Gjertrud Schnackenberg: Two Readings

Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions, a masterpiece from an exceptional poet, has received rave reviews. But there is, as far as I could find, only one video if her reading an excerpt from it, which is on the Website of the Griffin Prize, which the book won. I’m including it here, even though it has an introduction to the author prefacing her reading. You can see she becomes quite emotional during the reading, even though what she speaks about is not apparently personal, showing how deeply emblematic this poem really is, and how its imagery is grounded in something human and heartfelt, yet expressed in the grandest and seemingly philosophical imagery. The whole poem is an overwhelming experience, but I do wish she would record more excerpts from it, such as “Sublimaze,” which Harper’s magazine published just before the book came out. Also, you might check out this interesting review of the book and the reviewer’s take on Schnackenberg and her significance as a poet.

Surprise! My Poem “Gently Still Finding You Between” on ASPD!!

Just now I discovered that Autumn Sky Poetry Daily has published my poem, “Gently Still Finding You Between,” which I wrote in memory of my sister several years ago. (It seems like barely yesterday!) Thank you thank you, Christine Klocek-Lim!!

Naomi Shihab Nye: “Kindness”

Without her having the slightest idea, Naomi Shihab Nye changed my life. After years away from poetry, I read a few of her poems and decided to break the silence. Then a couple years after that, my sister died, and the floodgates opened. But Naomi Shihab Nye was the seed, the spark, the one I felt made it a possibility, even an imperative, to devote my time to poetry. Here is a particularly fine poem in a field of fine poems, getting to the heart of things, which is what she does best.


Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things, feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the
Indian in a white poncho lies dead
by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night
with plans and the simple breath
that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness
as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow
as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness
that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day
to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

Review: Maryann Corbett’s “Mid Evil”


Maryann Corbett, a poet about whom the word “virtuoso” comes to mind, has succeeded in creating in her new book Mid Evil, a collection of poems so cohesive and penetrating that even the cover seems to be part of the overall poem-world within. Both gorgeous and sinister, its darks and lights beckon us deeper to where that dimly seen image in the mirror flashes into focus for tantalizing moments.

And so we open her book, which includes translations of actual medieval poems – Corbett’s renderings of Old English, French, and Latin poems from the era, in which she is well-versed, are strikingly contemporary and real – as well as her own.

From the title piece, we learn the origin of the title, a student in her Medieval Literature class:

And the last blow is this:
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.

She allows herself to gain insight from “you who are always painfully there…as if to aim it right between my eyes: your boredom/ with low-tech words in a language you don’t speak.” Similarly, Corbett finds some deeper, universal thread in the everyday, as in “Insubstantial Pageant.”

Kitchen curtains part: a stage-set morning.
Hung with a fog scrim
spun from the ground’s heavy breathing,
the world gone Grimm:

Hidden, the rude devices
(clotheslines, trash bins, garden tools)
that label life an interlude of prop arrangers.

Foregrounded, all that glitters.
Autumn and watery air refract the light before us:
maples in court costume, their mill and murmur
an opera chorus——

Unsolid. Such is matter.
The light-play deliquesces in a blink.
Yet even the dishwasher
frothing now behind us in the sink

has curlicued these vapors
in foggy likeness, threading light-diffusions,
the plainest facts conspiring to be shapers
of glorious illusions.

Note the threading of today with history, the skillful use of rhyme to take this ordinary scene to another level. Just like her “plainest facts.”

And this shows to me Corbett’s more profound understanding of things medieval. One of my most influential college classes was Medieval History, in which our professor insisted we learn from original sources and spurn historians’ stereotype-ridden rewrites. The take-away for me was a discovery of the Middle Ages as a world where the “plainest facts” were imbued with meaning, where personal relationships were treasured over objects, things. How in the light of a higher vision, without artifice, one can find “the rude devices” mere props in the greater “illusion,” in which one fervently believes, about which one deeply cares. This worldview seems to infuse this book, and reading it has an almost religious feel.

Which is no accident. Religion plays a part in Corbett’s work, but on a more universal level. From “On Singing the Exultet,” which takes place in an actual religious ceremony, to “As Little Children,” where the narrator, in response to a birthday party for children, observes:

…I’ve come to feel
how all my feasts are haunted——
some holy, wounded memory
hanging above the meal.

There is also humor, as in “Foundation Myth,” about what girls and women do for the “myth” of their appearance:

Eyebrows thinned beyond the pale
and eyelash stubs now need the sort of wands
mascara conjures. Lips no longer full
call up the powers, and the hand responds…

And yet even here there’s a touch of the medieval: mascara wands,” or even calling up the powers. And the ending is even more fairy-tale-gone-wrong medieval. But you’ll have to get the book. 🙂

Oh yes, there’s darkness in the “Dark Ages.” But there is also light. And the same could be said of our world right now. Or, as in one of several poems that brought tears to my eyes, “The Historian Considers the End Time,” even after “the fact of body felt less like God’s gift, and more like a thoughtless insult,” her narrator asserts:

The fathers set it in stone, the world is good,
and the body’s way of knowing it is all we have
in the end.

And of course there’s more, but again. This didn’t win the Richard Wilbur prize for a few choice insights. This book won because people who love to read found that the reader who gets between these pages will be totally rocked.

Wislawa Szymborska: “Map”

What would a Poetry Month be without the immortal Wislawa Szymborska? This is just one poem.
Maybe I should post 4 or 5 poems, just for good measure. It is her vision that proves it’s the vision that makes the poem. The skill is in allowing the poem to create that vision as a vision inside the reader’s mind and heart, the heart being a word or place wherein resides one’s essence. The poem is simply a map for that vision.


Flat as the table
it’s placed on.
Nothing moves beneath it
and it seeks no outlet.
Above—my human breath
creates no stirring air
and leaves its total surface

Its plains, valleys are always green,
uplands, mountains are yellow and brown,
while seas, oceans remain a kindly blue
beside the tattered shores.

Everything here is small, near, accessible.
I can press volcanoes with my fingertip,
stroke the poles without thick mittens,
I can with a single glance
encompass every desert
with the river lying just beside it.

A few trees stand for ancient forests,
you couldn’t lose your way among them.

In the east and west,
above and below the equator—
quiet like pins dropping,
and in every black pinprick
people keep on living.
Mass graves and sudden ruins
are out of the picture.

Nations’ borders are barely visible
as if they wavered—to be or not.

I like maps, because they lie.
Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good-naturedly
they spread before me a world
not of this world.

translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh
Map: Collected and Last Poems
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Stephen Kampa: One-of-a-Kind Poetry

Whenever I would encounter a poem by Stephen Kampa, it always stood out in the crowd: always a surprising take on things, a mastery of form, a way of drawing you in. Humor mixed with subtle pain. Here is a poem I especially like, for how it shows the author’s vulnerability (often this is a feature of his work) and at the same time deft and confident voice, always with the unexpected without being incomprehensible.

During the Hymn of Commitment

Stephen Kampa

Probably all the choirgirls should be ugly,
But this one isn’t, and it makes it hard
To concentrate. She’s not my type—too thin
Beneath her choir robe, freckled, hair too short—
But then again, she sings. This morning’s anthem
Was Dies Irae, which I love and hate.
The Latin thuds along like pickaxe blows,
Unearthing everything I’d like to hold
More closely than—or maybe just against—
The nervous God of if-thine-eye-offend-thee,
Of narrow gates and sheep and goats, God pure
And definite. The singers’ voices blend
Terror and triumph at the coming judgment,
And I could take or leave it; what I love
Is the huge minor chord that kicks it off,
As beautiful as thunder if only thunder
Could enter you and rumble through your blood.

The sermon text this morning came from Luke:
“He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
It should inspire me, but it makes me think
Of Tennyson’s most terrifying line:
‘Farewell! We lose ourselves in light.’ Imagine
A prism working backward, taking all
Those gorgeous, separate beams—the sweet, bold red
Of some girl’s dream bike, greens in the exact
Shades of a high school diary she lost,
The liquor-bottle blue of her favorite dress—
And crushing them together, muddling them
Until they have become the blank white light
In textbook photographs, and the result is
Tennyson’s dreaded general soul. I’m good
At fear, but that’s just masterful: to be
Afraid of darkness is a simple thing,
But to discover fearfulness in light?
A line like that one proves that if you choose
To look more carefully at what you love,
You’ll always find a little more to lose.
I’ve wondered if the obverse would obtain—
Something about observing what you hate
Until you find how much there is to gain.

I’d say that God must look at us both ways
Except I don’t believe that; only love
Could possibly explain such depths of anger,
The way that I am angry when I think
Of having to abandon certain things.
There’s nothing that I wouldn’t want to keep.
Walking one afternoon, I saw three crows
Perched on a barbecue grill like three sleek gargoyles,
Sifting through ash to feed on what was left
Of the charred chunks of meat that someone let
Drop through the grate. Devotion, of a kind.

Last night while reading, I discovered Greek
Has one more word for “love” than I had thought:
Storg?: instinctive love. It made me wonder
What other words we’re missing, whether some
Endangered language has a word that means,
“To love someone for who she’s going to be,”
Or one that means, “to love a stranger more
Than someone you have known your entire life,”
Or one that means, “to love until you’re damned.”
The one I really want would name this instant,
When everyone is singing—loudly, badly—
One of my favorite hymns, “Just As I Am,”
And I am thinking exactly what I thought
During the anthem: she is beautiful,
And I believe I somehow hear above
The myriad, blending voices just her voice.

Yale Review, 2011

“If Death Were a Woman,” Ellen Kort: Update: Remembering a Fine Poet

UPDATE: The wonderful Ellen Kort has passed last Tuesday, sadly. Our condolences to all her family, friends, and fans. And “fans” includes me. I will post more of her work in the future.

Every day it seems I discover a new, amazing poet — one of the perks of National Poetry Month. Ellen Kort is all that and more, a unique and beautiful voice that I find gives meaning to the word “enriching,” as if I’d found a treasure with properties of magic. This seems to be one of her most-loved poems, with good reason.

If Death Were a Woman

I’d want her to come for me
smelling of cinnamon wearing
bright cotton purple maybe hot
pink a red bandana in her hair
She’d bring good coffee papaya juice
bouquet of sea grass saltine crackers
and a lottery ticket We’d dip
our fingers into moist pouches
of lady’s slippers crouch down to see
how cabbages feel when wind bumps
against them in the garden
We’d walk through Martin’s woods
find the old house its crumbling
foundation strung with honeysuckle
and in the front yard a surprise
jonquils turning the air yellow
glistening and ripe still blooming
for a gardener long gone We’d head
for the beach wearing strings of shells
around our left ankles laugh
at their ticking sounds the measured
beat that comes with dancing
on hard-packed sand the applause
of ocean and gulls She’d play
ocarina songs to a moon almost full
and I’d sing off-key We’d glide
and swoop become confetti of leaf fall
all wings floating on small whirlwinds
never once dreading the heart
silenced drop And when it was time
she would not bathe me Instead
we’d scrub the porch pour leftover
water on flowers stand a long time
in sun and silence then holding hands
we’d pose for pictures in the last light

from If Death Were a Woman (1994)
Ellen Kort

Alan Shapiro, “Low Tide”

So you thought you had a small footprint…

Low Tide

On the mud flats
where I’m walking
each step pushes the wet
out from beneath it
to a dry halo

of a heel and toe
which as I lift it
dampens to
a trail of pools
behind me as I walk—

I make them all
along the flats and
when I circle back
they flash like lakes
seen from a plane

my body could be
the shadow of, inching
across the continent
down below, inside
of which invisibly

between the sand grains
in the infinitesimal
capillary spaces
closing and opening
under my steps are

creatures too small
to see or name
for whom each grain’s
another land mass,
a different continent,

which makes the water
rushing in as my foot lifts
another ocean rushing out
as my foot falls,
so that wherever I go

quakes and floods,
subductions and extinctions
on a scale too
miniscule to register
go with me—over

the mudflats happy
and thoughtless like
a leper without his bell,
wandering the world
meaning no harm.

The Hopkins Review
Fall 2014

A. E. Stallings – “A Postcard from Greece”

The inimitable A. E. Stallings’ poem takes us on a trip to a cliffhanger. Nice postcard!

A Postcard from Greece

Hatched from sleep, as we slipped out of orbit
Round a clothespin curve new-watered with the rain,
I saw the sea, the sky, as bright as pain,
That outer space through which we were to plummet.
No guardrails hemmed the road, no way to stop it,
The only warning, here and there, a shrine:
Some tended still, some antique and forgotten,
Empty of oil, but all were consecrated
To those who lost their wild race with the road
And sliced the tedious sea once, like a knife.
Somehow we struck an olive tree instead.
Our car stopped on the cliff’s brow. Suddenly safe,
We clung together, shade to pagan shade,
Surprised by sunlight, air, this afterlife.

Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry
Volume VIII, Issue 1 2013

Tony Hoagland: “Dreamheart”

Nice take on an old theme:


They took the old heart out of your chest
all blue and spoiled like a sick grapefruit

the way you removed your first wife from your life,
and put a strong young blonde one in her place.

What happened to the old heart is unrecorded
but the wife comes back sometimes in your dreams,

vengeful and berating, with a hairdo orange as flame,
like a mother who has forgotten that she loved you

more than anything. How impossible it is to tell
bravery from selfishness down here,

a leap of faith from a doomed attempt at flight.
What happened to the old heart is the scary part:

thrown into the trash, and never seen again,
but it persists. Now it’s like a ghost,

with its bloated purple face,
moving through a world of ghosts,

that’s all of us;
dreaming we’re alive, that we’re in love.

Tin House