Three Poems in Society of Classical Poetry

Three of my poems were published on the Society of Classical Poets site here. “The Inca Kings,” “The Swimming Lesson,” and “Elegy for Mary” (my sister), were all published last month, but unfortunately I was in a difficult state of mind, thus am late to publish this. Do check them out!

Major Jackson: Bard of Many Worlds

Major Jackson is a major poet, a major player with language, a voice which conjures many worlds, and through all of these, he brings vision, perspective, validation to the rest of us. One see in his work that he is well-traveled and has experienced many different perspectives, which gives his poetry resonance with a wide audience. Awarded many prizes, even his first book, Leaving Saturn (2002), won a prize, the Cave Canem First Book Prize. A more comprehensive list of his many achievements is here. The poem below reminds us of the ways people of color are so often erased, to which this poem is a brilliant retort and of course so much more. To-wit:

On Disappearing 

I have not disappeared.
The boulevard is full of my steps. The sky is
full of my thinking. An archbishop
prays for my soul, even though
we only met once, and even then, he was
busy waving at a congregation.
The ticking clocks in Vermont sway

back and forth as though sweeping
up my eyes and my tattoos and my metaphors,
and what comes up are the great paragraphs
of dust, which also carry motes
of my existence. I have not disappeared.
My wife quivers inside a kiss.
My pulse was given to her many times,

in many countries. The chunks of bread we dip
in olive oil is communion with our ancestors,
who also have not disappeared. Their delicate songs
I wear on my eyelids. Their smiles have
given me freedom which is a crater
I keep falling in. When I bite into the two halves
of an orange whose cross-section resembles my lungs,

a delta of juices burst down my chin, and like magic,
makes me appear to those who think I’ve
disappeared. It’s too bad war makes people
disappear like chess pieces, and that prisons
turn prisoners into movie endings. When I fade
into the mountains on a forest trail,
I still have not disappeared, even though its green facade
turns my arms and legs into branches of oak.
It is then I belong to a southerly wind,
which by now you have mistaken as me nodding back
and forth like a Hasid in prayer or a mother who has just
lost her son to gunfire in Detroit. I have not disappeared.

In my children, I see my bulging face
pressing further into the mysteries.

In a library in Tucson, on a plane above
Buenos Aires, on a field where nearby burns
a controlled fire, I am held by a professor,
a General, and a photographer.
One burns a finely wrapped cigar, then sniffs
the scented pages of my books, scouring
for the bitter smell of control.
I hold him in my mind like a chalice.
I have not disappeared. I swish the amber
hue of lager on my tongue and ponder the drilling
rigs in the Gulf of Alaska and all the oil-painted plovers.

When we talk about limits, we disappear.
In Jasper, TX you can disappear on a strip of gravel.

I am a shrug of a life in sacred language.
Right now: termites toil over a grave.
My mind is a ravine of yesterdays.
At a glance from across the room, I wear
September on my face,
which is eternal, and does not disappear
even if you close your eyes once and for all
simultaneously like two coffins. 

Marilyn Nelson: The Devastating Power of Words

Being busy with various projects, and coping with grief at the death of my husband, have kept me away from this blog for awhile, but today I glanced the name “Marilyn Nelson” while checking my email, and discovered the murderously powerful poem below which stopped me in my tracks. Here and now, forget the whole world, this poem needs to be read by everyone now!! And so this poem by the inimitable Marilyn Nelson dug so deep in my soul I can never really extricate it. What a perfect poem for Black History Month, the shortest month of the year, so let’s bring it all on and make it also the most intense month, the month that matters most, the most alive month, the month we can’t really let go of all year long, the month that brings us face-to-face with our inhumanity, our bloodless, heartless, soulless coup against our own claimed humanity, embodied in this poem entitled “Realization.” May it go viral and infect us all with its burdens loaded with devastating truth. Go, Marilyn, an some truth-bomb us all!!! Here it is, to be followed by all the appropriate kudos and bios and awards. She earned so much, this doesn’t come easily, this kind of poetry. But first, read this and weep while you still can:

Realization

By Marilyn Nelson

Three-quarter size. Full size would break the heart.
She, still bare-breasted from the auction block,
sits staring, perhaps realizing what
will happen to them next. There is no child,
though there must be a child who will be left
behind, or who was auctioned separately.
Her arms are limp, defeated, her thin hands
lie still in surrender.
He cowers at her side,
his head under her arm,
his body pressed to hers
like a boy hiding behind his mother.
He should protect his woman. He is strong,
his shoulder and arm muscled from hard work,
his hand, thickened by labor, on her thigh
as if to comfort, though he can’t protect.
His brow is furrowed, his eyes blank, unfocused.
What words are there to describe hopelessness?
A word that means both bull-whipped and spat on?
Is there a name for mute, depthless abyss?
A word that means Where the hell are you, God?
What would they ask God, if they could believe?
But how can they believe, while the blue sky
smiles innocently, pretends nothing is wrong.
They stood stripped up there, as they were described
like animals who couldn’t understand
how cheap a life can be made.
Their naked feet. Her collarbone. The vein
traveling his bicep. Gussie’s answer
to presidents on Mount Rushmore,
to monumental generals whose stars
and sabers say black pain
did not then and still does not matter.

(Copyright 2021)

She is the author of A Wreath for Emmett Till, winner of the Coretta Scott KIng Award, which she Hadi previously won for another riveting book, and in case you don’t recognize Till’s household name, “In 1955 people all over the United States knew that Emmett Louis Till was a fourteen-year-old African American boy lynched for supposedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi. The brutality of his murder, the open-casket funeral held by his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, and the acquittal of the men tried for the crime drew wide media attention. In a profound and chilling poem, award-winning poet Marilyn Nelson reminds us of the boy whose fate helped spark the civil rights movement.” It’s worth reminding those who may have forgotten. This book alone is a magnificent and devastating achievement. Let those who perpetuate injustice, and oh are they vociferous and full of themselves these days, when DeSantis of Florida wants to lock up protestors against systematic racism and protect white supremacists who would mow them down with pickups. Nelson’s words, her voice against oppression, speaks more of her than her many impressive awards and kudos for her many books including poetry, memoir, and children’s books, not to mention translations, summed up upon winning the coveted Ruth Lilly Prize for poetry, as “noted for being a renowned poet, author, and translator who has worked steadily throughout her career to highlight topics that aren’t often talked about in poetry. Her literary work, spanning more than four decades, examines complex issues around race, feminism, and the ongoing trauma of slavery in American life in narratives poised between song and speech.”

For one so open-hearted, with such humility and grace. All her books, highly recommended, are unforgettable. I rest my case.

My Book To Love the River Now Available!!

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My first full-length poetry collection, To Love the River, is now on sale at the publisher Kelsay Books’ website! This is much sooner than I had imagined, months earlier than its projected publishing date, so this is a huge and happy surprise. The book is the culmination of many years’ work, the subject matter spanning a river’s worth of emotions and experience condensed into the craft of both formal and free verse poetry.

The cover art is by the Swedish artist — a pioneer of abstract art pre-Kandinsky! — and mystic Hilma af Klint (1862-1944) whose séance-inspired (and later simply inspired) paintings are finally getting recognition in her first solo exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. Like her work, my poetry also reflects a subtly spiritual perspective on life.

Here is one sample poem from the book, which echoes the “dawn” theme woven through some of these poems, “The Word for Dawn,” first published in Sukoon journal.

The Word for Dawn

Fajr: the j a mere mirage, light on the tongue,
just melting into r, no vowel between,
bluing into nothing but a turning of the lips.
I hear it like a distant motorcycle,
its street lost in a cricket’s heartbeat,
and I find it leaking tiny drumbeats from
my son’s earbuds fallen from his ear,
buzzing in his sleep. Newborn wasps,
tinny, revving j’s straight through the r’s
that rise and thread their little lights
where teeth touch lips and feel the furry f’s
a darkness, void, a space of hairy night.
A single hair-edge turning from the deep.

Reginald Shepherd: Unforgettable Poetic Voice

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What a loss to the world when Reginald Shepherd died, so many years ago that seems like yesterday. Unique in so many ways, a genius hardly recognized it seems for his brilliant imagination, a wordsmith par excellence who also contributed profusely to prose works on literature, he was a consummate poet, both black and gay, gifted and unassuming up until literally the moment he died—and what a painful struggle—of cancer. What better way to remember him than through his legacy of fine poetry?

But before I bring some of that beauty to this blog, don’t forget his wonderful essays on poetry, such as this one about the “poetry is dead” debate. Amazing! An excerpt, with the caveat that the whole is far more satisfying:

In the perennially popular “death of poetry” discourse, there’s a consensus that people don’t read poetry because it’s too hard, too “elitist” (another word that should be expunged from the English language: it’s never descriptive, only pejorative). I’ve always thought the opposite, that most poetry isn’t hard enough, in the sense that it’s not interesting or engaging enough. It doesn’t hold the attention—you read it once or twice and you’ve used it up. The engagement I look for and too often miss is a kind of pleasure, in the words, the rhythms, the palpable texture of the poem. It’s the opposite of boredom.

Here is one of his finest poems, along with its introduction by his partner Robert Philen, who kept up his blog for awhile after he died:

Of all Reginald’s poems, “You, Therefore” is among those that seems to resonate most with people. It’s the one I’ve seen most used as part of the many online tributes to Reginald that have been put up since his death. It’s one of two poems I selected to be read at his memorial service (along with his last poem, “God-With-Us”).

I can’t say with absolute certainty that it was his favorite among his own poems, but “You, Therefore” was definitely among his favorites. From the time he wrote it, he always closed any of his many readings with this poem. Robert Philen

YOU, THEREFORE

For Robert Philen

You are like me, you will die too, but not today:
you, incommensurate, therefore the hours shine:
if I say to you “To you I say,” you have not been
set to music, or broadcast live on the ghost
radio, may never be an oil painting or
Old Master’s charcoal sketch: you are
a concordance of person, number, voice,
and place, strawberries spread through your name
as if it were budding shrubs, how you remind me
of some spring, the waters as cool and clear
(late rain clings to your leaves, shaken by light wind),
which is where you occur in grassy moonlight:
and you are a lily, an aster, white trillium
or viburnum, by all rights mine, white star
in the meadow sky, the snow still arriving
from its earthwards journeys, here where there is
no snow (I dreamed the snow was you,
when there was snow), you are my right,
have come to be my night (your body takes on
the dimensions of sleep, the shape of sleep
becomes you): and you fall from the sky
with several flowers, words spill from your mouth
in waves, your lips taste like the sea, salt-sweet (trees
and seas have flown away, I call it
loving you): home is nowhere, therefore you,
a kind of dwell and welcome, song after all,
and free of any eden we can name

Ann Stanford, an Undernoticed Poet

Ever heard of the poet Ann Stanford? This article explores her work and why she, and other fine poets, don’t get the attention they deserve.

And that was a time when there were simply fewer poets. Today there are so many poets, so many people writing poetry, so many possible venues for publishing (self-publishing, blogs, online zines, e-books, and print magazines and books) that it’s hard to rise above the masses and get noticed. Someone who remembered Ms. Stanford as a teacher wrote this article and republished some of her work. She was well-established in her lifetime, publishing in major journals and winning awards. What factors are involved in a poet’s work surviving the limits of time and collective memory?

Here is a poem of hers which speaks to the very predicament described above. We seek a life after death in the form of a work of art which people can enjoy long after we are gone. Some will achieve this and others, not so much. Is it the quality of the work, luck, connections, historical events, or a combination of factors?

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Two New Poems in Wordgathering, a Must-Read Site

Wordgathering is an online magazine that specializes in disability literature (both by disabled writers and non-disabled writers who have a connection with disability and are writing about it), and in addition to poetry and fiction, also publishes essays, reviews, and articles relevant to the subject of disability. And two of my poems, “The Circumference of Pain” and “Now”, appear in the current issue! This venue has some amazing work, as well as two interviews with two blind writers that are so good I consider them in some way, for me, life-changing. It is an issue well worth your time with a theme that may surprise you. In fact, the element of surprise is one of those great benefits of reading this webzine.

Also featured in this issue is Anna M. Evans’ anthology about living with Alzheimer’s, Forgetting Home, a collection which is reviewed in the issue., 

Tragedy Remembered Through Sonnets

imageThe Great River Shakespeare Festival, itself an amazing event that takes place from July 25-August 3, 2014, in Winona, Minnesota, also holds a sonnet contest each year in memory of Maria W. Faust, who was an avid supporter of the Festival, of poetry and the arts in general. She died in December, 2011—— her husband then had the sonnet contest renamed in her honor, and since then the contest has taken off.

An anthology of the winning poets is also available at a very low cost. Judging by the quality of the winners, it should be an excellent anthology. This link will get you to both the contest details and information on the anthology.