Monthly Archives: April 2018

Karen An-Hwei Lee: Poet of the Intelligent Soul

Finding a balanced approach to matters of the soul, or spirituality, is no easy task, but one of vital importance for poets so inclined, and certainly Karen An-Hwei Lee is such a poet. Cole Swensen referred to Lee’s collection In Media Res as her “dictionary of faith,” noting

It slowly pieces together the life of a woman moving toward God, a god that accrues, just as language does, by adding bits meaningful in themselves into ever larger, though unprecedented, structures.

And she describes Lee’s language as “always a bit out of place, in the way that a grand piano would be out of place in parking lot—it’s a sheer delight, and it enriches everything for miles around.“

So we’ll let the poems speak for themselves.

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy

In prayer:
quiet opening,
my artery is a thin
shadow on paper—
margin of long grass,
ruderal hair, sister to this
not yet part of our bodies
your lyric corpus of seed
in rough drafts of pine ash,
chaogao or grass calligraphy
in rough drafts of pine ash—
your lyric corpus of seed
not yet part of our bodies:
ruderal hair, sister to this
margin of long grass,
shadow on paper,
my artery is a thin
quiet opening
in prayer.

The poem above reminded me of when I wanted to learn calligraphy — inkbrush calligraphy no less — and took two years of Chinese in college, bought special brushes and read all about it, in the search of something like the moment, the ideal of a t’ai chi of meditation so powerful and encapsulating that I could memorize a mountain or a flower and encrypt their images on paper in a few fluid strokes. Or write Chinese characters of ineffable beauty. She sums what was behind this desire with “your lyric corpus of seed/ not yet part of our bodies…”

And this prayer, one of many she’s penned:

Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine

Every half century, the synchronous flowering of bamboo causes famine in parts of India.

May we blossom every fifty years
without afflicting the people.

May our seedpods nourish rodents
who roam our groves

without rebuking lands with famine.
May sweet potatoes and rice save us.

May ginger and turmeric flourish
to the bitter distaste of rats

while tresses of bamboo flowers
changeling white wasps

load the groves with seed
in rare perennial synchrony.

May our sisters flower en masse
hundreds of square miles apart

in the pale night. May our shoots
pray a silent vision of healing,

our rhizome-laden memories:
Yes, we share our hunger

only once on this earth, my love.
Let us bless our fruit and multiply.

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My Review of Ladin’s Fireworks in the Graveyard at The Rumpus!

The Rumpus has published my review of Joy Ladin’s transformative poetry collection Fireworks in the Graveyard” today here. Joy Ladin is quite an amazing person herself, and enlightened me, in the process of reading her work and about her struggles, about the deep connection between transexuality and religious faith. The review explores this and so much more. Please check it out!

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My Ghazal “Delivery” Up Today at SWWIM Every Day!

My ghazal “Delivery” is up today at the SWWIM Every Day site!!! Please check it out.

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Remembering J.D. McClatchy: 1945-2018

J.D. McClatchy is a name I kept running into everywhere but which had not been attached to any particular poetry. As if he was more of an essayist or critic. I should have thought “librettist,” a title which he earned over and over again with his many well-received libretti. But in fact he was first and foremost a poet, and a masterful one at that, particularly with form. This article describes him as a “thrilling, passionate” teacher who made his students focus first on form, which gave at least the writer of that article the understanding of the effective power of restraint (form). Quoting him from an interview in The Paris Review, the article gives us his take on the value of form:

“It’s like adoring the open sea, the clash of elemental forces, the overpowering scale of water and sky, the sleek majesty of sloops, the billow of sail and pull of line—and wanting to study and pay homage to it all by building a model of a favorite boat—and then deciding to do it inside a bottle,” he said.

Exactly. I love this guy.

More on his life and work can be found here. As longtime Editor of the Yale Review, and recipient of many awards and grants, he certainly made his mark in the art of poetry. His subject matter penetrates beneath his poetry’s polished exterior. Here are a couple gems:

Mercury Dressing

To steal a glance and, anxious, see
Him slipping into transparency—
The feathered helmet already in place,
Its shadow fallen across his face
(His hooded sex its counterpart)—
Unsteadies the routines of the heart.
If I reach out and touch his wing,
What harm, what help might he then bring?

But suddenly he disappears,
As so much else has down the years…
Until I feel him deep inside
The emptiness, preoccupied.
His nerve electrifies the air.
His message is his being there.

——————————-

Resignation

I like trees because they seem more resigned
to the way they have to live than other things do.
—Willa Cather

Here the oak and silver-breasted birches
Stand in their sweet familiarity
While underground, as in a black mirror,
They have concealed their tangled grievances,
Identical to the branching calm above
But there ensnared, each with the others’ hold
On what gives life to which is brutal enough.
Still, in the air, none tries to keep company
Or change its fortune. They seem to lean
On the light, unconcerned with what the world
Makes of their decencies, and will not show
A jealous purchase on their length of days.
To never having been loved as they wanted
Or deserved, to anyone’s sudden infatuation
Gouged into their sides, to all they are forced
To shelter and to hide, they have resigned themselves.

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Jane Hirshfield: Incomparable, Uplifting


Jane Hirshfield, whose work often addresses the spiritual side of poetry, brings that transcendent theme to us in beautifully wrought epiphanies, never in-your-face, yet never clouded with their ambiguity. Undoubtedly it is her attitude that gives her poetry that fine edge, as indicated in this quote from her Poetry Foundation’s author description:

Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”

This was exactly my feeling long ago when I began writing poetry; I wanted to write and loved writing poetry, but felt I didn’t have the life experience behind me to give my words what I thought of as poetry’s most essential quality: wisdom and that delicate balance between the expressed and the inexpressible. This is what I unfailingly find in Hirshfield’s work. In pursuit of “what it means to live,” she studied at San Francisco Zen center and received a lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979. This gave her, one might say, mindfulness training, and a way of looking at what it means to be alive, but she never liked it to define her, expressed in various interviews, such as this quote:

“I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.”

Of course; a poet with a true voice is not confined by their courses of study or even their experiences. And in addition to writing poetry, Hirshfield brought to the attention of the poetry world many overlooked women poets, including traditional Japanese women poets. So without further ado I shall let two of my favorites of hers speak for themselves.

Heat

My mare, when she was in heat,
would travel the fenceline for hours,
wearing the impatience
in her feet into the ground.

Not a stallion for miles, I’d assure her,
give it up.

She’d widen her nostrils,
sieve the wind for news, be moving again,
her underbelly darkening with sweat,
then stop at the gate a moment, wait
to see what I might do.
Oh, I knew
how it was for her, easily
recognized myself in that wide lust:
came to stand in the pasture
just to see it played.
Offered a hand, a bucket of grain—
a minute’s distraction from passion
the most I gave.

Then she’d return to what burned her:
the fence, the fence,
so hoping I might see, might let her free.
I’d envy her then,
to be so restlessly sure
of heat, and need, and what it takes
to feed the wanting that we are—

only a gap to open
the width of a mare,
the rest would take care of itself.
Surely, surely I knew that,
who had the power of bucket
and bridle—
she would beseech me, sidle up,
be gone, as life is short.
But desire, desire is long.

And this one, very different but the same voice.

For What Binds Us

By Jane Hirshfield

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

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Remembering Richard Wilbur 1921-2017

The great poet, former Poet Laureate, and Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Wilbur died last October 2017, and so we remember him, noting that the world is enriched by his legacy. Known for his formal style and mastery of the craft, as well as his treatment of powerful and enduring subject matter, he was not so much a proponent of formal poetry over free verse as some imagined, but rather he displayed in his poetry the power that working in formal techniques can bring to wide-ranging observations on the modern world. An excellent assessment of his work and some commentary on its varied reception in the “poetry world” is here. That article gives us this beautiful assessment:

“All of his great poems, in fact, are about living in ambiguity, about negotiating what might appear to be mutually exclusive alternatives—heaven and earth, elegance and violence, the thinking mind and the brute fact of the world.”

Could this not be a hallmark of all great poetry??

So on to some of his work. Wilbur has written so many truly strong poems, but this is one that never fails to get to me.

For C.

BY Richard Wilbur

After the clash of elevator gates
And the long sinking, she emerges where,
A slight thing in the morning’s crosstown glare,
She looks up toward the window where he waits,
Then in a fleeting taxi joins the rest
Of the huge traffic bound forever west.

On such grand scale do lovers say good-bye—
Even this other pair whose high romance
Had only the duration of a dance,
And who, now taking leave with stricken eye,
See each in each a whole new life forgone.
For them, above the darkling clubhouse lawn,

Bright Perseids flash and crumble; while for these
Who part now on the dock, weighed down by grief
And baggage, yet with something like relief,
It takes three thousand miles of knitting seas
To cancel out their crossing, and unmake
The amorous rough and tumble of their wake.

We are denied, my love, their fine tristesse
And bittersweet regrets, and cannot share
The frequent vistas of their large despair,
Where love and all are swept to nothingness;
Still, there’s a certain scope in that long love
Which constant spirits are the keepers of,

And which, though taken to be tame and staid,
Is a wild sostenuto of the heart,
A passion joined to courtesy and art
Which has the quality of something made,
Like a good fiddle, like the rose’s scent,
Like a rose window or the firmament.

-@-@-@-@-@-@-@-@-@-@-

We all know “Love Calls Us to theThings of This World,” perhaps his most famous and well-read poem. This too is right up at the top.

Boy at a Window

Seeing the snowman standing all alone
In dusk and cold is more than he can bear.
The small boy weeps to hear the wind prepare
A night of gnashings and enormous moan.
His tearful sight can hardly reach to where
The pale-faced figure with bitumen eyes
Returns him such a God-forsaken stare
As outcast Adam gave to paradise.

The man of snow is, nonetheless, content,
Having no wish to go inside and die.
Still, he is moved to see the youngster cry.
Though frozen water is his element,
He melts enough to drop from one soft eye
A trickle of the purest rain, a tear
For the child at the bright pane surrounded by
Such warmth, such light, such love, and so much fear.

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New Poem in Petrichor, a Spiffy New E-Zine

The late great poetry venue Jazz Cigarette quit nicotine and transformed into a brand new e-zine, Petrichor, where my poem “Pharma Aesthetica” has been published. It’s a found poem, and a formal poem, composed largely of excerpts from hair care products, and employs rhyme and meter. There are some wonderful poems there and it’s well worth your time to pay a visit.

In fact, I had forgotten about the new name, but happened to read about Petrichor accepting submissions, so checked the site to see if it seemed like a good place to send work and, there to my surprise, my poem. Ah yes…now I remember… And a happy surprise it was too. I enjoyed writing that particular piece very much. So, happy reading. May a light rain and a gentle breeze come your way, along subtle humor and surprising ways of looking at things such as you’ll find in this poetry and visual arts venue.

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My Sonnet Up on Autumn Sky!!

Thrilled to find my sonnet “The Buoy” is up on Autumn Sky Poetry Daily today here. Please check it out!

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Sharon Olds: Body and Soul


Rediscovering Sharon Olds is something akin to being born, bursting from where I was a second ago into somewhere else entirely, without even a warning pulse of labor to ease me into it. I’d read her poetry before. Is it me? Was it her? Why didn’t I get this reaction before? I go back and read some older poems of hers. Same thing, maybe stronger even. Ok maybe try something brand new. Oops, that was the one, “How It Felt,” that started it all. Of course, she is an Established Poet, has all the accolades and honors including a Pulitzer Prize for her next-to-most-recent collection Stag’s Leap. Even so, Olds has been castigated for her treatment of “inappropriate” subject matter, mainly sex. But what I’ve read lately is quite powerful, especially some of her work regarding childhood. So here are a couple of her poems, starting with one on an “inappropriate” subject, beautifully appropriated.

After Making Love in Winter

By Sharon Olds

At first I cannot have even a sheet on me,
anything at all is painful, a plate of
iron laid down on my nerves, I lie there in the
air as if flying rapidly without moving, and
slowly I cool off—hot,
warm, cool, cold, icy, till the
skin all over my body is ice
except at those points our bodies touch like
blooms of fire. Around the door
loose in its frame, and around the transom, the
light from the hall burns in straight lines and
casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a
figure throwing up its arms for joy.
In the mirror, the angles of the room are calm, it is the
hour when you can see that the angle itself is blessed,
and the dark globes of the chandelier,
suspended in the mirror, are motionless—I can
feel my ovaries deep in my body, I
gaze at the silvery bulbs, maybe I am
looking at my ovaries, it is
clear everything I look at is real
and good. We have come to the end of questions,
you run your palm, warm, large,
dry, back along my face over and
over, over and over, like God
putting the finishing touches on, before
sending me down to be born.

———————-

Another poem below about her difficult childhood, showing me it’s important to read a wide selection of poetry to get a sense of the poet’s own sense of purpose.

The Day They Tied Me Up

None of the pain was sharp. The sash was
soft, its cotton blunt, it held my
wrist to the back of the chair
as if it were healing me. And the fierce
glazed-string weave of the chair-seat
printed me in deep pink, but I was
used to that, I loved the way matter could mark us,
and its marks dissolve. That day, no one touched me,
it was a formal day, the nerves lay easy
in their planched grooves. The hunger grew but
quietly, edgeless, a suckling in my stomach
doubling, it was a calm day, unfolding to its
laws. Only the pleasure was
sharp —- the tilt of the black bottle
over their bed, the way the ink
lowered itself into the spread, I could
feel its dark genie shape
leave my chest, pouring forth, and it was
India ink, the kind that does not come out,
I sat attached to the chair like Daphne
halfway out of the wood, and I read that blot.
I read it all day, like a Nancy Drew
I was in——they had said You won’t be fed till you
say you’re sorry
. I was strangely happy, I would
never say I was sorry, I had
left that life behind. So it didn’t surprise me when she
came in slowly, holding the bowl that
held what swayed and steamed, she sat and
spoon-fed me, in silence, hot,
alphabet soup. Sharp pleasure of my
wing-tip hands hung down behind me
slack as I ate, sharp pleasure of the
little school of edible letters flowing
in over my taste buds. B,
O, F, K, G, I
mashed the crescent moon of the C,
caressed the E, reading with my tongue that
softened Braille——and she was almost kneeling to me, and I wasn’t sorry.
She was feeding the one
who wasn’t sorry, the way you lay food at the
foot of an image. I sat there, tied,
taking in her offering and
wildly reading as I ate, S S F
T, L W B B P Q
B, she dipped into my mouth the mild
discordant fuel——she wanted me to thrive, and decipher.

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Faisal Mohyuddin: The “Gentle Ferocity” of His Must-Read Voice

If you haven’t read or discovered Faisal Mohyuddin, then this may be the moment to wake up to the unforgettable, even transformative experience of his poetry. Also an accomplished and unique visual artist, as well as a recognized innovator in the teaching profession, Mohyuddin’s poetry is not to be missed. His newest collection, The Displaced Children of Displaced Children, won the 2017 Sexton Prize in poetry judged by Kimiko Hahn. A “proud American Muslim” whose voice enlightens a path to multi-cultural coexistence and compassion, one cannot really categorize his work in the usual sense, because its boundaries are made dynamic by their heartfelt human core. Just a sample of his work below. (More on his website.)

Migration Narrative

What wilts becomes
the world for the weary.
They can’t help but

wonder at the lovely
shadow touch of another
war’s rubbled song.

If crossing freely into fire
can churn the blood’s
hollow music, then

surely the orphan can
ask at dusk for water
and get more than spit.

—————————-

The following poem, published in The Missouri Review, is one of the most amazing poetic expressions of faith, fatherhood, love, and defining sacredness, I’ve seen.

The Opening

It is You we worship; it is You we ask for help. Guide us
to the straight path: the path of those You have blessed,
those who incur no anger and who have not gone astray. —The Holy Quran, “Al-Fatiha,” verses 5-7

THE CHILD: Tell me, Father,
what new turbulence took hold
in your blood on the day of my birth,
and did your stomach sink
each time I cried out for the basket
of your arms?

THE FATHER: I held you too close
to feel anything but the wild
gallop of your tiny heart.

THE CHILD: Did you recite
the call to prayer in my ear, slip
your pinky, dipped in honey, in my mouth
to mark with song and sweetness
my entry into the ummah
of the Prophet Muhammad?

THE FATHER: All night, I nursed
a candle’s flame, leaning in and out
of its sphere of light, mumbling verses
of the Qur’an, mispronouncing
the Arabic, not understanding a word
beyond “Al-Fatiha,” but knowing,
nonetheless, I had fulfilled
this first obligation of fatherhood.

THE CHILD: What was it like
to look into my eyes for the first time?

THE FATHER: I felt as if my fingers
had combed the embryonic silt feathering
the deepest bottom of the ocean.
And when I resurfaced, holding the key
to fatherhood, I understood
the true worth of being a living thing.

THE CHILD: What did you say
to Mother when she could not find
the words to tell you about how
the breaking open of a body
propels one toward heaven, that God
promises the greatest share of Paradise
to mothers?

THE FATHER: After a long silence,
I said, “To every unutterable thing
buried in your heart, to every miraculous truth
teetering on the tip of your tongue,
yes, yes, ameen.”

THE CHILD: Did you spill the blood
of two goats, give their meat to the poor,
to bless my arrival, to mark
the transition of my soul
from the library of the eternal
into the living fire of a body too fragile to share?

THE FATHER: For twenty years,
I harvested the silhouette of my father’s voice
from the night sky, let its echo rock me
to sleep whenever I felt so crushed
by heartache that even God’s infinite love,
a rescue vessel sailing through a history
of bloodshed and loss, could not hold me
intact enough to believe in survival—
so if it was my hand or another’s
that guided the blade along two throats
I cannot recall, nor do I want to.

THE CHILD: What else
might you have done
had fatherhood not stolen you
from the life you knew?

THE FATHER: When a surgeon
saves your life by amputating a limb
housing a reservoir of poison,
you do not curse the violence
of his work, nor the pain of the procedure.
You bow down before God.
You thank the man. You learn to write
with the other hand, to walk
on one leg.

THE CHILD: One final question,
Father. What should I say
when my son, when I too become a father,
asks me about the hours
of your life that exist beyond
my knowing?

THE FATHER: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
as ours.

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