Astronomer-Poet Rebecca Elson Remembered at Brainpickings


Rare indeed is the scientist-poet, gifted in language and math/ scientific thinking at the same time, but this describes Rebecca Elson, featured in this post on the Brainpickings site, a gift from one-woman-curator Maria Popova. Elson’s stellar scientific career, for which she was a natural genius, was cut short by 9/11 funding crises and the scientific patriarchy which did not give women their due at the time. At that point she turned to poetry; and the result is amazing, a collection of poetry, essays, and other writings selected by those who knew her and published as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001. She died at the age of 39 in 1999.

Despite her untimely death, she returned to scientific inquiry and is remembered most for her scientific contributions (52 scientific research papers), although her poetry also remains popular and was highly praised even at its publication: The Economist named her book as one of the best of the year in 2001.

Since I myself wanted to be both a poet and astronomer at the age of 9, Elson’s work holds a particular fascination to me. And as I attempted to explain relativity in college by having people on my dorm floor act it out (or at least one dramatic aspect of it), at which point I had an epiphany about it, I was particularly drawn to this poem of hers from the book:

Explaining Relativity

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors,
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

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Alicia Ostriker’s “The History of America” for 4th of July


On this 4th of July, aka Independence Day, we think — hopefully — about freedom, which should mean, on this of all holidays, freedom from oppression, tyranny, freedom of speech, religion, and the press, freedom which comes from the rule of law, which does NOT mean “law and order” or “police state,” as Trump would have it, but rather means NO ONE is above the law, certainly not the president or any of his cabinet, certainly not members of Congress or the judiciary, all of whom are public servants. With a president who has never acknowledged publicly that he too is subject to the law, who taunts the freedoms made part of the Constitution in the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights, promoting only the second amendment, which he thinks means everyone must be armed with assault weapons, or at least be able to exercise their “right” to wield such weapons. But then, the history of America has always had its overbearing side.

And no one has expressed this more eloquently than Alicia Ostriker in her breathtaking poem “The History of America.” If America has national treasures, Ms. Ostriker is certainly one of them, having written a lifetime of enduring poetry on the most vital subjects of our time.

The History of America

—for Paul Metcalf

A linear projection: a route. It crosses
The ocean in many ships. Arriving in the new
Land, it cuts through and down forests and it
Keeps moving. Terrain: Rock, weaponry.
Dark trees, mastery. Grass, to yield. Earth,
Reproachful. Fox, bear, coon, wildcat
Prowl gloomily, it kills them, it skins them,
Its language alters, no account varmint, its
Teeth set, nothing defeats its obsession, it becomes
A snake in the reedy river. Spits and prays,
Keeps moving. Behind it, a steel track. Cold,
Permanent. Not permanent. It will decay. This
Does not matter, it does not actually care,
Murdering the buffalo, driving the laggard regiments,
The caring was a necessary myth, an eagle like
A speck in heaven dives. The line believes
That the entire wrinkled mountain range is the
Eagle’s nest, and everything tumbles in place.
It buries its balls at Wounded Knee, it rushes
Gold, it gambles. It buys plastics. Another
Ocean stops it. Soon, soon, up by its roots,
Severed, irrecoverably torn, that does not matter,
It decides, perpendicular from here: escape.

A prior circle: a mouth. It is nowhere,
Everywhere, swollen, warm. Expanding and contracting
It absorbs and projects children, jungles,
Black shoes, pennies, blood. It speaks
Too many dark, suffering languages. Reaching a hand
Toward its throat, you disappear entirely. No
Wonder you fear this bleeding pulse, no wonder.

My Review of Neely’s Passing Through Blue Earth in WRR


The Whale Road Review has published my review of Cynthia Neely’s chapbook Passing Through Blue Earth. Please check it out, as well as the fine poetry and reviews in this truly excellent site. Well worth your time. Also here is a link to where you can buy a copy of Neely’s award-winning chapbook, selected by the fantastic and illustrious Kwame Dawes, one of my favorite poets too.

Arrested for a Poem: Dareen Tatour, Poet of Resistance

The long-standing question “Does Poetry Matter?” has found a resounding answer in the affirmative in the arrest, trial, and conviction — and its aftermath — of Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour for a poem, the writing and publication of which was determined by an Israeli court on May 3, 2018 to constitute an act of terror and “incitement to violence.” This is almost 3 years after her arrest in October of 2015, during which time she had been in various forms of detention, starting with prison and then house arrest under severe restrictions in an apartment far from her home town, and, after an outcry from PEN, Israeli writers and artists, and other people and international organizations, finally a judge allowed house arrest in her home town with the same previously imposed ban on internet usage and electronic monitoring that restricted her movements. All this for a poem, or actually a small group of poems. Yes, the world says, poetry matters.

As Ms. Tatour said, “My trial ripped off the masks. The whole world will hear my story. The whole world will hear what Israel’s democracy is. A democracy for Jews only. Only Arabs go to jail. The court said I am convicted of terrorism. If that’s my terrorism, I give the world a terrorism of love.”

Further, “I cannot live without poetry,” Tatour told Haaretz. “They want me to stop writing. For me to be a poet without a pen and without feelings.”

Her attorney, Gaby Lasky, decried the “criminalization of poetry” in which translation and interpretation played a large part, asserting “When the state tries people for poetry, that derogates from the cultural richness of all society.”

Perhaps the best witness would be Tatour’s poetry itself.

Detaining a Poem

One day,
they stopped me,
shackled me,
tied up my body, my soul,
my everything…

Then they said: search her,
we’ll find a terrorist within her!
They turned my heart inside out—
my eyes as well,
rummaged through even my feelings.
From my eyes they drew a pulse of inspiration;
from my heart, the ability to sketch out meanings.
Then they said: beware!
She’s hiding weapons deep in her pockets.
Search her!
Root out the explosives.
And so they searched me…

Finally, they said, accusing me:
We found nothing
in her pockets except letters.
We found nothing except for a poem.

(Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Lever)

*********

I Will Not Leave

By Dareen Tatour

(Translated by Jonathan Wright)

They signed on my behalf
And turned me into
A file, forgotten
Like cigarette butts.
Homesickness tore me apart
And in my own country I ended up
An immigrant.

I abandoned those pens
To weep over the sorrows
Of the inkwells.
They abandoned my cause and my dream
At the cemetery gates
And that person who’s waiting
Laments his luck
As life passes.

Besiege me,
Kill me, blow me up,
Assassinate me, imprison me.
When it comes to my country,
There’s no backing down.

*******

Perhaps the best witness would be the poem for which she was convicted:

Resist, My People, Resist Them

Resist, my people, resist them.

In Jerusalem, I dressed my wounds and breathed my sorrows

And carried the soul in my palm

For an Arab Palestine.

I will not succumb to the “peaceful solution,”

Never lower my flags

Until I evict them from my land.

I cast them aside for a coming time.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the settler’s robbery

And follow the caravan of martyrs.

Shred the disgraceful constitution

Which imposed degradation and humiliation

And deterred us from restoring justice.

They burned blameless children;

As for Hadil, they sniped her in public,

Killed her in broad daylight.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist the colonialist’s onslaught.

Pay no mind to his agents among us

Who chain us with the peaceful illusion.

Do not fear doubtful tongues;

The truth in your heart is stronger,

As long as you resist in a land

That has lived through raids and victory.

So Ali called from his grave:

Resist, my rebellious people.

Write me as prose on the agarwood;

My remains have you as a response.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Resist, my people, resist them.

Karen An-Hwei Lee: Poet of the Intelligent Soul

Finding a balanced approach to matters of the soul, or spirituality, is no easy task, but one of vital importance for poets so inclined, and certainly Karen An-Hwei Lee is such a poet. Cole Swensen referred to Lee’s collection In Media Res as her “dictionary of faith,” noting

It slowly pieces together the life of a woman moving toward God, a god that accrues, just as language does, by adding bits meaningful in themselves into ever larger, though unprecedented, structures.

And she describes Lee’s language as “always a bit out of place, in the way that a grand piano would be out of place in parking lot—it’s a sheer delight, and it enriches everything for miles around.“

So we’ll let the poems speak for themselves.

Dream of Ink Brush Calligraphy

In prayer:
quiet opening,
my artery is a thin
shadow on paper—
margin of long grass,
ruderal hair, sister to this
not yet part of our bodies
your lyric corpus of seed
in rough drafts of pine ash,
chaogao or grass calligraphy
in rough drafts of pine ash—
your lyric corpus of seed
not yet part of our bodies:
ruderal hair, sister to this
margin of long grass,
shadow on paper,
my artery is a thin
quiet opening
in prayer.

The poem above reminded me of when I wanted to learn calligraphy — inkbrush calligraphy no less — and took two years of Chinese in college, bought special brushes and read all about it, in the search of something like the moment, the ideal of a t’ai chi of meditation so powerful and encapsulating that I could memorize a mountain or a flower and encrypt their images on paper in a few fluid strokes. Or write Chinese characters of ineffable beauty. She sums what was behind this desire with “your lyric corpus of seed/ not yet part of our bodies…”

And this prayer, one of many she’s penned:

Prayer for a Bamboo-Flowering Famine

Every half century, the synchronous flowering of bamboo causes famine in parts of India.

May we blossom every fifty years
without afflicting the people.

May our seedpods nourish rodents
who roam our groves

without rebuking lands with famine.
May sweet potatoes and rice save us.

May ginger and turmeric flourish
to the bitter distaste of rats

while tresses of bamboo flowers
changeling white wasps

load the groves with seed
in rare perennial synchrony.

May our sisters flower en masse
hundreds of square miles apart

in the pale night. May our shoots
pray a silent vision of healing,

our rhizome-laden memories:
Yes, we share our hunger

only once on this earth, my love.
Let us bless our fruit and multiply.

My Review of Ladin’s Fireworks in the Graveyard at The Rumpus!

The Rumpus has published my review of Joy Ladin’s transformative poetry collection Fireworks in the Graveyard” today here. Joy Ladin is quite an amazing person herself, and enlightened me, in the process of reading her work and about her struggles, about the deep connection between transexuality and religious faith. The review explores this and so much more. Please check it out!

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.

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.

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.

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.