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.
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.
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
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,
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.
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.
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.
Thrilled to find my sonnet “The Buoy” is up on Autumn Sky Poetry Daily today here. Please check it out!
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.
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.)
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.
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
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
THE FATHER: Tell him more
about the hours of your life
so his hunger is not as desperate
nor as bottomless
In memory of Winnie Mandela, the brave freedom fighter against apartheid in South Africa who died this week (and if you have any doubts about her heroism, read this), I searched the work of South African poets to find a favorite to post here, and with great delight discovered the powerful, gifted voice of Gabeba Baderoon. The recipient of many awards and also the praise of well-established poets, a bio can be found here.
She is equally adept at addressing such public issues as war, oppression, and national tragedy, and the very small personal details of life, infusing a special magic and lightness of tone into whatever subject she chooses. Here, on war and social tragedy:
WAR TRIPTYCH: LOVE, SILENCE, GLORY
By Gabeba Baderoon
I. Always For The First Time
We tell our stories of war like stories
of love, innocent as eggs.
We will meet memory again at the wall around our city,
always for the first time.
The mother asked to stay.
She looked at her silent child.
I was waiting for you.
The quiet of the girl’s face was a different quiet
Her hands lay untouched by death.
The washer of bodies cut
away her long black dress.
Blue prayer beads fell
to the floor in a slow accounting.
The washer of bodies began to sing
a prayer to mothers and daughters.
The mother said,
who will wait for me.
(on the aftermath of the bombings on a holy day in Najaf, Iraq)
III. Father Receives News His Son Died in the Intifada
When he heard the news, Mr Karim became silent.
He did not look at the cameras,
nor at the people who brought their grief.
He felt a hand slip from his hand,
a small unclasping,
and for that he refused the solace of glory.
And here, a more personal detail of no apparent significance takes on that magic we seek in poetry.
THE ART OF LEAVING
By Gabeba Baderoon
The warmth is leaving
your shirt, hanging
over the back of the chair. Slowly
it is giving back everything
it had of yours.
Here she gives love and relationships in a different context, allowing the physical and emotional elements their space, time, and an unexpected transcendence.
THE DREAM IN THE NEXT BODY
By Gabeba Baderoon
From the end of the bed, I pull
the sheets back into place.
An old man paints a large sun striped
by clouds of seven blues.
Across the yellow centre each
blue is precisely itself and yet,
at the point it meets another,
the eye cannot detect a change.
The air shifts, he says,
and the colours.
When you touched me in a dream,
your skin an hour ago did not end
where it joined mine. My body continued
the movement of yours. Something flowed
between us like birds in a flock.
In a solitude larger than our two bodies
the hardening light parted us again
But under the covering the impress
of our bodies is a single, warm hollow.
Award-winning Poet and Educator Lucie Brock-Broido died this March 6 at the age of 61. A loss for the poetry world, her poetry was known for its lush verbiage, like a dense garden bursting off the page. She herself called her style “feral.” A useful tribute can be found here. It’s the least I can do to share some of her poetry here on my first NaPoMo post.
How Can It Be I Am No Longer I
By Lucie Brock-Broido
Winter was the ravaging in the scarified
Ghost garden, a freak of letters crossing down a rare
Path bleak with poplars. Only the yew were a crewel
Of kith at the fieldstone wall, annulled
As a dulcimer cinched in a green velvet sack.
To be damaged is to endanger—taut as the stark
Throats of castrati in their choir, lymphless & fawning
& pale. The miraculous conjoining
Where the beamless air harms our self & lung,
Our three-chambered heart & sternum,
Where two made a monstrous
Braid of other, ravishing.
To damage is an animal hunch
& urge, thou fallen—the marvelous much
Is the piece of Pleiades the underworld calls
The nightsky from their mud & rime. Perennials
Ghost the ground & underground the coffled
Veins, an aneurism of the ice & spectacle.
I would not speak again. How flinching
The world will seem—in the lynch
Of light as I sail home in a winter steeled
For the deaths of the few loved left living I will
Always love. I was a flint
To bliss & barbarous, a bristling
Of tracks like a starfish carved on his inner arm,
A tindering of tissue, a reliquary, twinned.
A singe of salt-hay shrouds the orchard-skin,
That I would be—lukewarm, mammalian, even then,
In winter when moss sheathes every thing alive
& everything not or once alive.
That I would be—dryadic, gothic, fanatic against
The vanishing; I will not speak to you again.
By Lucie Brock-Broid
Don’t do that when you are dead like this, I said,
Arguably still squabbling about the word inarguably.
I haunt Versailles, poring through the markets of the medieval.
Mostly meat to be sold there; mutton hangs
Like laundry pinkened on its line.
And gold!—a chalice with a cure for living in it.
We step over the skirt of an Elizabeth.
Red grapes, a delicacy, each peeled for us—
The vestments of a miniature priest, disrobed.
A sister is an old world sparrow placed in a satin shoe.
The weakling’s saddle is worn down from just too much sad attitude.
No one wants to face the “opaque reality” of herself.
For the life of me.
I was made American. You must consider this.
Whatever suffering is insufferable is punishable by perishable.
In Vienne, the rabbit Maurice is at home in the family cage.
I ache for him, his boredom and his solitude.
On suffering and animals, inarguably, they do.
I miss your heart, my heart.