the bouqet?

First, there's Piss-a-Bed, which I recognise from Griffiths' other poems as a rustic name for dandelion!

Then, there's Ragged Robin, a marshy plant originally native to England.

And finally, there's corncockle.

The Poem Lady writes "fragrant words", such as:
amaranth, muscatel, damascene, vermillion, amber
Amaranth is a useful herb; probably the poem lady is thinking of it in its capacity as an ornamental plant. (You can also eat it, though: yum.) Muscatel is a tasty, fragrant grape. Damascene can be steel, but I think it's more likely that the Poem Lady is thinking of the kind that is silk. Vermillion and amber are colors (a red and a yellow, respectively) named after minerals. All very sensuous words.

Although I love reading about the poem lady and her ridiculous delicacy, and her ornate words, I'm a bit disappointed by the ending of this one. What Griffiths says at the end is already amply clear from the earlier bits of the poem.
O Poem Lady, may we be forgiven if we hymn life
instead of celebrating the sickroom. O, help us
to wallow in unease and depression and shadows
as we should. For ever and ever, lest poetry die.
I was hoping to see her take it in a new direction, and add some depth to the narrator's alternative to the Poem Lady. I thought the bouquet of peasant flowers a much stronger positive image than the ending, and wished she had built up that aspect of the poem a little bit more.

Fer Blossom

Griffiths undertakes two delicate tasks at once: writing an epitaph for a dead animal, and writing in dialect. I thought the result was highly successful, but I'm probably less picky than other readers who are more familiar with the target dialect. I don't know whether she's getting it right, since I've got nothing to compare it to.

I'm a sucker for animal poems, and there were a couple of little details here that I especially loved. There's the picture of the pig standing nose-to-nose with the sows and grunting after breeding (like a little conversation), his fondness for tummy rubs and snout rubs, and the fact that one of his favourite treats is "Meltasers". (In the US, Malteasers are called "Malted Milk Balls". They are totally delicious. Probably not good for pigs, but I love the idea of the soft-hearted farmer sneaking them to the pig anyway.)

As usual, you don't have to squint to hard to see Griffiths' delight in the sounds of words. Particularly lovely turns of phrase include "nipped off en a nep", "hautopsied end cinerated", and "don't metter a smutter". There's also a nice hidden rhyme between the line ending on "summack" in S1, and the line ending on "stummack" in S2. Those things don't rhyme for me, but I like the fact that they rhyme for somebody. The poem ends alliteratively, on "barrel-bottom boar".

Goodbye - it's been fun!

I was hoping to be able to finish the requisite fifteen, but alas, I find other demands on my time. I leave for vacation tomorrow, starting with my first face to face LIVE Poetry workshop in Taos, N.M.! I am busily polishing a few poems to have eviscerated there - a couple rejections *sob* I just had kicked back to me from Fifth Wednesday Journal and a couple NaPo poems I am still revising - down to the wire, it is! I cannot wait to see what pearls of wisdom come from this.

It has been fun. Thanks for hosting, Featherless! Any of you on Facebook? Jee and I are.

My Life with a Latin Professor

Not online.

The plot is simple: the narrator and her partner (Lorenzo, the Latin professor) are carried off into the sky at unpredictable intervals, by various sorts of beings who seem intent on ravishing them. I would have serious reservations about signing up for this sort of foreign exchange program in real life, but Griffiths makes it sound surprisingly appealing.

The poem draws considerable energy from temporal jumps. S1 takes place “last week”; S2 takes place “last month”; S3 is in the present tense, and describes things that happen habitually; and S4 speculates about possible future events. The overall effect is a strong sense that the abductions are an ongoing pattern.

My favorite kidnappers are the chain-smoking aliens in S1, whose mothership is “tricked out with silver plastic and plump crimson velvet/ like a 50s cinema foyer”. Somehow, my mind wants to fill in polyester suits and chest medallions. They’ve got to be the cheesiest aliens I’ve ever heard of.

S2 gives us a sexual encounter with seraphim, told in hints and implications. Griffiths’ narrator gives us “the smell of incense and burnt plumage”—all right, standard enough for angels—but then follows it up with “lingered between my thighs for days”. Evidently, the seraphim were satisfying; they have the narrator humming “Holy, Holy, Holy”.

S3 is a little hard to parse. The narrator insists that she doesn’t mind the abductions, and doesn’t envy her boring friends. Often this sort of insistence is a sign of insincerity, or (to put a different spin on it) making the best of a bad situation. But here, I believe the narrator. I think she probably just feels a bit superior to her friends.

S4 does a couple of things at once. First, there’s the literal scene: the narrator makes a delicious-sounding breakfast of scrambled eggs, mimosa, toast, and coffee, while she speculates about who might carry her off. Second, there’s some lovely bird imagery. The narrator wonders whether she’ll be “radared by an eagle/ seeking a swan” (I think this is also a reference to the myth of Leda), and then follows this up with the scrambled eggs, and ends the strophe with “our hearts are always thudding like wings”. Third, there’s the some lovely phraseology, including a comparison between the couple and “eyelets waiting to be hooked”.

If any seraphim or Greek gods are reading, please leave your contact info in the comments.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What Does Us In, Dean Young

This poem seems to start out as him reminiscing about an ex wife. Its another poem about loss. It seems to go on to talk about the losses we incur in war, he seems to be finished talking about his ex wife and wedding photos, the billiard room they first met in. Then: "...But we must not be afraid my countrymen...Horse w/ wings, man with three arms, man with none." Now he's addressing the losses we incur in wartime. Then he jumps ahead again to an allusion of some friends that lost a baby, some interesting language here:

And death-heads I can live with
like what glowed that night as my friends spoke
of the fragile pregnancy between them,

The poem ends on the death of his father:

My heart hurts like a revolving tray of sweets.
It was the hats that my mother broke down about.

This piece didn't have the deep insight I've come to trademark Dean Young on. I didn't come away wowed or learning something new, as w/ Whale Watch, or Asking a Girl Out. It was just alright. Maybe he was too close to the subject matter to really do it justice. We've all done that.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Victoria's Secret - Peep Show

We are coming down from our pedestal and up from the laundry room - Bella Abzug

Every time I read this poem I feel dirty. Whatever else I may say about Daniels, she does have a knack for dredging up the rawer emotions. In this poem a newly married N, for whatever undisclosed reason, has accompanied her husband to a peep show and stands outside while he does what a man does at a peep show. The implication is that N is unable to satisfy him, so as "a good wife," she allows him a proxy.

So I'm standing on pavement clotted with dried up discs
of hawked-out phlegm and chewing gum, and the air
is redolent with the odor of pot and filthy, unwashed
hair, and curbed pools of human waste glistening

She does ugly well. She then goes on to describe how her mind is simultaneously forcing herself to accept and reject the image of young girls bumping and grinding adolescent hips [that] cost nothing but a quarter. These quarters are provided by N's stash of laundry money, thus highlighting her complicity in her husband's behavior. She also happens to be wearing a diamond ring that once belonged to her mother-in-law.

Finally, there is the irony in this line she stood there on the sidewalk waiting for the man inside/as if he were a prince, as if he were her One True Love...waiting and waiting for something that was promised,/but now (she starts to realize) will never come.

The poem seems to be a young feminist's struggle (it is set in 1978) between what she was raised ON from fairytales and maternal expectations of what she SHOULD be and what the coming of age expectations of what a young feminist is supposed to be with no clear understanding of who she really is or what she WANTS of herself or from a man. Or what is right or wrong. By the end of the poem her illusions are shattered but she is no closer to knowing a better way to be.

A Walk in Victoria's Secret Eschatology

And the an awful leisure was-
our faith to regulate
-E. Dickinson

This poem begins with that quote and, so, a sad poem it is. The opening lines mock and mimic death with stone imagery

The stone garden she always imagined
cultivating late in life remains buried
in the back lawn. Stones weary her
now with their secrets and their stunned
molecules, with the death they neither
welcome nor avoid trapped inside.

Daniels could have addressed the loss of the loved one directly, could have addressed grief and its impact directly, instead she never directly mentions grief, or loss, never mentions relationships. Instead the poem talks of stones, diminishment, of small meals, of the several hours of each/afternoon struggle passionately with one another, each yearning/to be filled, and if she is lucky,/the day will collapse gently in on itself/rather than quaking open and diminishing to something as compact/and harmless as a stone the size of a bouillon cube.

This is a poem of loss and deprivation that achieves its objective, quite effectively, I think, through images of hardness and smallness, quietness and shrinking, as much from what it doesn't say as what it does.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Walk in Victoria's Secret - Scar

This poem begins with When the mirror sliced my daughter's thigh and the reader (at least this reader) suspects an accident. The poem opens beautifully, like a flower, to describe the flowering layers of blood and glass. The wound heals and leaves a scar, the girl is ashamed and at the pool she tries the hide her scar with a splayed-out hand and then we get a hint of something more sinister in the genesis of this scar with

hurts me the way her puppy's back-end wiggle
signifies a fear of men, and ignites a little narrative
in my mind: some creep with a beer in his hand
batting around a five pound pup, and thinking it's funny.

In the second strophe there are more hints, allusions to N feeling like a pervert for peeking a look at her daughter's scar when she is sleeping, N's stomach bottoming out, and the Almighty/ hung back, masquerading as a dark deity, a complicated god/who would hold a small child hostage and torture her mother./Now it will take a long time to fasten him back where he belongs.

There is just enough here, enough imagery - puppy, flowers, glass, Almighty - husband, father, lover? who turns on woman and child, to intrigue and frighten.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Ariadne's Daughters

I can't find it online.

This one grabbed my attention with the first two lines:
Nasty girls make mouth music. They fist the air
and leap and shout 'Fuck'. They drink until they puke.
Yes, I've known teenage girls like this. They inspire love and protectiveness and admiration, and the poem conjures up all of these emotions. S1 continues in a similar vein for three more lines, describing the girls' crazy antics (which sound both dangerous and fun). I like all the "K" word endings in these first two lines (make, music, fuck, drink, puke). They sound coarse and tough, which is exactly how the girls want to sound.

S2 imbues the girls with tenderness and vulnerability:
All this with faces small and compact with auriculas,
(here are some auriculas, so that you can imagine this more clearly:

.) They may be tough, but they are still teenage girls. The flower, fruit, and food comparisons in S2 made me want to protect the girls from all forms of danger. But the end of S2 hints that protection is impossible:
The moon strokes them, marks them with must.
(Incidentally, I think this statement of inevitability is also a reference to menarche.)

S3, the final strophe, takes up the theme of protectiveness, and its ultimate futility, in more explicit terms. We
... plait cages,
but they were born with feathered arms and sly fingers
Still, the girls have lots of inner resources, and they'll be OK.

Since I enjoyed Aric's meat chime pictures so much, I'm going to finish with some pictures of other things that Griffiths compares the girls to. (I can't match Aric's MS paint skills, but I can dig up some photos of cool things from Wikipedia.) One picture per strophe.

S1: Brigantines (because of their billowy skirts):

S2: Pansies (because of their sweet faces):

S3: Shark's teeth (because they escape where they started out from, and end up far away):

Kites and Masks, Dean Young

This piece had a difference of the surreal quality to it, a bit of a dream-likeness happening; its highly erotic w/ shocking images in places. I was a bit concerned when I picked Young, since he has sucha strong trademark style that it might get old too fast - glad to say, hasn't happened. So he starts out again w/ a familiar theme, loss, but he just touches on it (I'm noticing he likes to revisit certain pet themes and metaphors) and then a kind of "Warming her Pearls" thing is happening, you aren't sure where he's going, but the language is getting very sexy, w/out directly addressing sex.

miniscule splits, glutter and glister, sweet
feeding, sucking out, sweet, sweet, a third-beer

By the end of the 1st S, he starts to let us in on his point, bar life, more specifically the pick up scene. A man and woman are engaged in age old flirtation tactics, she's dangling her shoe playfully off the edge of her toes, he's using the musician card, though this seems to be a more high end bar in a posh hotel, so he's "chasing sheet music, Mozart". They go to a room together. More clues that these are mucky mucks: the paper electronic hotel key, she w/ pearls, he w/ "gold scissors shaped like an ibis, its beak the blades". I have those exact same scissors, no bearing on the poem, just sayin. The most striking images come near the end, and he gives us a bit of crudity, but he handles it just right and gives us a great finale:

...The brief squalls
force everyone under awnings, together
into archways. In a window, a slow-motion
smear of desire, struck and bluish, two
strippers want rid of something glittering
between their legs. Do what you want

with their cries as the crowd turns the corner
to the cemetery and suddenly song seems
sufficient, all the flowers making sense,
each a blaze, lips in blaze, tongues on fire,
"Come closer, closer, lie down.
How do you like to be touched?"

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I'm curious if you are experiencing some technical difficulties, or maybe unaware that certain of us are. Every time I open the blog I get the same housekeeping post you posted well over a week ago as the first post. I have to scroll down to the home link to refresh the page to get the latest posts, that have actually been posted. This wasn't happening before? Things have gotten quiet in here, so if its happening to other posters, they would be thinking, no one's posted anything new in some time and maybe stop checking.


Boot Theory by Richard Siken


Siken arranges his lines in a way that makes it difficult for me to call them strophes. The lines push back and forth against the margins as though the page could never be big enough to give them enough room. It's as though he wants to remind you that the page's edges are limitations, and without them, who knows how much space his poems might take up. You can look at the poem to see the example of this, as the blog does not allow for the indenting and spacing of his format. As usual, the experience holding the actual book only enhances the experience of his formatting choices.


In this poem Siken addresses a man/men in the third person and also introduces the pronoun “you” in such a way that it seems to slip from specifying another party, to being the narrator’s address of himself in the third person, to being a direct address of the reader as “you.” I’m currently more than a little fascinated about the use of pronouns in poetry about gay relationships. There is an obvious challenge unique to poems (as opposed to prose or fiction) because character names are so often excluded in poetry, so there is not that touchstone to help the reader follow the conversation or the story line.

I plan to spend more time looking at the effective use of pronouns in poetry and I have my fingers crossed that I might even find an article written on the subject as it pertains to gay poetry. For me I have an added challenge as I write up synopses of Siken's poems, as I also have to add him into the mix. So I find myself with the poet, his narrator, and any other number of characters referred to as ‘he’ or ‘you,’ and to add one more factor, in the case of this poem, ‘a man.’ In this collection of poems the appearance of a woman is rare, and this poem begins with one.

Shoe Trope

This is a three-part story of a man (or three men, or three-phases-of-man), and how the other shoe drops. Part one appears to be a heterosexual relationship, where the woman leaves, after which the man who lives in the apartment above lets one of his boots fall to the floor. There is a significant pause waiting for the logic of the second shoe to drop. It does. (It always does, right?) In part two this boot turns into a series of boots falling to the floor above. Also in part two are two men and a pretty serious kicking incident. In part three the man goes to a bar -- this time Siken makes a point of saying that the man is “you this time” -- and after the bar, the man, well... it is you. You go to a convenience store. You get kicked out.

I'm trying to do my "reading" of poems lately in a way that I enjoy the art inside of them, the workings of the mind of their creator and how I can personally relate to that through the poem. The artfulness Siken uses in this trope is how well he integrates and even hides the cliche of the other shoe dropping while he displays in full fanfare an even bigger cliche: the proverbial one liner. Well, in this case, there is nothing proverbial about it. Siken employs the father of the one liner, Henny Youngman, and his best known offspring: "Take my wife, please."

Vaudeville Theme

I’m a big fan of vaudeville, so I had to call this out. His opening line is (once again) an easy hook for me:

A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
So you do.

Part two goes like this:

A man walks into a bar and says:
Take my wife–please.
But you take him instead.

And part three:

A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Make it a double.

A man walks into a bar, you this time, and says:
Walk a mile in my shoes.

I think this is a brilliant use of dry comedy. He dredges up this old routine, with all of its mainstream appeal, with its throwback to the era when so many gay men lived double lives. Eventually Vaudeville expanded from the cornerstone of American comedy that it will always be, bringing us relief from our own commonness. These comedians tackled all sorts of subject matter and did not shy away from our most embarrassing and awkward normalcy, the blunders of every day life and we could identify while pretending not to be laughing at ourselves through their heavy handedness and slapstick maneuvers. These guys played the clowns we knew all too well -- the ones inside of us. Television helped this expansion to happen. Milton Berle serves as a good example for my purposes here, before gay was even a word uttered in mixed company, there he was, gender bending his way right into the living rooms of middle America, as I recall it myself, watching at my grandma's house. My grandpa was not far behind, donning her wig and her robe to get the rise of hysterical laughter from me and my sisters. Berle was the first man to appear on TV in drag.

It's almost like Siken places an implied laugh track in this poem. A forced laugh. If that is indeed Siken's intent, if we are meant to assume the man in Boot Theory has a story that includes living The Lie with a wife, then I think Siken has chosen a good foundation for this subtext and he is taking this old cliche of a joke to another mother fuckin' level. Isn't he?


The poem gives a multiple perspective on this man/men. Just the other day I was saying to a friend that perhaps this sort of thing in poetry is akin to Cubism and the way that the elements of time and movement were introduced into painting. In this moment I’m thinking of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. But that is a larger conversation.

I have a few ideas about the meaning of the whole picture of Siken’s Boot Theory, but I’m going to attempt to keep my NaPo analyses a little more manageable by focusing more on structure and technique.

I will however go so far as to say that by the end Siken has sufficiently engaged me with this man -- in all of his roles and experiences -- that I end up right there with him on the riverbank in a moment of attempted surrender. The poem's focus shifts from the feet to the hands and Siken has the man "take" his sadness to a place of isolation. This man becomes humble and beautiful to me as he tries and fails, not once but twice, to let go:

A man takes his sadness down to the river and throws it in the river
but then he’s still left
with the river. A man takes his sadness and throws it away
but then he’s still left with his hands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011


I can't find it online, and if you knew what you were missing, you'd thank me for not providing the text.

This one is notable for being the worst poem in what is, overall, a very impressive collection. I suppose even amazing poets have their off days.

It's a sonnet in a sort of anglicised Italian form: an ABABCDCD octet followed by a CDCDEE sestet. The subject of the sonnet is Casanova, and his experience with with Marieanne Genevieve de Charpillon. (Thanks for the info, ramblingrose--I wouldn't have worked it out on my own.) The octet tells us what a sexy guy Casanova was:
...his tongue so silver-quick, his hands so skilled.
A gentle man who knelt at Venus' throne,
he would not leave a mistress unfulfilled.
And it worked too; "women... surrendered to his arts".

So where does the dramatic conflict come in? The sestet begins:
One night, tormented by a heartless game,
he turned to rage. He did not sink to rape...
Seriously? How is raping a teenager ever an appropriate response to any situation? Even if you decide to be a big moral hero and not rape the teenager after all, how is severely beating her a reasonable thing to do? I have so little sympathy.

Of course, good literature can take morally loathsome characters and make them appealing. (Take Mr. Rochester of Jane Eyre, also mentioned in my last post.) But it takes work: you can't just tell me things from the morally loathsome character's frame of reference and expect me to automatically sympathise. I guess it could conceivably be a commentary on what a jerk Casanova is, but I'm not finding enough signs of irony to make that reading very plausible. It just ends up as an abstract, uncompelling puddle of meh.

Thankfully, none of the other poems in the book is anywhere near this grade of awful.

Jerome and a Theory of Nails

Online here. Fewer italics in the print version, for some reason. I like the online typesetting better; Jerome's voice is more clearly demarcated from the narrator's.

Griffiths has three poems about an intriguing character called Jerome. (Since the poems are ordered alphabetically by title, these three poems are conveniently grouped together; their titles all start with the words "Jerome and a theory of...") Jerome is apparently an archeologist, fond of good food and morbid speculation. In each of the poems, Jerome and the narrator eat a different tasty thing and speculate about a different morbid topic together. All three Jerome poems are sequences of free verse quatrains.

In "Jerome and a theory of Nails", the morbid topic is crucifixion. How might one crucify Jesus most efficiently, in terms of iron and wood? It would be best to use just one nail for both hands, and one for both feet. The tasty things are radicchio heart, cloven tomatoes (nice devilish word, that "cloven"), sea salt, and Iberico ham. The conversation does not seem to spoil Jerome's appetite, or the author's.

I'm intrigued by the juxtaposition of food and pain in these three Jerome poems--something about the combination makes it difficult to look away. Jerome himself comes across as oddly sexy. When it comes to safety and sanity, I have lower standards for fictional characters than for real-life people. (Can you imagine Mr. Rochester in person? Yikes!) So it's nice to be able to imagine Jerome as a character without any practical concerns getting in the way.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Mary Oliver: "Black Oaks"

In this collection I’ve really enjoyed the nature theme so far and the changes Oliver rings on it. Often it’s very difficult to make nature poems work as they easily become cliché, but Oliver is adept enough to use a quiet, understated simplicity to great advantage in these poems. This means that the ending of most of them packs more punch because they’ve appeared straightforward on the surface, but then you go back and reassess them again and realise they aren’t simple at all. Black Oaks is a particularly good example of this sort of simple beginning building up to a strong close. It’s online at this link:

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,
or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

“Okay” at the beginning sets up a colloquial conversational tone but she keeps it unselfconscious as the poem progresses, so for me this works quite well.
I expected “not” to be “no” and at first thought it might be a typo but since its repeated in the next strophe too it’s obviously a deliberate choice. Again something small and unexpected that adds to the layers of meaning. The narrator could be referring to either the tree of the title, or people in general; either one is a reading that works at this point.

Not one can manage a single sound, though the bluejays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind

Here it becomes clearer that it is the trees of the title that are being referred to, but the subtle personification persists, carrying over from the human actions described in the first strophe.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage
of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Now the distinction between tree and personality is being clarified, though the shift back to describing the woods as having shoulders and hair suggests that for the narrator some level of connection or identification persists even though she knows the woods are not people. And ruckled--what a wonderful word :) Hence, the mundane statement “today is a day like any other” is a little jolting at first, I think intentionally so, preparing the reader for the far bigger jolt that is coming.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another—why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

This quirky personification of ambition as a rather nervous person is possibly my favourite part of the poem. We’ve been prepared for it by the personification that’s come before, which has been grounded in the link between the narrator and the woods, so for me this shift although sudden, does actually work. And again we move back to a simple statement, of what the narrator is doing in that moment, which is nothing much at all, on the surface.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,
I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

Here we have a wonderfully defiant conclusion, with the narrator claiming her right to be idle if she so chooses, because she isn’t interested in the values represented by ambition and feels she learns more from the woods. At the same time it turns conventional wisdom on its head. Traditionally, sensible people ‘know enough to come in out of the rain’. This poem leaves us wondering, who has more knowledge of what really matters? The 9 to 5 worker who never stands in the rain, or the poet who won’t come in because they want to experience that moment for what it is?

The Hive, Dean Young

This one really wowed me again. Its a page and half in the book, in three sections, separated by * * *. I would love to just share it all w/ you, and I'm not sure why not to do that, since we post whole poems on pffa all the time? Like connect the poem for instance.

But lets start w/ most of the 1st section, most of the first 2 lines are fairly mundane, a question posed of where are we going, what is this dance? familiar themes. JB (in Charon's w/ me) called them placeholder lines, they aren't hugely appealing in themselves, but they build the tension. But he doesn't wait to long to get you hooked, by the end of 2rd line he's smokin. The strong central conceit of human and lover interactions as bees in the hive, the sheer magnitude of what he's conveying: loss, and how it can already be there even as you are w/ someone, already you feel it, the heart of the poem is here:

...Of course
it's all about loss, sweet source, honey
that keeps our busted feelers, crimped
limbs, the useless protecting gestures
of our abdomens. No wind really, just
a sense of things not very well secured
like standing on a dock, the tock, tock.
We've all felt that rocking, that loose
rot, something unhappy in the trees
even in our pleased rumple, legs slung
round another, sluiced with the lovely
other at last known, tasted, naked
as a part of speech. Still there's this
going, going. This gone. A woman I love
has this haunted buzz behind her eyes.
A man I love still rides his wrecked bike.
My phone bills, the part in my hair,
my shirt with the cactuses.

In the 2nd section he mentions some of the mundane dailies of life and the people in his life, and various interactions that he remembers. My favourite parts come at the beginning, he starts w/ a familiar wistfullness I've heard in other poems:

I hate what we do to each other.
In the city you can see the people in cardboard boxes.
In the country you can see the pharmaceutical cows. >>

The encapsulation of pharma cows is magnicifent in its repugnancy. As someone who studied holistic nutrition and found out the ugly nitty gritties of what they do to our food supply, how animals are grossly mistreated an d then fed to us, he just nailed it w/ that short descriptor. This middle strophe is not as strong for me, but again, I believe its again building tension. that deft Dean Young technique of lulling us for a bit until his next wammo. There was the other bit that I could really relate to in here:

...and how we want what everyone wants:
complete devotion and to be left the hell alone.

The ending is dramatic, insightful and vivid w/ startling imagery, we've all seen that guy at the phone, its so easy to picture it.

I know I'm not fooling anyone,
when I say drop dead it means
I fall upon the roses, the traditional
roses. Often just trying to be heard
makes people think you're angry, shaking apart
like a can of screws. Of course
it's all about fear. Last night I watched
a man scream into a pay phone, scream
and whimper and deposit more coins. I've
been him, I've been on the other end
backing off from the uncradled voice
and I've even been the phone, spattered with spit,
close to the furious sea. Didn't they listen
when you told them where you were going?
One day you find yourself unstrung, your stinger
ripped out, inveigled with perfumes. You're standing
on a dock or in a busy field or dragging yourself
through the spilled sugar. Isn't anyone ever going to come?

As he so deftly brought the abstract of loss to life in S1, he brings the abstract, fear, so vividly to life w/ the phone sequence. But he's setting it up w/ the preceding lines of seeming angry trying to be heard. After all, anger is a secondary emotion according to psychology, as fear (or hurt) is usually the underlying and more honest primary emotion. Though he doesn't specifically mention hurt, he doesn't need to, its strongly implied throughout the piece in S1 w/ the concept of loss, which we all know very much hurts, and the end he really brings hurt to life: ripped out stinger, dragging oneself and then the lost and lonely question right at the end. Upon reading it aloud to a poetry fan, he just kept saying, "wow" and asked me to repeat several key lines, and why wound't he. Brilliant, poignant, affecting, I loved it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Anonymous Comments

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We now return you to your regularly scheduled poetry critique.

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": XII

I am reading Jennifer Vaughan Jones's biography of Anna Wickham alongside the poems. Quite horrified to learn that her husband committed her to a mental asylum for no reason other than the suspicion of an illicit liaison, her emotional outbursts and her stubborn desire to write poetry. In one of these outbursts, from the garden, Anna had shouted at Patrick her poem "Nervous Prostration," which begins:

I married a man of the Croydon class
When I was twenty-two,
And I vex him, and he bores me
Till we don't know what to do!
It isn't good form in the Croydon class
To say you love your wife,
So I spend my days with the tradesmen's books
And pray for the end of life...

Little wonder that Patrick was angered by Anna's poetry, an anger easily transmuted into a "concern" for Anna's sanity. Though Anna suffered much fear and many indignities in Brooke House, the asylum, she secretly carried out of it at the end of her time there 80 poems she had written. These were to form the core of the collection "The Contemplative Quarry," published by Harold Monro, of The Poetry Bookshop, who became a staunch supporter of Anna's poetry.

Jones's biography discovered an intriguing link between Monro and Brooke House. The mental asylum, a long-established and well-run concern, was one of the sources of Monro's income, and so gave him the financial independence to promote the profitless business of poetry. Jones could not determine if Monro knew of Anna when she was in Brooke House. The doctor who gave Anna paper to write her poems could have told Monro of his unusual patient, knowing Monro's interest in poetry, but nothing can be proven. What is clear is the irony that the man who owned the mental asylum also owned the press and the bookstore.

"XII The Affinity" is about Anna's marriage to Patrick, but in at least one stanza it gains additional resonance when Monro is brought into the picture. The poem begins with great bitterness:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

The compulsion in "I have to" is both external and internal, or, more accurate, external pressure changed into internal willfulness. "Ordered" is sharp choice of word, for it connotes not just "orderly" (as in the regimentation of a mental asylum) but also "being ordered around." "Very hungry" and "very lonely," two different conditions, can be read as appositives for each other, due to the missing "and." I find the stark language utterly compelling. The same language animates the rest of the poem:

It is sad for Feminism, but still clear
That man, more often than woman, is a pioneer.
If I would confide a new thought,
First to a man must it be brought.

These lines make me think of Harold Monro as well as Patrick Hepburn, her husband. Does Anna have Monro, her publisher and supporter, in mind too?

The poem goes on to argue in crystal-cut quatrains that "the true male never yet walked/ Who liked to listen when his mate talked," and so the speaker-wife has learned from "a wealth of living" that she "must be silent, if [she] would be loved."

The poem turns at this point, for it realizes that female silence is a potential source of strength: it forces her to do all her thinking "by stealth," like the early Christians who pray secretly in the catacombs. If she were allowed to speak, "the things [she] spoke/ Would fill the air a while, and clear like smoke." Forbidden to speak, she has to write down her thoughts and so she can "show them to the Town," and not just to a husband, and so she can "re-read" her own thoughts in the future. I find immensely moving the idea that writing, for this woman, is not just for a public audience, but also for her private self.

The poem ends by repeating the opening tercet, which is a line shorter than the quatrains in the poem's body, and so enacts the diminishment that the stanza describes:

I have to thank God I'm a woman,
For in these ordered days a woman only
Is free to be very hungry, very lonely.

I said "diminishment," but Anna Wickham made much of little.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Walk in Victoria's Secret - The Hatching

I found this to be a very touching poem. Again it avoids dealing with polemics directly, unlike so many of her other poems and, therefore, avoids the pitfalls of what I consider her lesser poems. While it may not achieve some of the transcendental moments of Calvin Spotswood or the title poem, still, in its desperate, poverty-stricken domestic scene it hits a chord and does so from beginning to end -

Burning in our twin scarlet fevers,
we were laid out, feet to feet,
on the worn, gold sofa, my brother and me.

The poem goes on to detail the doctor's visit (yes, this was in the time when doctors still made housecalls), the family's desperate circumstances - no food in the house, the father at a bar nursing a beer and a broken furnace and it was COLD. The doctor gives them each a shot and tucks the blanket more firmly around the children's chins and then

-for reasons I cannot
conceive, and so I call it grace-removed from his car's
dark trunk, thick platters old music encased
in paper sleeves.

And he plays for them the Nutcracker Suite. And listening, N concludes of her own body

Something had once been painted there beautifully
and with care. And it had worn away over the years,
or grown encased in a kind of shell?

And N realizes, that through the beauty of music she us able to escape the small tight space and in an orgy of exit the shell will crack open.

I think this poem is the most beautiful of her shorter poems in this collection.

The Pismire Oration

Online here, with audio!

When I read this, I was struck by the distinctive voice, which came through clearly even without audio. The reading didn't sound quite the way I pictured it the poem in my head, or quite the way I pictured Griffiths in my head (I imagined both as less fairy-like and more warrior-like). Nonetheless, I thought the reading was well delivered and fit the poem beautifully. I would totally elect the bearer of that voice as queen of my troupe of magical fairies. (I'm glad Griffiths can't hear me, or she'd probably be inspired to barf on my shoes.)

The poem is written in the voice of a queen ant, whose anthill has just been raided by birds. She explains the situation in S1, and admonishes the workers for failing to give the alarm. In S2, she encourages the surviving troops to clean up the anthill, and promises to tell them rousing tales of their formic heritage. In S3, she tells off a caterpillar! And in S4, she gives a little pep talk.

While I discerned the basic outline of the poem quickly, I had to think hard to work out the details, thanks to all the puns, portmanteaus, obscure words, and neologisms. Here's a list of puzzling words, in the order in which they appear in the poem, and my best guesses as to their meanings.
  • pismire: an archaic synonym for "ant"
  • kreck: onomatopoeia for the noise the Plumeys make
  • Plumeys: ant-eating birds
  • valley-balls: eggs. Pun on volleyballs.
  • lupes: pupae
  • liplap danglers: larvae
  • mussled: portmanteau of "mussed" and "tousled"
  • distrayed: portmanteau of "distressed" and "disarrayed", with a nice coincidental "strayed" inside it.
  • "oakmost": something like "farthest". A portmanteau of "oak" and "utmost", but there's no meaning that lives halfway between those two points.
  • larum: an archaic synonym for "alarm"
  • beware: is not technically a transitive verb, but there's poetry for you. "Warn" wouldn't have worked as well in this context.
  • mordered in our buds: murdered in our beds, obviously. "Buds" is a pun, because you're more likely to find an ant in a bud than in a bed, and this poem is filled with nature imagery. (They're actually in an anthill, not in buds, but let's not kill it with excessive literalness here, eh?) "Mord" is an Indo-European root meaning, basically, "die". We get "murder" and "mortality" from it.
  • simlings: a portmanteau of "similar" and "siblings". Other ants are not exactly genetic clones of the queen: the workers are produced by sexual reproduction with drones and reproducing females, while drones are haploid and produced from unfertilised eggs (so really, they're sort of half-queens).
  • heedance: archaic word for "listening". (I'm reluctant to say "synonym" because they're a bit too different grammatically. I think it's standard but weird English to say "gather round in heedance", but you just plain can't say "gather round in listening".) I'm not sure whether "heedance" was ever common in actual usage, or whether it's one of those fake archaisms.
  • bellish: archaic synonym for "embellish". Again, I'm not sure whether it's a real archaism or a fake one.
  • bloomheads: blossoms; this one is just a new compound word.
  • sparkish: bright like a spark. Also, sparkly. This one breathes new life into a dead metaphor.
  • cusp and susp: Cusps are pointy bits. I don't know what "susp" means, aside from "suspend" or "suspension". I suppose the ants are going to stop at the top of the anthill to listen to stories?
  • trell: I don't know what this means, if anything. Urbandictionary says "trell is a term given to the most beautiful woman", which fits, but Urbandictionary is not a reliable source. Roughly "queens and trells and hellent warfor" must be kinds of ants.
  • hellent warfor: I'm lost here too. "hellent" sounds like "hellbent" and "warfor" sounds like "warrior", which makes the hellent warfor sound like brave soldiers. "Hellent" also sounds like "Hellenic", which gives this story a classical feel. "Warfor" sounds like "warfarin", but that's used to poison rats, and I don't think it has anything to do with ants. So I'm puzzled.
  • fattyfiller: caterpillar
  • seggy bodments: body segments.
  • munge: munch. Literally, though, to munge something is to muss it up.
  • Peel off: a pun--both what you do when you leave quickly, and what you do when you remove a caterpillar from a leaf.
  • mandicate: portmanteau of "masticate" and "mandibles"
  • clingdom: portmanteau of "cling" and "kingdom"--I suppose it's our kingdom that we cling to.
  • heapsake: portmanteau of "heap" and "keepsake"--I suppose it's our heap that's a keepsake.
  • sylvan lea: woodsy meadow. But also, I think, put there to set up punning resonances with "silver sea".
  • rejuice: portmanteau of "rejoice" and "juice". (I picture them clicking drooling mandibles.)
  • avids: aphids, but literally, to be avid is to be keen.
  • fallage: portmanteau of "fallen" and "foliage".
  • mead: can mean either "honey wine" or "meadow". I think it's meant literally as the latter, but intended to resonate with the former too.
  • ground and gladly: Obviously, in broad outline, this means "good", but I'm not sure what else the words are doing. Ants like things on the ground, and not, I suppose, their enemies in the air.
  • Magog: a name that occurs in the bible numerous times, under numerous guises. (It's not entirely clear whether Magog is an individual or a group.) Pretty sure it's basically an enemy of God--and therefore, a fitting enemy for plumey things that live in the sky.
  • smart: smite. Also, sting.

Walk in Victoria's Secret - Louisiana - Late Summer

This one is short and amusing. Two strophes, simple layout. There is a we, a hot summer day, because our bodies have been claimed/by humidity,we walk around in our heads and because, of course what else is there to do on this kind of a day or because even on a hot day, things must be done, the "we" are engaged in the mundane act of painting a baseboard and notice in the back of a closet, a light mold, transported here by some/primeval wind, festers on the toe/of a suede shoe. And plans the destruction of the entire world.

Daniels, in this poem, instead of taking on the large, political topics of feminism, racism, or poverty that she addresses in her other poems, has taken on a very small subject and she does so charmingly. I very much enjoyed her "small" world view and the tongue-in-cheek look at a bit of mold, that, after all, is not so tongue-in-cheek.

Blue Iris (poem) by Mary Oliver

I’m picking the title poem in this collection although it’s not the first one. I’ve read the whole book through once to get an overview and will definitely be returning to dwell on some of these further.

All right, onto the poem, Blue Iris, online here:

This is actually one of my favourite poems in the whole collection. There is a beautiful economy of words and evocation of strong images.

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

For me, this question in the first line works as an opener because it is interrogative, but also simple and direct, communicating something that is nearly universal as an experience, the sense of dislocation that occurs when structure is removed from our lives. We often don’t know what to do with this newfound freedom, and the rest of the poem becomes an exploration of this anchored in the act of writing itself.

Can’t fly, can’t run and see how slowly I walk

Well, I think, I can read books

These lines suggest a more specific comparison between the narrator and nature, and possibly imply a gradual process of recovery from a long illness. The books provide a way of escaping from the need to be physically active. It could also be that the comparison is to a writer, and the swift moving creatures she is observing around her outside.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past

I close the book.
Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

Here we beautifully see a movement, within two lines, towards expanding the hinted at idea in the previous lines. Now it seems to be moving towards setting up a disjunction between the narrator, first buried in her book, then attempting to write, and the busy life going on all around her. Then:

“What’s that you’re doing? whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

This is still the build up to the end of the poem, reinforcing the sense of nature conspiring against concentrating on writing, before the volte face in the next lines:

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.

I love these last lines because they completely turn on its head what the reader thinks the poem is about, and I love when a poem does this well. Instead of nature getting in the way of writing, it is recast as the centre of what writing might be about, if the poet can be still enough to listen instead of focusing only on the words on the page. Beautiful stuff.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrew Hudgins - A Soldier on the Marsh

I'll be honest.  This is an exhausting book.  There are no easy poems and Hudgins likes to lull the reader in with that old Southern boy trick that sweetly begs one to underestimate him -- common sounding words and plain speak -- then he sparks the trap and I find myself shaken and searching the poem to see how he did it again.

In A Soldier on the Marsh, one of five Marsh poems that anchor the book (Child on the Marsh, Soldier on the Marsh, Husband on the Marsh, Father on the Marsh and finally Christian on the Marsh)  Hudgins imagines Lanier, the soldier on leave, returning to the marsh of his childhood.

The marsh is no longer a place of wonder and bounty; now it is a place of flames, storms, blood. It seems wholly unhappy to have Lanier back.  I think Hudgins uses the colors red and green to symbolize the battle for Lanier's soul between the marsh (green) and the war (red).

Now, even blue is the color of  blood:

          Blue as blood hidden in the body,
          storm winds tore at oak leaves, which raged
          like green birds limed to whipping limbs,

Lanier sits in the marsh while the storm hurls leaves, acorns, and tree limbs at him.  As you might expect, he strips off his clothes and begins to play the flute. 

In the third strophe, it is sunset and the entire post-storm marsh seems consumed in the color red.  Lanier, naked and pale, is touched by this flame and becomes a flame himself:  a will-o'-the-wisp.  From the red on red on red landscape of the marsh at sunset, Lanier glows hot white.

The battle crescendos as Lanier makes his way home from the marsh.  The fields are on fire; a farmer is burning off his land:

         But where a dozen fires converged
         I found a bright green tulip tree.

Lanier watches as the tulip tree's leaves catch fire like torches, then inside:

         the green wood, hot sap chortled, sang
         until the branches blew apart
         like overheated cannon. The tree
         was opening itself to fire.

I have trouble here not just quoting the entire last part.  Basically, the tree explodes into the darkness and its embers burn like a "sprawled constellation" before burning out and giving way to the true stars and a song of a bobwhite (quail) singing "its stupid, cheerful name".

What does this mean?  Pretty simply, I think that Hudgins is saying that Lanier has survived the war but that a vital part of him has died.  Life will continue; but it has been irrevocably changed.

cadaver dogs, Eating the tender thing that will not fill

Sorry I've been less than stellar about updating and participating. Our next serving of Loudon is “Eating the tender thing that will not fill”.

Remember that postmodern stutter? Let's take a look at an excerpt:

There are odd punishments afoot.
For instance, the time you ate
your brother after cooking him
in a port reduction and fatfatfat
no take-backs.

By my reading, the voice in the first line is curious and slightly dated. I'll call it fairytale-ish. In the second line the voice is controlled and explanatory. Then on the third, psychotic. The fourth line breaks down into that gibber. The fifth line completely regresses into a childishness that is playful, lacks conscience, and remains literally true (as far as there are no take-backs when you eat your brother).

I'm not saying Loudon is formulaic, not at all, but I find the general thrust of her language here to be familiar after only four poems. It's something I've been struggling to express so far.

On the whole I'm reading this poem as being about insatiability and carnal hunger. The language is primarily food (and prey) throughout, with a touch of aggressiveness, but I think my reading is very much supported at the end where the poem is written “you can hardly sleep from all the racket in your bed / and spring, yes, the spring market is near”.

Also, there's something elided. The poem is in numbered sections. 1, 2, 4, and 5.

Finally, a little journey in trying to understand the line “Mars hangs above you like a meat chime.”

First, I started by picturing Just the planet mars above you (me):

Then I associated Mars with the god of war, so now I'm picturing the idea as emblematic:

Well then I'm wondering what the hell a meat chime is. So I ask Janelo, she says she doesn't know, but pictures it as a chime (like a dinner chime) made of marbled meat. So this image is interesting. I combine it with the others:

So I'm thinking that it's a a bell made of meat, that's triggering aggression, like an astrological omen.

Well, at this point I start talking to Jake S, who you might know from the PFFA. And he tells me:

i wouldn't overanalyze
poetry is meant to be kept simple
simple and clear
i believe was wc williams dictum
i got taht from someone
5. she's food
so 1) food eating part hurts/injured
2) eating is punishment (brother?)
4) eating is war
i think this is a pro-vegetarian poem
your brother
could be like
"brother wolf"
my brother the owl
sort of native american ish

“Well,” I ask him, “what do you make of 'hardly sleep from all the racket in your bed'?”.

Jake: N is food
twine around her feet
her bed is a meat locker
sh is meat

Which I had to admit is a compelling reading. So I searched “Rebecca Loudon vegetarian” and came up with an interview and this excerpt:

Reb: You're a vegetarian yet you wrote a book called Cadaver Dogs. WTF? Are you being political? Are you judging me cause I eat steak?"

Rebecca: Do you eat puppies? I won’t judge you for eating steak but if you eat puppies, we may have to agree to disagree. People are frequently surprised and somewhat disappointed when they find that Cadaver Dogs is not a book of dead dog poems. Cadaver dogs are police dogs trained to detect human remains. On the surface, Cadaver Dogs consists of poems exploring the way animals, all animals, not just our family pets, affect our lives. If you peel away a few layers, you may or may not discover that Cadaver Dogs is a series of poems about the perils of being a child in a dangerous world. I recently told my therapist that I liked animals better than people. She said she wasn’t surprised, so I fired her. But the truth is, when I was a child, my dog never told me that I have trust issues. He just put his head on my lap and slobbered. And the cats that live with me now love every single poem I write and never judge the way I dress."

I do think Jake may be onto something with his reading. And, maybe, as he says:

Jake: yeah dude
so here's the thing
you were overanalyzing big time
for meaning

Well. It is a compelling argument. Whether or not my reading holds water, I thought you guys might find the process interesting.

Now I can sleep.

The Business of Love is Cruelty -REDUX, Dean Young

I'm going to do something a bit different and come back to this last poem, and write it up some more. Re-examining this piece in terms of craft has been quite the learning curve!! - wanna join me?? The reason being, for one of his shorter pieces, there is just so much more I'm noticing that is so effective. I focused more on content and meaning earlier, but some of his technique is so intriguing, because I didn't much understand what exactly is at work here. Some could definitively label it, but I just know it works and very well indeed. Doing this Remo type Napo is sucha blessed learning experience, in the parsing out, and in reading the feedback and gleaning further from that (I also find I've easily written some decent drafts as a direct result, bonus). So my focus now is on the lovely musicality of these sections of extended analogy of his Acting out of his vindictive Cruelty. In a different way, he is using contrast as a medium, because the section where he's describing the Act of Cruelty, he could easily have went for harsh mirroring sonics, used tonal and rhythmic disjunction to make the lines clunk; in describing an Act of ugliness, he could have mirrored uglyness. But no - he went a total nother way. It reminds me somewhat of the trademark film style of John Woo, and how he would take an unusually brutal scene,but instead of portraying it as such, he would slow it down, make it dance, literally, to music that would not be seen as appropriate to such brutality, employ artful cinematography to make the scene somehow visually beautiful in all its ugliness. (Think Reservoir Dogs, dancing to "Stuck in the Middle With You"). mother kneeling and
she's kneeling and somehow I know

exactly how to do it, calmly,
enunciating like a good actor projecting
to the last row, shocking the ones
who've come in late, cowering

out of their coats, sleet still sparking
on their collars, a voice nearly licking
their ears above the swordplay and laments:
I hate you.

Now her hands are rising to her face.
Now the fear done flashing...

Notice the prevalent use of ing ending words. I'd somewhat noticed them, on subsequent reads, but they really popped when i finally read the piece aloud. I didn't know why this was so effective in creating such a theatrical effect, but I sure noticed it did. So I looked up the various ing-words and got a brushup in the difference between gerunds and participles. And also found this very helpful blog , that encapsulated the effect thus: "can be used effectively to add a sense of movement to poetry. To do this, the writer must pre-think (and often re-think) his choices of frequency and placement." And this encapsulates it more concisely than I could, so I shall end on that note.

Anna Wickham's "The Contemplative Quarry": V

Sorry, everyone, for disappearing for days. First, saying goodbye to Singapore took up the time, and then Pride weekend in NYC. The new legislation for gay marriage was too exciting to stay indoors.

But back to Ms. Wickham. The fifth poem "Need to Rest" begins with an arresting claim:

I have no physical need of a chair

Not sure if she needs the word "physical" but it is there to contrast with the mental need she describes later in the poem. Why does she not need a chair? Because

I can double my body anywhere

Yes, witty follow-up. The body can find rest in itself, by acting upon itself, "doubling" as it were. Self-reliant, it can rest on a "stone" or the "ground," no chair necessary. But what the speaker needs is to "feed my wit/ With beauty and complexity." The emphasis here is on the feeding, and not the having. For if she thinks she already possesses "philosophy," then she were "high man without complexity." "Man" here means primarily humans, but I think by using "man" she also takes a dig against male complacency at having the answers to life. The complacent man, the "high" man, would fling himself on "any natural sod/ To scan the zenith and remember God." In other words, the "high" man would rest on his possession of wisdom. When he scans the zenith, he does not discover anything new, but merely remembers the old idea of God.

This reading about human complacency is confirmed by the next lines:

But it is needful man shall strive
With tortured matter, so to keep alive.

Life, for Wickham, resides in striving with tortured matter, and not with resting on any natural sod. It is a dynamic philosophy of will, not a static wisdom of possession. After this statement of its point--its need--the poem goes on to elaborate in six uninspired lines:

Idle man would never live to age:
He would run mad and die in rage.
When fat accumulations cloy,
War brings her sword to ravage and destroy,
That through the smoke of the consuming real
Man sees a clearer and more sure ideal.

The boldness here lies in the thought of war as a necessary destructive force to wake man to his ideal life of constant strife, but the expression of the thought is mundane and clumsy. The rhymes cripple the poetry.

Returning to the beginning of the poem, I now find it rather misleading. The central contrast in the poem is between those who rest in complacency and those who ever strive. The opening lines, however, posits a contrast between resting in a chair, and resting without a chair. I think this misdirection is caused by the common problem of discovering an arresting start for a poem, and then wandering away from it in the subsequent argument. One is naturally reluctant to delete the wonderful opening that gives rise to the poem, even if it does not lead logically into it. Wickham's editor comments that she seldom revised her poems. Her poems show the freshness of spontaneity, as well as its flaws.

Litany in Which Certain Things are Crossed Out, Richard Siken

‘Every morning the maple leaves.’

Man, I just love his opening lines. This poem is like a series of short storyboards, each with their own built in contradictions and negating alternatives (which I know you will love, featherless). Siken begins with mention of a hero who ‘shifts from one foot to the other,’ and quickly moves on to write apology notes to the host of a party (which totally sparked a poem idea for myself). Sorry I couldn't come to your party... Sorry I came ... Let the opposites party begin!

Siken then has the narrator tell a ‘better story.’ He begins a fairytale where he changes back and forth from the dragon to the princess, and then addresses himself as ‘just the writer.’ ‘I write things down. I walk through your dreams and invent the future. Sure I sink the boat of love, but that comes later. And yes, I swallow glass, but that comes later.’ He transforms back into the princess until she sees herself in the mirror, at which point he slips back into the dragon, and confesses it: “Okay, so I’m the dragon. Big deal. You still get to be the hero!’ The ‘you' being addressed is his lover, and the speaker sells him on this role:

‘You get magic gloves! A fish that talks! You get eyes like flashlights!

What more do you want?

I make you pancakes, I take you hunting, I talk to you as though you’re really there.’

Right then he shows a moment of insecurity or fear or neediness, and asks, ‘Are you there, sweetheart? Do you know me?’ Interspersed through the first half of the poem are these fleeting intimate moments of the lovers’ relationship (remember, the one that would not get boring?).

The writer as playful inventor and hero of fun and exciting relationships shows up in these next lines: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes only a clearing with deer in it. Hello deer.’ This little interlude of boyish charm is interrupted by a car crash and explosions, and then more apologies.

But things do not remain playful. Things get sad and there is a scene in a stairwell, allusions to other difficulties, and more apologies. Just to keep his equations from becoming too predictable, Siken also uses a double negative that totally turns my crank: ‘Here is the image of the lover destroyed. / Crossed out.’

Then he addresses all of the apologies by delving into a series of lines about forgiveness. I think the title’s ‘crossing out’ is all about the desire for an apology to result in forgiveness. ‘Here is the part where everyone was happy all the time and we were all forgiven, even though we didn’t deserve it.’

He invents another scene, this one not quite so dear as the deer in the clearing: ‘Inside your head you hear a phone ringing and when you open your eyes you’re washing up in a stranger’s bathroom, standing by the window in a yellow towel, only twenty minutes away from the dirtiest thing you know.’

Happiness does not appear to be a sustainable state. The second half of the poem is an accumulation of dynamics between the two lovers over time, and a fight, and then a cascade of images about the lovers reuniting, where he comes to visit the other in another city. There is a series of comparisons and an elated strain between the lovers along with observations of discrepancies between them and their pent up internal and external conflict. ‘We were inside the train car when I started to cry. You were crying too, smiling and crying in a way that made me even more hysterical. You said I could have anything I wanted, but I just couldn’t say it out loud.‘ What a beautifully impossible mind fuck of a promise, that is. (taking mental note for future reference...)

Then he gives up. He gives the pencil up and says ‘Okay fine, if you’re so great, you do it --’ and then proceeds to give instructions about how to write the story, the positioning of things, and he says build me a city, that history can be told in 70 minutes, forget the dragon, he says, as he quickly begins to collapse everything. He says ‘let’s jump ahead to the moment of epiphany,’ and then he brings in this imagery of gold and blue, ‘lakeside and backlit’ and he concludes with a back and forth between positive/negative, with a high point being ‘there were some nice parts, sure, all lemondrop and melon ball, laughing in silk pajamas and the grains of sugar on toast‘ (‘Lemondrop and melon ball’ is now an all time favorite piece of sound play for me).

At the close of the poem forgiveness is personified as ‘milling about in the yard,’ presumably where the maple tree from the opening line is sited. It always leaves. Forgiveness is invited to come in, ‘I saved a plate for you.’ There are such tender and maternal moments like that, but they are so quickly overtaken by shocks like: ‘ we clutch our bellies and roll on the floor...When I say this it should mean laughter, not poison.’ The love/death theme is entirely worthy of his conjuring up any number of Romeo and Juliet scenes.

Well, once again I love a poem once I get inside and make myself at home. I was not fond of this one on first reading (dragons and princesses are not a big draw for me), but I’m a fan now. One thing I am noticing, though. There is no place to rest in these poems.