Tag Archives: poets

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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Powerful Poem by Patricia Smith on Emmett Till Lynching

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The lynching — by which we mean racially-motivated torture and murder — of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a heinous crime which, by being brought out into the open and made public for all to see and know, is considered the spark (or one of the sparks) that lit up the civil rights movement in America.
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It is the subject of renowned poet Patricia Smith’s powerful piece, “Black, Poured Directly into the Wound.” The title alone speaks volumes, and this is an important event to remember during Black Histoy Month, all the more important considering that we now have a white supremacist sharing power, apparently, in the White House. We need voices like Smith’s, to point out, with an unforgettably sharp point, the ugly history and legacy of such a mindset.

Black, Poured Directly into the Wound

By Patricia Smith

Prairie winds blaze through her tumbled belly, and Emmett’s
red yesterdays refuse to rename her any kind of mother.
A pudge-cheeked otherwise, sugar whistler, her boy is
(through the fierce clenching mouth of her memory) a
grays-and-shadows child. Listen. Once she was pretty.
Windy hues goldened her skin. She was pert, brown-faced,
in every wide way the opposite of the raw, screeching thing
chaos has crafted. Now, threaded awkwardly, she tires of the
sorries, the Lawd have mercies. Grief’s damnable tint
is everywhere, darkening days she is no longer aware of.
She is gospel revolving, repeatedly emptied of light, pulled
and caressed, cooed upon by strangers, offered pork and taffy.
Boys in the street stare at her, then avert their eyes, as if she
killed them all, shipped every one into the grips of Delta. She sits,
her chair carefully balanced on hell’s edge, and pays for sanity in
kisses upon the conjured forehead of her son. Beginning with A,
she recites (angry, away, awful) the alphabet of a world gone red.
Coffee scorches her throat as church ladies drift about her room,
black garb sweating their hips, filling cups with tap water, drinking,
drinking in glimpses of her steep undoing. The absence of a black
roomful of boy is measured, again, again. In the clutches of coffee,
red-eyed, Mamie knows their well-meaning murmur. One says She
a mama, still. Once you have a chile, you always a mama. Kisses
in multitudes rain from their dusty Baptist mouths, drowning her.
Sit still, she thinks, til they remember how your boy was killed.
She remembers. Gush and implosion, crushed, slippery, not a boy.
Taffeta and hymnals all these women know, not a son lost and
pulled from the wretched and rumbling Tallahatchie. Mamie, she
of the hollowed womb, is nobody’s mama anymore. She is
tinted echo, barren. Everything about her makes the sound sorry.
The white man’s hands on her child, dangled eye, twanging chaos,
things that she leans on, the only doors that open to let her in.
Faced with days and days of no him, she lets Chicago — windy,
pretty in the ways of the North — console her with its boorish grays.
A hug, more mourners and platters of fat meat. Will she make it through?
Is this how the face slap of sorrow changes the shape of a
mother? All the boys she sees now are laughing, drenched in red.
Emmett, in dreams, sings I am gold. He tells how dry it is, the prairie.

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A Word From Seamus Heaney

In this tumultuous election season, we need a word from the wise Seamus Heaney to get some perspective on all the insanity. And what better place than “From the Republic of Conscience?”

From the Republic of Conscience 

by Seamus Heaney
At immigration, the clerk was an old man

who produced a wallet from his homespun coat

and showed me a photograph of my grandfather.
The woman in customs asked me to declare

the words of our traditional cures and charms

to heal dumbness and avert the evil eye.
No porters. No interpreter. No taxi.

You carried your own burden and very soon

your symptoms of creeping privilege disappeared.
Fog is a dreaded omen there but lightning

spells universal good and parents hang

swaddled infants in trees during thunderstorms.
Salt is their precious mineral. And seashells

are held to the ear during births and funerals.

The base of all inks and pigments is seawater.
Their sacred symbol is a stylized boat.

The sail is an ear, the mast a sloping pen,

the hull a mouth-shape, the keel an open eye.
At their inauguration, public leaders

must swear to uphold unwritten law and weep

to atone for their presumption to hold office –
and to affirm their faith that all life sprang

from salt in tears which the sky-god wept

after he dreamt his solitude was endless.
I came back from that frugal republic

with my two arms the one length, the customs

woman having insisted my allowance was myself.
The old man rose and gazed into my face

and said that was official recognition

that I was now a dual citizen.
He therefore desired me when I got home

to consider myself a representative

and to speak on their behalf in my own tongue.
Their embassies, he said, were everywhere

but operated independently

and no ambassador would ever be relieved.

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My Review of Lababidi’s Balancing Acts Published

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Thethepoetry, a fine site for all things poetry, including reviews, essays and interviews, has published my review of the inimitable Yahia Lababidi’s new book, a “collected poems” with an intro by H.L. Hix (says something right there) that will simply blow you away (the book, of course). Who says poetry can’t be enlightening? Check it out.

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Remembering Kate Light: Gone too Soon

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Kate Light, poet, violinist, and librettist, died unexpectedly of breast cancer. Too young, too talented to die, she had so many plans in the works, so much she was looking forward to. One of the many fine poets with whom I was still unfamiliar despite her having been featured on the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Despite being a poet who wrote in forms, and highly regarded. A brief selection from her many wonderful poems.

There Comes the Strangest Moment

There comes the strangest moment in your life,
when everything you thought before breaks free–
what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite
looks upside down from how it used to be.

Skin’s gone pale, your brain is shedding cells;
you question every tenet you set down;
obedient thoughts have turned to infidels
and every verb desires to be a noun.

I want–my want. I love–my love. I’ll stay
with you. I thought transitions were the best,
but I want what’s here to never go away.
I’ll make my peace, my bed, and kiss this breast…

Your heart’s in retrograde. You simply have no choice.
Things people told you turn out to be true.
You have to hold that body, hear that voice.
You’d have sworn no one knew you more than you.

How many people thought you’d never change?
But here you have. It’s beautiful. It’s strange.

The Self-Taught Man

A man schooled to bits bears a son, and the son
says, No way will I walk where you’ve walked,
and be taught in the methods you’ve been taught.
I want to find out everything on my own!
You see the beauty of it: this son’s untamed,
unbitten, unashamed; head-strong and heart-led,
people come to view him: the self-fed
man! He’s in a niche that stays unnamed
because it’s all his own. And you are drawn
to this one like a horse to water — drink drink drink
beside the self-taught man; listen to him think
as only he can. After he is gone
from the spot you linger, licking your wounds and scars,
because the son listens only, only to the stars.

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Nikki Giovanni: Always New

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Ahhh… Black History Month finished on March 29th, and I still have so many poets I’ve missed. March came and went, keeping me too busy to post a single thing. Here we are in National Poetry Month, and I still have a post on Nikki Giovanni, so I will post it, then catch up with some recent publications of my own.

Nikki Giovanni was for me a breath of fresh air, unabashedly speaking truth to power. I loved to see her slight figure, so much like mine, coming up with the most explosive poems in an era crying out for truth to explode the prejudices and oppression asserted insidiously everywhere. Yet after so many decades we still need that voice. A voice that also speaks of the truth of love. So here she is, in a small sampling of her voluminous work.

Nikki-Rosa

By Nikki Giovanni

childhood remembrances are always a drag
if you’re Black
you always remember things like living in Woodlawn
with no inside toilet
and if you become famous or something
they never talk about how happy you were to have
your mother
all to yourself and
how good the water felt when you got your bath
from one of those
big tubs that folk in chicago barbecue in
and somehow when you talk about home
it never gets across how much you
understood their feelings
as the whole family attended meetings about Hollydale
and even though you remember
your biographers never understand
your father’s pain as he sells his stock
and another dream goes
And though you’re poor it isn’t poverty that
concerns you
and though they fought a lot
it isn’t your father’s drinking that makes any difference
but only that everybody is together and you
and your sister have happy birthdays and very good
Christmases
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy.

Mothers

By Nikki Giovanni

the last time i was home
to see my mother we kissed
exchanged pleasantries
and unpleasantries pulled a warm
comforting silence around
us and read separate books

i remember the first time
i consciously saw her
we were living in a three room
apartment on burns avenue

mommy always sat in the dark
i don’t know how i knew that but she did

that night i stumbled into the kitchen
maybe because i’ve always been
a night person or perhaps because i had wet
the bed
she was sitting on a chair
the room was bathed in moonlight diffused through
those thousands of panes landlords who rented
to people with children were prone to put in windows
she may have been smoking but maybe not
her hair was three-quarters her height
which made me a strong believer in the samson myth
and very black

i’m sure i just hung there by the door
i remember thinking: what a beautiful lady

she was very deliberately waiting
perhaps for my father to come home
from his night job or maybe for a dream
that had promised to come by
“come here” she said “i’ll teach you
a poem: i see the moon
the moon sees me
god bless the moon
and god bless me”
i taught it to my son
who recited it for her
just to say we must learn
to bear the pleasures
as we have borne the pains

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Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

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A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.

Sympathy

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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My Review of The Lillian Trilogy published!!

Autostraddle has published my review of Mary Meriam’s comprehensive poetry collection The Lillian Trilogy here! It’s a fantastic book for anyone to read, a delight. Feminist, Lesbian, Sensual, full of subtle and penetrating rhyme and rhythm, seething in its exposure of injustice and moving in its declarations of pain and sorrow. Check it out!

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