Terence Hayes: Master of Form

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.” 

Trump is a palpable undercurrent throughout the book, and occasionally Hayes addresses the President directly, calling him “Mr. Trumpet”:

. . . You ain’t allowed to deride
Women when you’ve never wept in front of a woman
That wasn’t your mother. America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it. You can’t
Grasp your own hustle, your blackness, you can’t grasp
Your own pussy, your black pussy dies for touch.

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

after Gwendolyn Brooks

I. 1981
When I am so small Da’s sock covers my arm, we
cruise at twilight until we find the place the real
men lean, bloodshot and translucent with cool.
His smile is a gold-plated incantation as we
drift by women on bar stools, with nothing left
in them but approachlessness. This is a school
I do not know yet. But the cue sticks mean we
are rubbed by light, smooth as wood, the lurk
of smoke thinned to song. We won’t be out late.
Standing in the middle of the street last night we
watched the moonlit lawns and a neighbor strike
his son in the face. A shadow knocked straight
Da promised to leave me everything: the shovel we
used to bury the dog, the words he loved to sing
his rusted pistol, his squeaky Bible, his sin.
The boy’s sneakers were light on the road. We
watched him run to us looking wounded and thin.
He’d been caught lying or drinking his father’s gin.
He’d been defending his ma, trying to be a man. We
stood in the road, and my father talked about jazz,
how sometimes a tune is born of outrage. By June
the boy would be locked upstate. That night we
got down on our knees in my room. If I should diebefore I wake. Da said to me, it will be too soon.
II. 1991
Into the tented city we go, we-
akened by the fire’s ethereal
afterglow. Born lost and cool-
er than heartache. What we
know is what we know. The left
hand severed and school-
ed by cleverness. A plate of we-
ekdays cooking. The hour lurk-
ing in the afterglow. A late-
night chant. Into the city we
go. Close your eyes and strike
a blow. Light can be straight-
ened by its shadow. What we
break is what we hold. A sing-
ular blue note. An outcry sin-
ged exiting the throat. We
push until we thin, thin-
king we won’t creep back again.
While God licks his kin, we
sing until our blood is jazz,
we swing from June to June.
We sweat to keep from we-
eping. Groomed on a die-
t of hunger, we end too soon.
——————-
The Blue Terrance
If you subtract the minor losses,
you can return to your childhood too:
the blackboard chalked with crosses,
the math teacher’s toe ring. You
can be the black boy not even the buck-
toothed girls took a liking to:
this match box, these bones in their funk
machine, this thumb worn smooth
as the belly of a shovel. Thump. Thump.
Thump. Everything I hold takes root.
I remember what the world was like before
I heard the tide humping the shore smooth,
and the lyrics asking: How long has your door 
been closed? I remember a garter belt wrung
like a snake around a thigh in the shadows
of a wedding gown before it was flung
out into the bluest part of the night.
Suppose you were nothing but a song
in a busted speaker? Suppose you had to wipe
sweat from the brow of a righteous woman,
but all you owned was a dirty rag? That’s why
the blues will never go out of fashion:
their half rotten aroma, their bloodshot octaves of
consequence; that’s why when they call, Boy, you’re in
trouble. Especially if you love as I love
falling to the earth. Especially if you’re a little bit
high strung and a little bit gutted balloon. I love
watching the sky regret nothing but its
self, though only my lover knows it to be so,
and only after watching me sit
and stare off past Heaven. I love the word No 
for its prudence, but I love the romantic
who submits finally to sex in a burning row-
house more. That’s why nothing’s more romantic
than working your teeth through
the muscle. Nothing’s more romantic
than the way good love can take leave of you.
That’s why I’m so doggone lonesome, Baby,
yes, I’m lonesome and I’m blue.
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Remembering Timothy Murphy: 1/10/1951-6/30/2018

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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:

Agape

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.

**************
(Notes:
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.

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.

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.

Discovering a Breathtaking Poet: Alice Oswald

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
is silence.

You know what women are like:
Kay, Moira, Sandra.
They move through a dark room,
peering round under
the hoods of their names.
Alcestis, Clytemnestra.
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.

Fox

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
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
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: Amazing at 99 Years


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”:

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.

My Review of Meriam’s Lillian Trilogy on Trish Hopkinson’s Blog: Check It Out!

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.

Allison Joseph: Taking on Both Racism and Sexism

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.

SUNDOWN GHAZAL

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:

Kitchen

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.

Review of Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar on ABR

American Book Review has published my review of Quincy Lehr’s recent poetry collection, Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar.

Check out the review link above which is a significant sample, but for the full review you’ll need to get the print version or subscribe.

image

New Poem in the August Rotary Dial

The August Rotary Dial is out today with a new poem of mine, “Muse-Charmer,” as well as fantastic poems throughout. Well-worth your time, especially for formal poetry-lovers.