Tag Archives: poets

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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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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Gabeba Baderoon: A Deeply Beautiful Poetic Voice from South Africa

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.

II. Accounting

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.

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Remembering Lucie Brock-Broido 1956-2018

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.

Dove, Interrupted

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.

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Audre Lorde 1934-1992: Poet and Activist Extraordinaire


Here we are in Women’s History month, and I haven’t done justice to Black History month yet, so in Audre Lorde we have it all: a black openly Lesbian woman. Born in 1934, she’s done some serious work for civil and human rights during difficult times, for women and for people of color, traveling extensively for this purpose as well as expressing her strongly held principles/ vision in her poetry. She has also published powerful essays and a memoir of her struggles with cancer in which she conveys brilliant insights and inspiration. She is also a highly quoted writer, and among her quotes are these:
“The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

And

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

I love this particular poem:

Coal

By Audre Lorde

Is the total black, being spoken
From the earth’s inside.
There are many kinds of open.
How a diamond comes into a knot of flame
How a sound comes into a word, coloured
By who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open
Like a diamond on glass windows
Singing out within the crash of passing sun
Then there are words like stapled wagers
In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—
And come whatever wills all chances
The stub remains
An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.
Some words live in my throat
Breeding like adders. Others know sun
Seeking like gypsies over my tongue
To explode through my lips
Like young sparrows bursting from shell.
Some words
Bedevil me.

Love is a word another kind of open—
As a diamond comes into a knot of flame
I am black because I come from the earth’s inside
Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Another longer poem for Emmett Till is well-worth your time here. I provided a link so you can read it properly formatted, which I wasn’t able to do here.

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Black History Month: Jericho Brown

Lately I’ve found less time to contribute to this blog, and this is especially frustrating during the too-short black history month. So to make up for it, I will continue to, if possible, add posts about Poets of color. But I’ve meant to feature in particular Jericho Brown, whose poetry is both unique and powerful. And he has much to say, as a poet, an African-American, a gay man, a compassionate human being. It’s worth reading an interview with him, of which this is one sample.

I’m including this ghazal because I love ghazals, and because he managed to write one that ends in prison — emblematic of so much.

(A Ghazal)

Hustle

BY JERICHO BROWN

They lie like stones and dare not shift. Even asleep, everyone hears in prison.
Dwayne Betts deserves more than this dry ink for his teenage years in prison.

In the film we keep watching, Nina takes Darius to a steppers ball.
Lovers hustle, slide, and dip as if none of them has a brother in prison.

I eat with humans who think any book full of black characters is about race.
A book full of white characters examines insanity—but never in prison.

His whole family made a barricade of their bodies at the door to room 403.
He died without the man he wanted. What use is love at home or in prison?

We saw police pull sharks out of the water just to watch them not breathe.
A brother meets members of his family as he passes the mirrors in prison.

Sundays, I washed and dried her clothes after he threw them into the yard.
In the novel I love, Brownfield kills his wife, gets only seven years in prison.

I don’t want to point my own sinful finger, so let’s use your clean one instead.
Some bright citizen reading this never considered a son’s short hair in prison.

In our house lived three men with one name, and all three fought or ran.
I left Nelson Demery III for Jericho Brown, a name I earned in prison.

Jericho Brown, “Hustle” from The New Testament. Copyright © 2014 by Jericho Brown.

And if you haven’t read this poem, the poetic equivalent of a thunderstorm, you may never know that poetic lightning can strike, and it strikes twice.

Prayer of the Backhanded

By Jericho Brown

Not the palm, not the pear tree
Switch, not the broomstick,
Nor the closet extension
Cord, not his braided belt, but God,
Bless the back of my daddy’s hand
Which, holding nothing tightly
Against me and not wrapped
In leather, eliminated the air
Between itself and my cheek.
Make full this dimpled cheek
Unworthy of its unfisted print
And forgive my forgetting
The love of a hand
Hungry for reflex, a hand that took
No thought of its target
Like hail from a blind sky,
Involuntary, fast, but brutal
In its bruising. Father, I bear the bridge
Of what might have been
A broken nose. I lift to you
What was a busted lip. Bless
The boy who believes
His best beatings lack
Intention, the mark of the beast.
Bring back to life the son
Who glories in the sin
Of immediacy, calling it love.
God, save the man whose arm
Like an angel’s invisible wing
May fly backward in fury
Whether or not his son stands near.
Help me hold in place my blazing jaw
As I think to say, excuse me.

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Remembering Extraordinary Poet Dick Allen

Ordinarily, I would begin such a subject with a basic introduction and offer a poem or two of theirs. But Dick Allen, former Poet Laureate of Connecticut and major American poet, had his own quiet but enduring impact on me, much like the way he touched and enlightened so many others. I’ve read a number of tributes on the site which is both a community and a publication to which he had contributed much, Verse-Virtual, and their stories reflect my own experience.

The site encourages those interested in joining or contributing to Verse-Virtual to email the author of any poems one happens to like, and so on December 19, I emailed Mr. Allen, who responded with great appreciation and grace, sending me a link to an essay he published in the form of a letter to his grandson, Lincoln. I was quite moved by it, and wrote back to tell him that and shared a few photos I had taken (my new obsession) — he expressed appreciation of them in another reply dated December 25, also expressing his religious feelings (I had shared mine, a pro-ecumenical sentiment which he also expressed), and wished me happy holidays. I replied on December 25 at around 1:30am sending holiday wishes but also expressing how highly I regarded him as a human being after our brief exchanges. I wish I could print it all out; he truly brings out he best in others. He wrote that lovely encouraging and full-of-life email on the 24th. I hope he got to read my reply in which I sent more photos, I think better ones. On December 25th, according to his daughter, he suffered a heart attack, and on the 26th, Dick Allen, an incomparable man and poet, passed as he had lived, peacefully in his own unique way, where peace entered and filled the room, as indeed he brightened and uplifted the hearts of so many, including myself. I only knew of his death from the Verse-Virtual site, discovering the new issue dedicated to him. One so often reads about poets and admires their work, but to have a poet of his stature read my email so carefully and respond to each point I made with such grace, sharing personal details like that of a childhood friend and his enduring influence, and his appreciation of reflections I offered on my own life and how his poem affected me — all this has an impact that no biography can convey.

So I think of him as an extraordinarily good man, exuding a rare decency and thoughtfulness that descriptions cannot capture really. And he lived, as those emails bear witness, life fully and with great buoyancy up until the very last breath. My heart goes out to his wife and family, and indeed to all those whose lives he touched. It is a great loss; I feel it with only a brief email exchange. Yet also he left that peace, that uplift, that buoyancy of spirit behind. And his poetry. What a fine and enduring legacy.

One of those who shared wonderful memories of Allen on her exuberant blog is Caryn Mirriam Goldberg, 2009-13 Kansas Poet Laureate, who also has excellent links to his poetry and more. She took this picture of him, a tall man whom she described as “tree-like”, in front of the oldest beech tree in Pennsylvania, where they shared a memorable moment just feeling the presence of the tree as a being. Yes, a moment of being, a private transformative moment that feels like what happened to me. Extraordinary soul!

With so many poems, any choice would be insufficient, yet… in a way any would also be sufficient. So…

Here’s one published in the Superstition Review that captures his spirit:

The Puzzling Beauty of the Here and Now.

The puzzling beauty of the here and now
affected him strangely,
like names for Chinese watercolor brushes:
Smoky Cloud, Keeps The Best Point,
Crane Neck, Giraffe Neck, Red Pine, White Goose,
and a certain rise of the Merritt Parkway
when all you can see ahead of you
is the sky going on. How puzzling
that “stone breaks open the stone in stones,”
and “peaks link up with peaks that dominate peaks,”
as Shin Tao Chi Shon—sung wrote
in his beautiful painting one morning
while waiting for a friend to come across the mountain
to stay only an hour
after an arduous trip of three days and two nights,
and it would be two days and three nights back. They had tea,
a heron stood in the lake that stretched before them.
There was the even-spaced ringing of a bell. . . .
How puzzling to come across such stories
in a book that’s lain around the house for years,
or on a message board tucked far down inside the Internet
on an out-of-way Website you can only reach
by drifting through meadows. . . . Once there,
he also found links to The Cherry Orchard,
a little Sarabande by Bach,
and into one of those sunlight and brocade interiors
beloved by Dutch painters. Jigsaw puzzles.
Word games. Mazes. Detective stories.
Crossword puzzles. Anagrams. Hidden Things.
Pin the Tail on the Donkey. Where’s the donkey?
The video game search across the universe.
Puzzles made from bent nails. The puzzle of Atlantis.
Who was Jack the Ripper? Where’s the lost gold?
When shall I be found? “The Here and Now-
that sounds like a Bed and Breakfast place,” said a friend,
“or the name of a minor rock group,
the kind that begins and ends playing high school proms
and in town hall gazebos.” Enigma.
Quandary. Toss of the dice.
Riddle. Conundrum. Charade. “How beautiful
for spacious skies,
for amber waves of grain”
always went through his head as he crisscrossed America
east to west, driving the Interstates. “. . . for purple mountain majesties
above the fruited plain,”
although he’d never actually seen a purple mountain
but once, in New York City,
he saw a sculpture of a purple cow.
It had its head down
and was munching on the kind of green cellophane grass
you find in Easter baskets and in baseball stadiums.
“. . . America, America.” Picture a house in Kansas or Oklahoma
with an infinite number of doors that lead to rooms
that lead to other doors. Each door is a sideways lightswitch
illuminating what’s inside each further room. You’re searching,
but every time you think you’ve found the answer
another door opens. . . . We built this city.
Come here, Watson, I need you. . . . If the soul
is a pattern of information, no wonder
there are complex souls and simple souls,
but why does every soul weigh precisely 21 grams
as it flies into the air beyond the body’s death?
“You don’t know what’s happening here, do you, Mr. Jones?”
He opened another door,
and there was a field of sunflowers. It was September,
two days from 9/11. He opened another
and there was no Iraq War, no Abu Ghraib prison.
He opened a third
and there was a New Mexico pueblo,
a black and white rainvase on a window ledge,
sand and the noonday sun. . . . Dimension after dimension,
life after life, each separate and the same,
folds in a Chinese fan,
Fingerprints. Footprints.Revolver in the gutter.
A letter hidden in a secret drawer.
The broken pearl necklace. DNA.
The Case of the Chinese Boxes that was never solved.
. . . . They spoke maybe two dozen words before they parted,
which have not come down to us,
but he liked to think Harry Belafonte echoed them
in Sylvie: “Bring me little water, Sylvie, Sylvie,
Bring me little water out.
Bring me little water, Sylvie,
Every little once in a while”
and the lost amphimacer of the Here and Now,
the puzzlement of it,
and the heron, the lake, and the bell.

———-
And another amazing rich poem:

If You Get There Before I Do

Air out the linens, unlatch the shutters on the eastern side,
and maybe find that deck of Bicycle cards
lost near the sofa. Or maybe walk around
and look out the back windows first.
I hear the view’s magnificent: old silent pines
leading down to the lakeside, layer upon layer
of magnificent light. Should you be hungry,
I’m sorry but there’s no Chinese takeout,
only a General Store. You passed it coming in,
but you probably didn’t notice its one weary gas pump
along with all those Esso cans from decades ago.
If you’re somewhat confused, think Vermont,
that state where people are folded into the mountains
like berries in batter. . . . What I’d like when I get there
is a few hundred years to sit around and concentrate
on one thing at a time. I’d start with radiators
and work my way up to Meister Eckhart,
or why do so few people turn their lives around, so many
take small steps into what they never do,
the first weeks, the first lessons,
until they choose something other,
beginning and beginning their lives,
so never knowing what it’s like to risk
last minute failure. . . .I’d save blue for last. Klein blue,
or the blue of Crater Lake on an early June morning.
That would take decades. . . .Don’t forget
to sway the fence gate back and forth a few times
just for its creaky sound. When you swing in the tire swing
make sure your socks are off. You’ve forgotten, I expect,
the feeling of feet brushing the tops of sunflowers:
In Vermont, I once met a ski bum on a summer break
who had followed the snows for seven years and planned
on at least seven more. We’re here for the enjoyment of it, he said,
to salaam into joy. . . .I expect you’ll find
Bibles scattered everywhere, or Talmuds, or Qur’ans,
as well as little snippets of gospel music, chants,
old Advent calendars with their paper doors still open.
You might pay them some heed. Don’t be alarmed
when what’s familiar starts fading, as gradually
you lose your bearings,
your body seems to turn opaque and then transparent,
until finally it’s invisible—what old age rehearses us for
and vacations in the limbo of the Middle West.
Take it easy, take it slow. When you think I’m on my way,
the long middle passage done,
fill the pantry with cereal, curry, and blue and white boxes of macaroni, place the
checkerboard set, or chess if you insist,
out on the flat-topped stump beneath the porch’s shadow,
pour some lemonade into the tallest glass you can find in the cupboard,
then drum your fingers, practice lifting your eyebrows,
until you tell them all—the skeptics, the bigots, blind neighbors,
those damn-with-faint-praise critics on their hobbyhorses—
that I’m allowed,
and if there’s a place for me that love has kept protected,
I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming too.

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Okla Elliott 1977-2017: Gone Too Soon

On March 19, 2017, the young and very accomplished poet Okla Elliott passed away unexpectedly in his sleep. He was also a novelist, fiction writer, translator, translator, and teacher, in academia and beyond. I discovered his poetry from Subtropics, where I read the first poem below.

The Patience of the Land Mine 
        

Weeds grow over rusty death

in a field no crops

but many flowers

will populate. The land mine dreams

the sweetness of a child’s foot

or a dog’s paw to depress

its small detonator, dreams

the echoing boom

and the wet bloom of meat and bone.

It dreams its dream for years, decades,

does nothing but dream,

and never grows tired.

But I only experienced his considerateness firsthand when I published a review in the same issue of Tupelo Quarterly Review as he did, after which we became Facebook friends. It seemed as if I merely blinked, maybe twice, and he was gone. What a loss! This article gives an idea of how much he is missed and his legacy, as well as another of his fine poems.

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Remembering Derek Walcott 1930-2017

Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, who was born and died in the Caribbean island of Santa Lucia, left a larger-than-life legacy of poetry, plays, essays, and more, certainly a prolific and much-lauded literary giant. The Caribbean world imbued his poetry with gorgeous, rich imagery, and permeated his unique style. He will be long remembered. One of his best-known poems is “Sea Grapes”:

Sea Grapes

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That sail which leans on light,

tired of islands,

a schooner beating up the Caribbean


for home, could be Odysseus,

home-bound on the Aegean;

that father and husband’s


longing, under gnarled sour grapes, is

like the adulterer hearing Nausicaa’s name

in every gull’s outcry.


This brings nobody peace. The ancient war

between obsession and responsibility

will never finish and has been the same


for the sea-wanderer or the one on shore

now wriggling on his sandals to walk home,

since Troy sighed its last flame,


and the blind giant’s boulder heaved the trough

from whose groundswell the great hexameters come

to the conclusions of exhausted surf.


The classics can console. But not enough. 

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