Tag Archives: women and form

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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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poets, Remembering Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

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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Review: Catherine Chandler’s “Glad and Sorry Seasons”

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Glad and Sorry Seasons
By Catherine Chandler
Biblioasis
$18.95

Before reading Catherine Chandler’s latest poetry collection, Glad and Sorry Seasons, I was already familiar with several of the poems in it, and felt I knew, to some extent, what to expect: fine, smooth, well-crafted “formalist” poems. And here we find a wide range of forms, in particular the sonnet, her home turf. But what I discovered in this book transcends this sort of categorization. Or maybe redefines it.

The title (from Shakespeare’s sonnet 19) tells us this is about seasons: the seasons of emotion and the passage of time. She explores this subject from the inside, the places of raw emotion, tamed by the sonics of formal poetry. Although metrical and rhyming poetry in English seems like a far cry from haiku, this interview in Rattle with Richard Gilbert on the subject of haiku gave me a number of interesting parallels showing the universality of form in poetry. I would assert that form is part of the essence of poetry, and the author’s mastery of the forms she uses is essential to how well they work.

Seasons, as Gilbert describes, have their own language in Japanese haiku, with whole dictionaries devoted to “season words” or kigo that “go back for centuries, which is really the vertical depth that makes kigo powerful.” In this sense, kigo may be analogous to literary allusions, a language connecting poetry to its own history.

Another dimension to kigo is that each one refers to a whole set of associations, an “environment.” “Moon” isn’t just the moon, for example.

In Japanese, when we say “moon” in haiku, it’s always the moon-viewing moon… there’s also a sense of impermanent beauty…in the early autumn…a quietly festive time sharing a sense of heart—that’s all included in the kigo.

This sense of a word representing many things is analogous to idiomatic expressions and even clichés, in the sense of common, frequently-used expressions. Chandler uses these types of words, in the tradition of Frost, to evoke a larger feeling with a few words.

For example, in her poem “November,” common expressions are used in unusual combinations to create a confluence of associations.

November is a season all its own—
a month of saints and souls and soldiers. Snow
will soon white out a fallacy of brown.
It is a month of waiting, lying low.

November is a season all its own—
a time for turning back the clock as though
it’s useless to pretend. A dressing-down.
Thin ice entices me to touch and go.

November’s neither here nor there, but here
in dazzling dawns that dissipate to grey;
here in the tilting asymmetric branch
and sharp note of a towering white pine where
the pik and churlee of a purple finch
can either break a heart or make a day.

She’s painted a strongly familiar picture of November: “a season all its own” works like a picture frame. Familiar expressions such as “lying low,” “turning back the clock,” “a dressing-down,” “touch and go,” and “neither here nor there” combine their associative power in unusual ways, to create a striking cadence of emotion. None of these words are the way we think of November. Yet the effect is strangely apt for how we feel about it. The poem takes on layers of new meaning, tinged with foreboding, cut to the possibility of uplift at the end, as if to say “at this point it’s in your hands.” We’re left with the image of the lovely birdsong, which will be what we make of it.

Of course, the dynamic of haiku is entirely different, image-focused, but this quote proposes a greater similarity than we’d think:

Linguistically, these languages, English and Japanese, do not meet at all on the level of the syllable; they meet on the level of the metrical phrase.

(Italics mine.)
So there is a universal element between such disparate forms as, say, the sonnet and haiku. Chandler writes with an uncanny ear for that “metrical phrase,” in its rhythm and rhyme.

One more major and relevant haiku concept is kire or “cutting,” referring to how “the haiku has to be cut in space and time in some way, [which]… has an emotional charge.” This “creates these two broken parts that don’t go together.” And that is like the “turn” of the sonnet, or indeed any good poem, transforming one situation or thing into an entirely different one, “cutting” us out of time and place and seeing something unexpected in a new way. Chandler works in rhyme and meter, almost exclusively. But she “cuts” with exceptional subtlety.

To see how Chandler incorporates both concepts into her poetry, read this poem in an unusual form:

Rush Hour Sonondilla

I celebrate the great sardine,
and count the ways I love it: dried,
in cans, smoked, salted, deep-fat fried,
filleted in soup and fish terrine.
I love it’s pre-cooked beauties, too—
its sleek and shiny silver skin,
its single tiny dorsal fin—
before it hits the barbecue.

Young herring, swimming in the sea,
awash in your Omega-3,
soon you shall pay a hefty price
and end up on a bed of rice.
For now, take heart in that you’re free,
not packed inside this train, like me.

We are told that it’s rush hour by the title. Then swiftly taken into an ode to the sardine with subtle humor. “I celebrate the great…” implies a grand speech, then “cuts” into the unexpected image of a sardine. Like a master illusionist, she draw us into “I count the ways” from a Shakespearean sonnet everyone knows, then into a list of methods of food preparation. The final stanza is so comic and improbable that we forget the title until the last line suddenly “cuts” us back. To what? A cliché! Nice. This shows the use of words with strong common associations to take us out of a place and then plop us back in with everything changed, like a punchline. Oh, and another name for the form “Sonondilla” is “The Sardine.” Another little cutaway for the lucky nerd who reads footnotes, like me.

In a sonnet, I believe the prelude to the turn is of equal importance. Skillful placement of words and the creation of sonics and rhythm is what “floats” the reader in one environment before suddenly being “cut” into another.

The first part establishes a normalcy of action in which there’s an element of expectation but also of convention—hence the “convention” of forms, the sonnet in particular. This idea dovetails perfectly into Chandler’s sonnet to the Sonnet, “Sonnet Love.”

I love the way its rhythms and its rhymes
provide us with a promise, a belief
familiar voices at specific times
may modulate unmanageable grief.

I love the way we’re called to referee
the mind-heart matchup in its scanty ring;
how through it all our only guarantee
is that for fourteen rounds the ropes will sing.

I love the way it makes us feel at home,
the way it welcomes fugitives and fools
who have forgotten all roads lead to Rome
from shared beginnings in the tidal pools.

Life’s unpredictability defies
clean dénouement. I love the way it tries.

After a smooth, lilting progress through the poem, suddenly the final sentence cuts into the middle of the last line, ending on the verb “tries,” the only action we or the Sonnet can take to achieve resolution. “It” has been set up in the poem to refer to the sonnet. Yet despite the pronoun, we are led to feel it is us. We are the ones who try to create “clean dénouement.” And the verb “tries” hangs there, as if searching for the verb “resolve” to make this a clean reply to the “defies.” The “emotional charge” comes not from the repeated word “love,” but from “tries.” It hangs, as we do, never actually finished trying…

Her oft-quoted sonnet that shows how to “modulate” the “unmanageable grief” of the loss of an unborn child, Nemerov prize-winning “Coming to Terms,” takes the reader through the “after” scene in all its emptiness and attempts at resolution to “the artful look of ordinary days,” a powerful phrase that captures how we try, through the art of what must ultimately be a sort of deception, to create continuity in a life that cuts us to the heart, a life that must end. Her poems cut to her own heart to give us the art of resolution in ours.

Her subject matter traverses the emotional “glad and sorry seasons” of aging, loss, illness, both on an individual or mass scale, suicide, the need for love or companionship, the “seven deadly sins” (with modern applications) and, subtly included, the need for God. These days God is discreetly left out of all public discourse, replaced by “nature.” Chandler bucks the trend, her faith and doubts honestly expressed. The poem “When” uses a list poem to gently remind us, in a few strongly associative words, of something higher.

A review of this book wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the translations of French Canadian and Latin American poets, one of whose moving poems, “The Wonderful Boat,” is the title of her blog. These are languages Chandler has lived in; she is Canadian and spends much of her time in South America. Even so, I can hardly imagine how she managed to create such elegant, perfectly rhymed metrical poems in translation. Translation has been described by J.G. McClure as a kind of ekphrasis: “to celebrate the new artistic possibilities of the conversation between two writers.” It helps that her love of these writers shows through in the work. And judging by the final poem (her own) of the book, “Edward Hopper’s Automat,” which has a Hitchcock or Rod Serling cinematic quality and conclusion (think “cut!”), ekphrasis is one of Chandler’s strong suits.

In fact, “formalist” may be a redundant moniker: all poetry is by definition “formal,” but in different ways. “Free verse” employs line breaks. Even prose poetry, as well as free verse, uses the haiku characteristics of specialized associative language, cutting, and a sonic relationship with the language. In short, one can judge all poetry by these criteria, and the rest is a matter of style and taste.

In this larger sense, Chandler succeeds not merely as a writer of poetry in traditional forms and metrics, but of poetry that works to create an “emotional charge” in the reader. Poetry satisfies in ways prose can’t. Done here by one of the best.

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Unsplendid Women & Form Issue with Two of My Poems!

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The long-awaited, spectacular double issue of Unsplendid, a very sophisticated site for and about poetry written in form (traditional or invented), with the theme of Women and Form, is now online! And it includes two of my poems, written in a form I invented, a form I call “strangled alphabet” because one can only use the letters that are in the title to create the entire poem (plus the letters’ frequency in any one word can’t exceed their frequency in the title).

It sounds more like an acrostic or puzzle perhaps than a form, but it really does provide constraints, something poetic forms do, which can produce very striking sonic results, and can also take the poet out of their normal creative pathways into something more surprising. Which is what I need. It requires, of course, some work in deciding on a title that won’t be too restrictive, and more preparatory work prior to the actual composition than other forms, but… For an obsessive person, it just may balance puzzle-solving obsessiveness (am I guilty?) with creativity…

The quality of poetry in this issue is staggering! All the authors are women, and several essays on the subject of women and form are also included. The editors’ sixth sense of what engages and fascinates a reader pays off. You can scroll down and savor the poems one by one, or skip around through the amazing titles. I’ve always wanted to be in Unsplendid, perhaps one of my all-time favorite poetry venues, so this is cloud nine (or more accurately, cloud seventeen) for me. My first-ever foray into reading my own poem as an audio clip also appears here. I decided to push myself out of my own box.

And so here it is, poetry that comes entirely out of the box, yet delightfully contained in some of the most inventive uses of form I’ve seen. Enjoy!

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