Friday, June 17, 2011

A Walk in Victoria's Secret - Homage to Calvin Spotswood

I have decided to indulge myself and meander my way through this book, picking and choosing whatever strikes my fancy. So, in no particular order, this next poem. Actually, I encountered this particular poem a few years ago, in, I believe a Best of American Poetry Series and it captured my attention in quite an arresting way. It is another long poem, in long lines.

The narrator is a young woman who takes a job as a nurse's aid on an oncology ward. Calvin is a difficult patient - a black man pre Civil Rights. He has colon cancer. He is still hungry, in the literal and metaphorical. He has two huge wives, one black, one white who guard his room. They are loud and gaudy. N is scrawny, timid and raw. Calvin does not intend to bow to the white man nor does he intend to go gentle into that good night. On the other hand, he has his delicacies. He says f---ing.

Some excerpts:

Like Lucifer, Calvin was a troublingly complex/antihero-a horrible person in many ways, stubbornly stupid,/had abused his nurses and cursed the doctors, refusing/the surgery that might have prolonged-or saved-his life./He wouldn't be unmanned, he said, shitting in a bag. No f---ing way.


still whined for pussy, porno mags,/and chicken fried in bacon grease. A third-year resident,/Harvard, M.D., wrote an order for the supper Calvin thought/ he craved
: mashed potatoes and buttered bread, a chicken-battered/ deep-fried steak. Beaming, our man consumed it while his doctor lingered /outside his door to await the inevitable result of the natural process/

and then there's this

Night after night, wrist deep in the tepid water I bathed him with,/I stood at the bedside and tried to change him from hot to cool/and listened to him discourse maniacally on the mysteries of gender:/born again, he'd be a woman in slick red panties, a streetwalking/whore in high-heeled sandals and torn, black hose, opening his legs/for paper money, filling his purse with bucks to spend./How anyone was granted a life like that he could never comprehend.

and especially this

At the end, cupping his withered, hairless testicles/in my cool, white palm because he asked me to, it wasn't anything/like witnessing a death. More like the birth of a new world, really,/he was entering alone.

And that isn't the end. Daniel's treads in all the uncomfortable places. I can't say that all of her poems were well done and I will get to some of those, later, but when she nails a poem, she nails them well and truly and these first two are prime examples.


  1. Wow, that is one raw, raunchy and very honest - and shocking, yes, shocking - story. Very well written, very affecting, but I have to admit, I don't get prose poetry. I can't see beyond the prose w/ linebreaks. I can't see the difference, can you see the difference? There could be a Voyage of Discovery in this.

  2. I know I initially referred to her work as prose poetry. That's because I just got a Kindle and I am reading this book on my Kindle, which kind of screws with the formatting. Strictly speaking, she only has one true prose poem in the book. The two poems I have discussed, so far, are really narrative poetry, with long lines.

    I think Voyages would be an excellent place to discuss prose poetry. Or the differences between narrative, prose poetry and very short fiction. I am no expert, but my understanding is that the features of prose poetry are there are 1) no LBs, the formatting is the same as it is with prose. 2) otherwise the language or "music" is the same as it is with free verse poetry. 3) often prose poetry concerns itself with a single "thing," such as a brief incident, single point in time or single character focus, which to my mind makes it indistinguishable from very short fiction.

    And of course, narrative poetry IS a story and has all the elements of poetry, including LBs.

    And, of course, any poet who uses long lines in their poetry needs to be skillful so it doesn't simply LOOK like prose with LBs. CK Williams is one of the foremost masters of this. Personally, I think, generally Daniels does it well, also, and in a similar way. Both she and Williams adopt a conversational tone in their writing and that tone belies the considerable skill that underlies their writing.

  3. Yes, I definitely feel a Voyage coming on. I'm going to sound like a dolt (only been workshopping/studying craft 8 yrs, sheesh, but I don't think I've heard of narrative poetry, unless I forgot that I did, hmm. I've always seen it called prose poetry. Even had a little behind the scenes disco w/ Jee about is, as he's done them quite well. And I going to (maybe someday actually will, but you know how you plan, and then dont' and don't plan and thats when it just splats all over the page, sometimes marvelously) attempt one myself. I even went searching the Blurbs today since reading the Calvin poem and could only find one query about prose w/ linebreaks? so maybe we are past due.

  4. I've only been at this for three years, but did Charon's two years ago with Scavella when she made the comment that I wrote lyric poetry, whereas she tends to write narrative poetry with her Lily poems. So, of course, not having a clue what one vs. the other was and not wanting to look like a complete idiot (which I most assuredly was), I looked it up. I still don't fully understand what lyrical poetry is, except to the best of my recollection, it is usually short and expresses the thoughts and feelings of the poet. In other words, it is expressive. On the other hand, narrative poetry tells a story. Like a ballad does in both poetry and music. I still don't have a great grasp of what makes a good prose poem versus very short fiction. The line seems blurred to me. I have read a few really great prose poems but if they had been presented as very short fiction, I could have gone with that, too. There is a at least one magazine - Ninth Letter, that is interested in art that blurs the boundaries.