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.
Jane Hirshfield, whose work often addresses the spiritual side of poetry, brings that transcendent theme to us in beautifully wrought epiphanies, never in-your-face, yet never clouded with their ambiguity. Undoubtedly it is her attitude that gives her poetry that fine edge, as indicated in this quote from her Poetry Foundation’s author description:
Hirshfield once said. “I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life. And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.”
This was exactly my feeling long ago when I began writing poetry; I wanted to write and loved writing poetry, but felt I didn’t have the life experience behind me to give my words what I thought of as poetry’s most essential quality: wisdom and that delicate balance between the expressed and the inexpressible. This is what I unfailingly find in Hirshfield’s work. In pursuit of “what it means to live,” she studied at San Francisco Zen center and received a lay ordination in Soto Zen in 1979. This gave her, one might say, mindfulness training, and a way of looking at what it means to be alive, but she never liked it to define her, expressed in various interviews, such as this quote:
“I always feel a slight dismay if I’m called a “Zen” poet. I am not. I am a human poet, that’s all.”
Of course; a poet with a true voice is not confined by their courses of study or even their experiences. And in addition to writing poetry, Hirshfield brought to the attention of the poetry world many overlooked women poets, including traditional Japanese women poets. So without further ado I shall let two of my favorites of hers speak for themselves.
My mare, when she was in heat,
would travel the fenceline for hours,
wearing the impatience
in her feet into the ground.
Not a stallion for miles, I’d assure her,
give it up.
She’d widen her nostrils,
sieve the wind for news, be moving again,
her underbelly darkening with sweat,
then stop at the gate a moment, wait
to see what I might do.
Oh, I knew
how it was for her, easily
recognized myself in that wide lust:
came to stand in the pasture
just to see it played.
Offered a hand, a bucket of grain—
a minute’s distraction from passion
the most I gave.
Then she’d return to what burned her:
the fence, the fence,
so hoping I might see, might let her free.
I’d envy her then,
to be so restlessly sure
of heat, and need, and what it takes
to feed the wanting that we are—
only a gap to open
the width of a mare,
the rest would take care of itself.
Surely, surely I knew that,
who had the power of bucket
she would beseech me, sidle up,
be gone, as life is short.
But desire, desire is long.
And this one, very different but the same voice.
For What Binds Us
By Jane Hirshfield
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
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.
In memory of Winnie Mandela, the brave freedom fighter against apartheid in South Africa who died this week (and if you have any doubts about her heroism, read this), I searched the work of South African poets to find a favorite to post here, and with great delight discovered the powerful, gifted voice of Gabeba Baderoon. The recipient of many awards and also the praise of well-established poets, a bio can be found here.
She is equally adept at addressing such public issues as war, oppression, and national tragedy, and the very small personal details of life, infusing a special magic and lightness of tone into whatever subject she chooses. Here, on war and social tragedy:
WAR TRIPTYCH: LOVE, SILENCE, GLORY
By Gabeba Baderoon
I. Always For The First Time
We tell our stories of war like stories
of love, innocent as eggs.
We will meet memory again at the wall around our city,
always for the first time.
The mother asked to stay.
She looked at her silent child.
I was waiting for you.
The quiet of the girl’s face was a different quiet
Her hands lay untouched by death.
The washer of bodies cut
away her long black dress.
Blue prayer beads fell
to the floor in a slow accounting.
The washer of bodies began to sing
a prayer to mothers and daughters.
The mother said,
who will wait for me.
(on the aftermath of the bombings on a holy day in Najaf, Iraq)
III. Father Receives News His Son Died in the Intifada
When he heard the news, Mr Karim became silent.
He did not look at the cameras,
nor at the people who brought their grief.
He felt a hand slip from his hand,
a small unclasping,
and for that he refused the solace of glory.
And here, a more personal detail of no apparent significance takes on that magic we seek in poetry.
THE ART OF LEAVING
By Gabeba Baderoon
The warmth is leaving
your shirt, hanging
over the back of the chair. Slowly
it is giving back everything
it had of yours.
Here she gives love and relationships in a different context, allowing the physical and emotional elements their space, time, and an unexpected transcendence.
THE DREAM IN THE NEXT BODY
By Gabeba Baderoon
From the end of the bed, I pull
the sheets back into place.
An old man paints a large sun striped
by clouds of seven blues.
Across the yellow centre each
blue is precisely itself and yet,
at the point it meets another,
the eye cannot detect a change.
The air shifts, he says,
and the colours.
When you touched me in a dream,
your skin an hour ago did not end
where it joined mine. My body continued
the movement of yours. Something flowed
between us like birds in a flock.
In a solitude larger than our two bodies
the hardening light parted us again
But under the covering the impress
of our bodies is a single, warm hollow.
Award-winning Poet and Educator Lucie Brock-Broido died this March 6 at the age of 61. A loss for the poetry world, her poetry was known for its lush verbiage, like a dense garden bursting off the page. She herself called her style “feral.” A useful tribute can be found here. It’s the least I can do to share some of her poetry here on my first NaPoMo post.
How Can It Be I Am No Longer I
By Lucie Brock-Broido
Winter was the ravaging in the scarified
Ghost garden, a freak of letters crossing down a rare
Path bleak with poplars. Only the yew were a crewel
Of kith at the fieldstone wall, annulled
As a dulcimer cinched in a green velvet sack.
To be damaged is to endanger—taut as the stark
Throats of castrati in their choir, lymphless & fawning
& pale. The miraculous conjoining
Where the beamless air harms our self & lung,
Our three-chambered heart & sternum,
Where two made a monstrous
Braid of other, ravishing.
To damage is an animal hunch
& urge, thou fallen—the marvelous much
Is the piece of Pleiades the underworld calls
The nightsky from their mud & rime. Perennials
Ghost the ground & underground the coffled
Veins, an aneurism of the ice & spectacle.
I would not speak again. How flinching
The world will seem—in the lynch
Of light as I sail home in a winter steeled
For the deaths of the few loved left living I will
Always love. I was a flint
To bliss & barbarous, a bristling
Of tracks like a starfish carved on his inner arm,
A tindering of tissue, a reliquary, twinned.
A singe of salt-hay shrouds the orchard-skin,
That I would be—lukewarm, mammalian, even then,
In winter when moss sheathes every thing alive
& everything not or once alive.
That I would be—dryadic, gothic, fanatic against
The vanishing; I will not speak to you again.
By Lucie Brock-Broid
Don’t do that when you are dead like this, I said,
Arguably still squabbling about the word inarguably.
I haunt Versailles, poring through the markets of the medieval.
Mostly meat to be sold there; mutton hangs
Like laundry pinkened on its line.
And gold!—a chalice with a cure for living in it.
We step over the skirt of an Elizabeth.
Red grapes, a delicacy, each peeled for us—
The vestments of a miniature priest, disrobed.
A sister is an old world sparrow placed in a satin shoe.
The weakling’s saddle is worn down from just too much sad attitude.
No one wants to face the “opaque reality” of herself.
For the life of me.
I was made American. You must consider this.
Whatever suffering is insufferable is punishable by perishable.
In Vienne, the rabbit Maurice is at home in the family cage.
I ache for him, his boredom and his solitude.
On suffering and animals, inarguably, they do.
I miss your heart, my heart.
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.”
“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:
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.
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.
My Review of Ann Tweedy’s wonderful poetry collection The Body’s Alphabet has been published on Glass-Poetry Journal. A gorgeous site, well worth visiting for the poetry too. So excited to be a part of Glass, one of the most beautiful venues out there. Please check it out.
The book’s author Ann Tweedy is a Pacific Northwest-based Poet, lawyer, scholar, and advocate for Native American rights, environmental protection, as well as polyamory, aka bisexuality, as a married bi woman. A voice that must be heard!
The Pulitzer Prize-winning new U.S. Poet Laureate, Tracy K. Smith, is certainly a timely choice, and a voice for bringing poetry into our world, breaking down barriers and preconceptions. And what an advocate indeed; with the unforgettable found poem below, powerfully earth-conscious and bringing us a clear and stark vision of what exactly is happening to us and our planet as a direct result of corporate capitalist excess and greed. It’s a devastating poem that should give us all pause…and be moved to take whatever actions we have in our power to resist the now-openly-sanctioned ravaging of our selves, our bodies and our world, our only home, our future. What could be more important?? All kudos to Tracy K. Smith!
Note: the formatting of this poem did not properly transfer to this website (perhaps it could be but I didn’t know how to do it). To see the correct formatting intended by the author, please visit this site.
Tracy K. Smith
200 cows more than 600 hilly acres
property would have been even larger
had J not sold 66 acres to DuPont for
waste from its Washington Works factory
where J was employed
did not want to sell
but needed money poor health
Not long after the sale cattle began to act
footage shot on a camcorder
grainy intercut with static
Images jump repeat sound accelerates
quality of a horror movie
the rippling shallow water the white ash
trees shedding their leaves
a large pipe
discharging green water
a skinny red cow
hair missing back humped
a dead black calf in snow its eye
a brilliant chemical blue
a calf’s bisected head
liver heart stomachs kidneys
gall bladder some dark some green
cows with stringy tails malformed hooves
lesions red receded eyes suffering slobbering
staggering like drunks
It don’t look like
anything I’ve been into before
I began rising through the ceiling of each floor in the hospital as though I were being pulled by some force outside my own volition. I continued rising until I passed through the roof itself and found myself in the sky. I began to move much more quickly past the mountain range near the hospital and over the city. I was swept away by some unknown force, and started to move at an enormous speed. Just moving like a thunderbolt through a darkness.
R’s taking on the case I found to be inconceivable
It just felt like the right thing to do
opportunity to use my background for people who
really needed it
R: filed a federal suit
a letter that mentioned
a substance at the landfill
a soap-like agent used in
PFOA: was to be incinerated or
sent to chemical waste facilities
not to be flushed into water or sewers
pumped hundreds of thousands of pounds
into the Ohio River
dumped tons of PFOA sludge
into open unlined pits
increased the size of the liver in rats and rabbits
(results replicated in dogs)
caused birth defects in rats
caused cancerous testicular pancreatic and
liver tumors in lab animals
possible DNA damage from exposure
bound to plasma proteins in blood
was found circulating through each organ
high concentrations in the blood of factory workers
children of pregnant employees had eye defects
dust vented from factory chimneys settled well-beyond
the property line
entered the water table
concentration in drinking water 3x international safety limit
study of workers linked exposure with prostate cancer
worth $1 billion in annual profit
(It don’t look like anything I’ve been into before)
Every individual thing glowed with life. Bands of energy were being dispersed from a huge universal heartbeat, faster than a raging river. I found I could move as fast as I could think.
did not make this information public
declined to disclose this finding
considered switching to new compound that appeared less toxic
and stayed in the body for a much shorter duration of time
decided against it
decided it needed to find a landfill for toxic sludge
bought 66 acres from a low-level employee
at the Washington Works facility
(J needed money
had been in poor health
a dead black calf
its eye chemical blue
staggering like drunks)
I could perceive the Earth, outer space, and humanity from a spacious and indescribable ‘God’s eye view.’ I saw a planet to my left covered with vegetation of many colors no signs of mankind or any familiar shorelines. The waters were living waters, the grass was living, the trees and the animals were more alive than on earth.
D’s first husband had been a chemist
worked at DuPont in this town you could have
everything you wanted
DuPont paid for his education
secured him a mortgage paid a generous salary
even gave him a free supply of PFOA
He explained that the planet we call Earth really has a proper name, has its own energy, is a true living being, was very strong but has been weakened considerably.
which she used
as soap in the family’s dishwasher
I could feel Earth’s desperate situation. Her aura appeared to be very strange, made me wonder if it was radioactivity. It was bleak, faded in color, and its sound was heart wrenching.
her husband came home sick—fever, nausea, diarrhea,
an emergency hysterectomy
a second surgery
I could tell the Doctor everything he did upon my arrival down to the minute details of accompanying the nurse to the basement of the hospital to get the plasma for me; everything he did while also being instructed and shown around in Heaven.
Clients called R to say they had received diagnoses of cancer
or that a family member had died
W who had cancer had died of a heart attack
Two years later W’s wife died of cancer
They knew this stuff was harmful
and they put it in the water anyway
I suspect that Earth may be a place of education.
PFOA detected in:
American blood banks
blood or vital organs of:
Alaskan polar bears
California sea lions
Laysan albatrosses on a wildlife refuge
in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean;>
Viewing the myriad human faces with an indescribable, intimate, and profound love. This love was all around me, it was everywhere, but at the same time it was also me.
We see a situation
that has gone
from Washington Works
All that was important in life was the love we felt.
All that was made, said, done, or even thought without love was undone.
In my particular case, God took the form of a luminous warm water. It does not mean that a luminous warm water is God. It is just that, for me, it was experiencing the luminous warm water that I felt the most connection with the eternal.
Copyright © 2017 Tracy K. Smith.
Note re This Poem:
“‘Watershed’ is a found poem drawn from two sources: a New York Times Magazine January 6, 2016, article by Nathaniel Rich entitled, ‘The Lawyer Who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare,’ and excerpts of the narratives of survivors of near-death experiences as catalogued on http://www.nderf.org.”
—Tracy K. Smith
What a loss to the poetry world: Chana Bloch, poet extraordinaire, passed this month, on May 20, 2017. Besides having a long and storied literary career, her humanitarian contributions as a voice for justice and peace will be long remembered. Her lasting contribution as a translator should also be noted, including the significant translation of the Song of Songs. Two of her poems below show us a glimpse of her heart and passion for life and the living:
God blessed you with curly hair,”
my mother used to say
and dressed me like Shirley Temple.
On my bare scalp, Australia:
a birthmark that hid
in the thicket of my hair.
Unblessed in a downburst, I lost
my leafy summer, my lovely,
my crest, my crown.
I sleep in a flannel nightcap.
My wig sleeps in a closet,
comb and brush in a drawer.
I wake to a still life—
a clock that marks the hour
before it strikes.
No skull on my desk.
Just a face in the mirror,
Kintsugi is the Japanese art of mending
precious pottery with gold.
What’s between us
seems flexible as the webbing
between forefinger and thumb.
Seems flexible but isn’t;
what’s between us
is made of clay
like any cup on the shelf.
It shatters easily. Repair
becomes the task.
We glue the wounded edges
with tentative fingers.
Scar tissue is visible history
and the cup is precious to us
we saved it.
In the art of kintsugi
a potter repairing a broken cup
would sprinkle the resin
with powdered gold.
Sometimes the joins
are so exquisite
they say the potter
may have broken the cup
just so he could mend it.
International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.
At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.
Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.
By Allison Joseph
A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia
Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.
What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.
“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.
Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.
Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?
Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?
Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.
State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.
Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.
Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?
Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.
And here, first published on the PBS website:
By Allison Joseph
I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.