Today my villanelle, “Mare Finale,” which was inspired by a vision I saw in a dream, has been published today on The Literary Nest, a wonderful publication which publishes formal poetry as well as Poetry written in response to current events. Please check it out!!
One of the complaints common among non-English majors is that poetry today is often inaccessible, sacrificing general audiences for academic ones, or that the qualities of rhyme and meter have been sacrificed on the altar of modernism and free verse. Martin Elster, however, simply writes the kind of poetry he writes, both formal and rhyming, because as a musician this is what he intuitively prefers. His is a unique voice, and his new book Celestial Euphony gives us poetry that is not self-consciously “accessible,” but rather engages the reader with a rare sort of clarity and art, bringing us perspectives on nature, science, and human nature that are wrought with the intent of conveying them in the best way possible. So below is the press release from the publisher for his book, which can be purchased here.
We’re pleased to announce the release of Martin Elster’s new poetry collection, Celestial Euphony. Many of you might know him by his pen name, Miles T. Ranter, under which he participates in our weekly poetry contests. In addition to winning many of our contests and earning an honorable mention in many more, Martin has seen his work published in numerous publications and anthologies, and has won or placed in several poetry competitions. Celestial Euphony is available in paperback and Kindle.
“Martin’s fluid movement among various frames of reference— from astrophysics to musicology to botany to etymology—creates a structure of sheer imaginative play, which frames his utterly humane eye. His poetry explores the lyrical, intellectual, affective forces of language, while staying rooted in sensitive subjectivity. Martin is a joyous craftsman!”
Matthew Kirshman, author of The Magic Flower & Other Sonnets
“Stepping into Martin Elster’s work, I’m taken by its rhythms and musicality. These are poems to read aloud, savor their sounds, and enjoy a meandering walk through the world around us.”
Frank Watson, editor of Poetry Nook and author of The Dollhouse Mirror, Seas to Mulberries, and One Hundred Leaves
Through ballades and ballads, acrostics and ghazals, sonnets and Sapphics—both lighthearted and ruminative—the evocative poems in this collection portray the sights and sounds of our natural and manmade environments, the plants and animals everywhere around us and our relationship with them, sometimes pleasant and beautiful, often harmful and ominous.
There are poems about terrestrial musicians and interstellar musicians, the songs of spring peepers and katydids, the plight of spiders and polar bears, humans in love and at war, songbirds vying with urban cacophony, lonely dogs and ghostly dogs, and very serious musings about the huge and mysterious cosmos that we are all a part of and how we click with it.
About the Author
Martin Elster, who never misses a beat, is a percussionist with the Hartford Symphony Orchestra. Aside from playing and composing music, he finds contentment in long walks in the woods or the city and, most of all, writing poetry, often alluding to the creatures and plants he encounters.
His career in music has influenced his fondness for writing metrical verse, which has appeared in 14 by 14, Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, Better than Starbucks, Cahoodaloodaling, Eye to the Telescope, Lighten Up Online, The Centrifugal Eye, The Chimaera, The Flea, The Speculative Edge, THEMA, and numerous other journals, e-zines, and anthologies.
His honors include Rhymezone’s poetry contest (2016) co-winner, the Thomas Gray Anniversary Poetry Competition (2014) winner, the Science Fiction Poetry Association’s poetry contest (2015) third place, and four Pushcart nominations.
A sample poem is below:
Waiting for Dawn atop Butterfly Mountain
A dilapidated lepidopteran
dying atop The Mountain of Butterflies
holds out her wings to the darkness — wings as thin
as the mist that swirls beneath monsoonal skies —
and pictures the tea farm women, who often glow
like painted sawtooths dotting the plantation;
and, wallowing in the Mahaweli’s flow,
trumpeting in carefree conversation,
elephants plashing, washing away all worry.
Unlike them, she’s alone here on this rock,
a decent rock on which to dream. No hurry
to flee the fleeting memories that flock
like the birds of Sinharaja: the cunning jackal,
the whistling thrush, the fish in every lake
(which lure the hungry to come with boats and tackle
and float on magic molecules that slake
the roots of rice), the din of Devon Falls
reverberating through a green expanse
where a muntjac barks, a magpie calls and calls,
and footsteps crack the chrysalis of her trance —
men climbing toward her haven. Soon the sun
will oust the night. Slowly she beats her wings,
wings like frozen wood as, one by one,
they gain the hilltop, quicker as someone sings
a hymn to dawn, then darts away as a bell
blossoms like an orchid on the height
and, rising with the most resounding knell,
fades like the constellations at first light.
When it comes to form, nobody does it like Terence Hayes: he understands the larger view of form as a Force that can drive a point right into your heart. In this New Yorker article, author Dan Chiasson says that the sonnet, a form Hayes calls “part music box, part meat grinder,” became the poet’s vehicle of choice for his recent book, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin , because for him,
the sonnet offered an alternative unit of measurement, at once ancient, its basic features unchanged for centuries, and urgent, its fourteen lines passing at a brutal clip.
In the book, the American sonnet both contains and assaults his assassins: “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” The form itself being the brainchild of “the L.A. poet Wanda Coleman, who died in 2013 and who coined the term ‘American sonnet.‘” Who considered the term as referring to a more “improvised” sonnet that used jazz techniques and musical patterns.
The language is powerful and immediate, exuding worlds and threats. This is what sets Hayes apart: the combination of power, poetic skill (unique use of craft), unrelenting content, and an intensity of heart that drives all this into a tour de force of words closing in on flesh.
All cancers kill me, car crashes, cavemen, chakras,
Crackers, discord, dissonance, doves, Elvis,
Ghosts, the grim reaper herself, a heart attack
While making love, hangmen, Hillbillies exist,
Lilies, Martha Stewarts, Mayflower maniacs,
Money grubbers, Gwen Brooks’ “The Mother,”
(My mother’s bipolar as bacon), pancakes kill me,
Phonies, dead roaches, big roaches & smaller
Roaches, the sheepish, snakes, all seven seas,
Snow avalanches, swansongs, sciatica, Killer
Wasps, yee-haws, you, now & then, disease.
A list that also serves as ammunition, a kind of automatic fire that thrills with its sheer brilliance and expanse of imagination. And also with its truth, how he disgorges the racist and white supremacist attitudes made flesh in the form of Donald Trump and his followers. To which this collection is addressed, among other things.
“This word can be the difference between knowing / And thinking. It’s the name people of color call / Themselves on weekends & the name colorful / People call their enemies & friends.”
These poems all happen in the mind, which has been portioned into zones called “I” and “you.” Both assume countless different roles, but what remains constant is their reliance upon each other and their tendency to flip positions. This makes the work morally ambiguous in ways some readers will resist: I suspect that not everybody will recognize “blackness” as any part, even a rejected part, of Trump, a man whose loathing of black people seems unabashed.
Yes, “Hayes isn’t describing canonical melancholy, the pined-for vision of mortality that poets sometimes indulge in. He fears a more immediate kind of danger, which can’t be aestheticized or glorified in verse. “You are beautiful because of your sadness,” Hayes admits. And yet: “You would be more beautiful without your fear.”
In the form he invented:
The Golden Shovel
Timothy Murphy, formalist poet of the heart, will be long remembered for his inimitable style and formal mastery, the sheer volume and energy of his creative output, his contributions to the poetry community, his love of hunting and of the land, his open attitude about being both gay and conservative, and his strongly-felt re-conversion to Catholicism in his later years. One can’t easily sum up a life really, but this thoughtful review of his most recent poetry collection, Devotions (North Dakota University Press), helps. As does this obituary. And maybe the best of all is this interview, where Murphy talks about the moment, quite a miraculous one at that, when everything changed. Inspiring, no matter what your point of view on faith or politics. Beyond that, let his poetry speak:
The night you died, I dreamed you came to camp
to hear confession from an Eagle Scout
tortured by forty years of sin and doubt.
You whispered vespers by a hissing lamp.
Handlers, allowing you to hike with me,
followed us to the Bad Axe waterfront
down a ﬁrebreak this camper used to hunt.
Through all I said you suffered silently.
I blamed the authors of my unbelief:
St. Paul, who would have deemed my love obscene,
the Jesuit who raped me as a teen,
the altar boy when I was six, the grief
of a child chucked from Eden, left for dead
by Peter’s Church and all the choirs above.
In a thick Polish accent choked with love,
Te Dominus amat was all you said.
Pope John Paul II died on April 2, 2005, and that night he visited me in a dream. This dream recurred three times. The last time was April 15, 2007—the night Pope Benedict XVI accosted American bishops over the matter of clerical sexual abuse—when this poem came to me in its entirety. I rose and immediately typed it. In every instance the dream was identical, and John Paul’s words were the same. Te Dominus amat is Latin for “God loves you.”— TM)
”Mizar” and “Alcor” in Winter
Cirrus dispersed. As a black night grew colder,
clearer, I spied the binary in the handle
of the Big Dipper dangling above my shoulder,
a pinprick twinkling by a blinding candle.
Absent the moon, its boreal corona,
I watched the stars rise east of Ellendale,
Guelph and Ludden, then wheel above Verona
and sleeping friends who farm near Englevale.
A thousand miles of road: I’d shunned the pavement
which bears the burdens I no longer ferry,
the cargo of material enslavement.
Six eagles hunted small game on the prairie.
An Arab prince’s fortunes once were measured
by blooded foals, by sons his wives could dandle,
by tributary quatrains to be treasured
and his eyesight: a pinprick by a candle.
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:
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.
I like trees because they seem more resigned
to the way they have to live than other things do.
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.
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.
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.
How often do we run across a poet whose work takes our breath away? As it happens, perhaps more often than expected, there being so many poets writing now, there being such an exponential increase in the human population, and in particular the civilized portion thereof. Yet I feel I’ve missed painfully more of them than I should. One of the most glaring “misses” of these is the work of poet Alice Oswald, possibly the greatest living poet, according to Charlotte Runcie.
I suppose one could say her poetry can be described as “formal,” if that word means not shying away from the use of rhyme, even if it occurs on the end of lines. But her poetry is in my view uncategorizable, totally unique, an original voice. Characterized by great intuitive leaps and stunning connections, and I should say a sense of truth being laid bare in startling yet haunting ways, I am entranced, humbled, enlightened, uplifted, flabbergasted, and quietly transported by her work.
This is just a sample:
Full-Length Portrait of the Moon
By Alice Oswald
She could be any woman at all,
caught off-guard on-guard.
With her hands stroking or strangling and maybe
with her intentions half-interred.
But she is as she is. Her gaze is always
filing away at its cord.
And what she’s really after
is you to love her.
She forgets who she is.
She could be so small
she almost has no smell.
She feels like anyone at all.
When you walk up to her,
she keeps quite still,
but what she answers to
is never loud enough to know.
Eaten away by outwardness,
her eyes are empty.
They could be watching you
or not. They work indifferently,
like lit-up glass and if you ask
why she won’t speak, why should she?
When what she really wants
You know what women are like:
Kay, Moira, Sandra.
They move through a dark room,
peering round under
the hoods of their names.
She could be either of those.
She scarcely knows.
She goes on thinking something
just over your shoulder.
This could be the last night
before you lose her.
But what’s the use
of saying one thing or another.
When what she’s really after
is you to love her.
And this, which led me to her. Someone coughed, and there she was.
By Alice Oswald
I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air
a fox in her fox-fur
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house
just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
in the heart’s thick accent
in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name
as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf
Naomi Replansky, at 99 years old, is on full speed ahead, a poet with an entirely unique and powerful style, as well as political activist and pioneer in so many ways. Read a fascinating article about her here; it speaks of how the poet Philip Levine “rediscovered” her while in his capacity as Poet Laureate in 2013, and by shining a light on her, helped her gain the recognition that had eluded her for much of her life. Despite praise from many critics and poets for her first book, the National Book Award-nominated Ring Song, a bad review by Lawrence Ferlinghetti so upset her that she didn’t write another book until 1994, 42 years later. However she continued to write and to engage with poets and other writers, including Bertolt Brecht, whose work she translated, and her longtime partner, prose writer Eva Kollich. Now she has sadly stated that she will write no more, and to that end has penned the poem below. Also, she reads another poem “Inheritance” on a video link here.
About Not Writing
Tongue-tied, I stand before
Myself as inquisitor.
I loved to mark time
With a beat, with rhyme.
Time marked me with its thumb,
Slowed down the pendulum.
Slowed it down, or stopped:
Words were lopped, words dropped—
No use to devise
Reasons or alibis.
Now, strangely, I draw breath
Well past my ninetieth.
What’s begun is almost done,
Still, I must brood upon
The much that I sought,
The little that I wrought,
Till time brings its own
Lockjaw of stone.
Here is the text of “An Inheritance”:
“Five dollars, four dollars, three dollars, two,
One, and none, and what do we do?”
This is the worry that never got said
But ran so often in my mother’s head
And showed so plain in my father’s frown
That to us kids it drifted down.
It drifted down like soot, like snow,
In the dream-tossed Bronx, in the long ago.
I shook it off with a shake of the head.
I bounced my ball, I ate warm bread,
I skated down the steepest hill.
But I must have listened, against my will:
When the wind blows wrong, I can hear it today.
Then my mother’s worry stops all play
And, as if in its rightful place,
My father’s frown divides my face.
Read it here. What a thrill to have a guest blog post on Trish’s fantastic site! Meriam’s book is definitely a must-read.
International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.
At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.
Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.
By Allison Joseph
A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia
Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.
What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.
“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.
Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.
Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?
Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?
Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.
State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.
Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.
Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?
Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.
And here, first published on the PBS website:
By Allison Joseph
I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.