Sprung a few leaks; or, Revis(it)ing Older Poems

I’ve written about this before, but I’m always struck by how violently fluid my responses to my own poems can be. Sloshing between: Love! Detest! Adore! Blecchh! Hey, this ain’t bad! Good lord, what were you thinking!

And I’m talking about the same poem, mind you. Back and forth. I exhaust myself.

If I could take a moment in each of these buffetting experiences to note exactly what I’m enamored of in the poem, or what is making me retch, then maybe in some saner(?) moment in some calmer time hence I can actually pursue revision in some sensible manner.

Sometimes I have to come back to a poem after it’s been lit-mag-rejected many times and think, okay, bud, is there something wrong with you? I’m having such a moment with a poem that’s been around for a long time and for which I’ve felt fondness. But I’m wondering if it is really nothing more than a well-sculpted description of thing, and never transcends itself.

Basically it says, Here’s a thing, and here’s how another thing is like the thing. I mean, it’s well said. But it’s not really reaching toward anything other than itself. I feel sad for it.

Maybe it’s in the imagist tradition, I say to myself. (Per Pound: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”) Yeah, okay. Maybe. But in truth I’ve rarely found poetry in the imagist tradition very interesting. Sometimes, yes, but it’s not my favorite approach to poetry.

No matter how lovely, the thing seems to remain just a thing with a bunch of words plastered on it.

What was I thinking about when I wrote it, lo these many years ago? Surely I can touch those few adverbs, the images, and make contact with that person who wrote this thing. Can I tap into something from that moment, based on the kind of description I created, and in so doing write onward toward some more complex and interesting poem?

Or is sometimes a pretty thing just a pretty thing? Love it. Disappointed in it. 

I don’t know yet. Not quite ready to give up the ship.

This must be the place; or, On Not Writing

Here I am again. Is it spring, with its stuttering reenactment of incarnation, that renders me numbskulled, vacant?

I’m inert. Such a great word, short-stopped by that cul-de-sac of an -ert.

Like the newly snow-emerged and dim-colored field, I am empty.

I have not written in a long time. Nothing is on my mind. I am thought-less. Seem to have nothing to say. Have no idea how to write a poem.

No idea why I would even do such a thing.

Have no sense that I’ve ever done such a thing in my life nor that I will ever do so. As the damp field curled with squashed lines of old weeds and broken stems of milkweed, languid pale humps of grasses tangled in mud will never be anything other than that.

Will it?

Darkness on the edge of town; or, On Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha

Anthony Cody’s Borderland Apocrypha has been an engrossing read. It details violence against Mexicans in the United States in poems that splash and splatter across the page. Set in landscape format, the book unfolds with white space and quick bursts of text, as if almost every poem is a kind of erasure, the text a struggle to stand against the white space.

A central poem is “Prelude to a Mexican Lynching, February 2, 1848, Guadalupe Hidalgo; or The Treaty of Peace, Friendships, Limits, and Settlement” which is an almost-30 page erasure of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which, as an end to the Mexican-American war, required Mexico to cede to the US all or parts of what we now know as the entire Southwest. The so-called treaty was bilingual, and Cody’s erasures show two erasures on each page, a dotted line separating the English and the Spanish. The erasures from the preamble and Article 1, for example say in English, “animated by a sincere desire to/end/the people/as good neighbors/There shall be/ America and the Mexican/without place.” And on the Spanish side: “las calamidades/que/existe entre/paz y/ciudades/sin/personas,” which I translate as “the calamities that exist between peace and cities with no people.” (Cody himself supplies no translations of the Spanish threaded throughout the collection, which meant some happy leafing through and discovery in my Spanish-English dictionary.)

Lynchings of Mexicans were widespread before and after the war, and many of the poems serve as witness.

Some poems bunch text, as in “Nightjars,” which ends with a flock of the word “before” or the cacophony of “this had a name.” Others play with the structure of text or interact with photographs. Official words are scrutinized, historical photographs are questioned.

The word “apocrypha” means hidden or secret writings. Cody takes history as a text to be broken open, and in so doing he reminds himself, and the reader, “Recall that beneath you, are the others.”

Every town’s got a mirror; or, On Reconsidering the Poetic I

Many of my poems call on science in one way or another. I usually have some science-y read going, and that informs my considerations (Is consider from words meaning “with the stars”? I must look that up.). But someone recently observed that rather than centering the science, my work seems to center the self. (This was offered not necessarily as a critique, but of course the result was the same.) 

I’ve been thinking about this, and wondering without “my” “self” in the consideration, what do I have? (It also makes me laugh because it’s also been suggested that I can have a tendency to keep too much distance of “myself” from my writing, by which I take to mean some emotional fire.) Or have I confused a presentation of a self with a presentation of some emotional response. I am therefore I feel something?

I take as my starting point for much of how I view the world “my self” as a member of the human species, and move outward from there. As I encounter the world, learn about it, observe it through my personal senses, I write. Without a point of view that somehow brings home in some personal way what I’ve been thinking about, I tend to find my poems veer into the polemical, clinical, or earnest tones I find dreary when I read poetry. (Of course, then there’s the tricky “we,” which I’ve written about before.) But maybe I’ve lost some opportunity along the way. Maybe come to put too much “I” in my work and not enough peeled eye. 

Out of curiosity, I dove into the newest collection of poems I’m putting together and was amused to find that, besides a few persona poems, which I didn’t count in the “I” category, more than 20 of the 36 poems contained an “I” standing around somewhere in the poem. (Of course, as I’ve said in this space before, not all poetic “I”‘s are the poet; or, in some ways all poems are persona poems. Or none are. Oh, dear, I’m wandering into a wall of mirrors.) 

Am I too much with me? Am I getting in the way of the reader seeing what I’m trying to show? 

I guess every poem has its own requisite distance between the observing self and the observed, and the position of the observer in relation to the observed. This is interesting. I think, for example, about one of my all time favorite poems, a poem I find so powerful, and thrilling every time I read it: Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which although it contains a closely observant eye, contains no “I.” The thing seen is center, the seer is so transparent the reader sees through him. 

I’ve worked to inject my emotional self into my work, but it seems like I’ve done that in some sort of a narrative sense, with the I as a character having an experience in some unfolding scene. I used to rarely put an I in the poem. Now it seems I pop up everywhere, like some Waldo-in-a-Box. 

Now I’m challenged with injecting the work with the deeply felt response I am experiencing in considering whatever I’m considering, but taking out the “I” who considers. Now you see me, now you don’t. 

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Sitting downtown in a railway station; or, On videopoem “Everywhere West” by Chris Green and Mark Neumann

I am mesmerized by this videopoem, linked below, the rapid flash images that nevertheless seem rarely to change, short stops in motel or diner parking lots nothwithstanding, and an occasional glimpse of the changing character of the landscape, but only a glimpse, as the landscape is chiefly anti-land, it’s the roadscape, mostly the highwayscape. We all know it. The blacktop, the yellow lines, the signs flashing by flashing by and the rear ends of trucks, stolid, unimpressed with your own meager mileage-eating.

The voice drones on and I mean that in the nicest way, because it’s saying interesting things, mournful things, meaningful things, and I drift in and out of focus, as I do on the road as the miles slip by and I think suddenly, wait a minute, where am I.

There is music in the background that is meant to live in the background, the way the radio blurbles along as if anyone is really listening, when often times it’s just noise against the great and awful silence, the silence of Life, or Aloneness, or Eternity, or The Grave, and the DJ prattles on, and the songs merge as if one long song and what you thought at one point was your finger bopping to a beat had become many miles before just a nervous tapping, or vice versa.

And arrival becomes a strange and new way of being, disorienting, and for a moment you forget how to live in one place, and you miss, a little bit, the moving road.

I skied today under a wide blue sky, and had the trail to myself, and was thinking about this videopoem, and also wondering, as I often do, what is the purpose of life, if life has a purpose. Sometimes I go down a nihilistic spiral with that question, but often I end up at Rilke: “Maybe we are here to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate…”

I could skate away on; or, On Alice Oswald’s Dart

Another book-length poem has come to my attention, and although I don’t think I have the effort of will and attention to create such a thing, I do find I’m attracted to the ambition of them. This one is Dart by Alice Oswald, published back in 2002 by Faber and Faber. The Dart is a river in England, and Oswald traveled the length of it, talking with people who live by and on and with the river, and has created a chorus of these voices and the river itself murmuring and splashing through the length of the book.

In a brief intro she suggests that all the voices should be considered those of the river, but I actually found that conceit distracting. A river, after all, is not necessarily just the water running through a channel, but it’s the walls and marshes of the channel, the rocks in the way, the grasses smoothing the bottom, the fish in the grasses, the woman laying a fly along the surface with her line, the man floating on a tire, the kid kerplashing in from a rope swing. I think about The Wind and the Willows and its river, a character itself, which was the river’s own stories blended with the wind in the reeds and the River Rat in the bank and Toad splashily sculling.

Oswald’s voices include a bailiff seeking poachers, fishermen eluding the bailiff, a worker in a milk production plant that uses the river water, sailors, birdwatchers, kayakers, the dead, the living, the water, its currents. In truth, the first time through, it was not an easy read, so slippery did it move through different tones and material, although the voice changes are signaled with a note in the margin. But the second time through was smoother and I was more easily able to ride the current.

Here’s a bit from the beginning, the source, as it were:

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea.

Here’s another:

how water orders itself like a pack of geese goes up
first in tatters then in shreds then in threads
and shucking its pools crawls into this slate and thin limestone phase…

Not every bit has this level of movement and liquidity, but my favorite portions do. Here, memorably, terribly, the river takes a kayaker:

come warmeth, I can outcanoeuvre you
into the smallest small where it moils up
and masses under the sloosh gates, put your head…

And here:

Sleep was at work and from the mind the mist
spread up like litmus to the moon, the rain
hung glittering in mid-air…

I saw a sheet of seagulls suddenly
flap and lift with a loud clap and up
into the pain of flying, cry and croup
and crowd the light as if in rivalry
to peck the moon-bone empty
then fall all anyhow with arms spread out
and feet stretched towards the earth again.

That’s just a taste and glimpse of all that’s encountered in the book. It was a wonderful ride.

I was gambling in Havana; or, On Creativity and Intent

Following up on last week’s post https://marilynonaroll.wordpress.com/2021/02/15/kiss-me-on-a-midnight-street-or-creativity-and-letting-go-of-control/: So adventure, yes, but what of more serious concerns? I again approach this idea of “what the poet intends.”

I’m referencing here something a friend said that I agreed with in the moment but now think I may disagree: she said the context of a critique should always be the poet’s intent for the poem. I’ve also preached intent as a necessary level in the revision process. But I’m thinking now that if the poet has an intent for the poem, she’s already lost the poem. “But that’s not what I want the poem to do” is a phrase I hear — and say — in response sometimes to critique. But it’s that very wanting, that very conscious intention, that maybe should not be trusted.

Am I saying that a poem develops its own path, and the poet needs to learn to get out of the way? That sounds awfully woo woo for me. But maybe I’m kind of thinking that way.

But I’ve also argued that if you don’t know your intention for a poem, you’re in danger of writing too superficially. Could that also be true? Am I overthinking?

I think I’m perceiving that at certain stages in the development of a poem, the poet needs to move at first without much conscious thought, much the way I just laid water and color down on my paper, and then turned the paper around and around. What I intended was that somehow the colors would create some shape that would allow me to find something on the page to make a picture of. That didn’t happen. In the absence of that intended result, the absence of a discernible object or presence, I had to find another way. The frustration of my intent turned out to be a freedom and a way to discover something new.

The word intend is from Latin meaning stretching toward something. Sometimes in the writing of something, the process of writing itself causes the thing to stretch toward something unexpected. And it might take a clear-eyed view, probably after some time away from the poem, for me to be able to see what my own poem is saying, what it’s claiming as its own intentions or my own subconscious ones.

I’ve got a few poems in my holding cell at the moment, and keep revisiting them. They’re not bad. They’re not good. One in particular came out of an art exhibit the details of which I can no longer remember, but I know I wanted to write something out of the experience of that exhibit. I’m wondering now if I need to leave the exhibit behind, and see if the poem is actually reaching toward something entirely different. But no! That’s not what I intended! Plus if it goes in an entirely different direction then it won’t fit in with this manuscript I’m developing!

Tough luck, kid. Is this an adventure, or ain’t it?

Kiss me on a midnight street; or, Creativity and Letting Go of Control

I haven’t been writing much. This is not unusual for me. I go for long periods without writing much, or writing little bits that I discover later, or writing quite a bit only I haven’t noticed it. Mostly these days the notebook sits closed. But I’ve been willing to paint. Maybe not with alacrity, but I’m more likely to open my little sketchbook than my notebook.

I’ve been painting mostly from photographs, even though I know from my artist friends that that is frowned upon, although I’m unclear why, but one friend is Rather Stern about it. So I do it anyway, but feel guilty about it, which I figure makes it okay. Something about the efforts of imagination or something. But a photograph reminds me about how light and shadow works. I tend to be afraid to go too dark, and unsure how to maintain light, so a photograph keeps me working forward on those fronts.

Anyway, after reading about one artist’s more freeform approach of putting down water and color and then finding an image in the patterns it made and enhancing it, I decided to try that. Rather than doing my usual wet onto dry, I wet the paper well, added color, and a bit more, then rewet and added a new color, turned the paper around so the colors veered and wandered. I contemplated that for a bit, liking the soft hues. I wanted some darker stuff, so I did some spattering. For some reason, that didn’t sit well with me, so I decided to fold the paper in half, like little kids do to make those butterfly-sort-of pictures. Disaster. My spatters turned into pale squashes, and now my paper had a fold in the middle of it. Contemplated that. I still liked the colors and had just received a card that had a cutout garden on top of shiny paper, so I thought to do something like that, and dismantled the card and laid the cutout on top of my paint. Ick. What I really wanted was the opposite — I wanted the flowers to be cut out and the background intact, but I had no interest in the persnickety Xacto knife requirements of such a thing.

More brooding. In the end I turned to my usual go-to, my pen. I lack a very fine-point brush, so I end up using my pen often to outline things in my paintings. I scrawled some squiggly flower and leaf and grass shapes on top of my colors. I quite liked it, and thought to myself, “Well, that was an adventure.”

And I thought what a wonderfully human moment that was, a moment of contemplation of the past, its frustrations and questions, coming out the other side appreciating the, dare I put it, “journey.” I suppose it’s possible that the maple tree by my house comes through a windstorm, boughs intact, and has some equivalent sigh of satisfaction. But it seems like a very human thing. And it occurs to me that my writing efforts would also benefit from that kind of shake-up, of venturing into unfamiliar methods. Unknown, unknowing, trying this and that, contemplating, folding, turning upside down, mopping up spilled words, doodling. I’d like to look up from a writing session and think, “Well, that was an adventure.”

The regular crowd shuffles in; or, More Poems

It’s interesting to go back to old poems. I find I do not have the urge to revise them, nor do I read them with critical eye at all. They were the poems of a moment, a time in my development as a person and a poet. I see them with fondness and appreciation of the places my mind was at, the things I was trying to get at that interested me at the time. They are old friends, flawed and familiar, yet made a bit strange through time. I presume they look at me in the same way.

Here are a few poems from my old chapbook Rugged Means of Grace, which Finishing Line was kind enough to publish back in 2011. A lot of the poems in it I put also in Perpetual Motion. Here are some poems that got left behind.

from Bestiary

2. Lettuce

Such sturdy substance
at my source, one seed,
but risen rosette, now
this labile, sea-
like self, I’m silly,
frilled as a lizard. Unsolid,
I’m salad. What the hell’s
happened to my head?

3. Tulip

You arose striated,
cleft, and dumb.
Became ribald
with attention,
your sex displayed.
You’re all lips now.
If I kiss you once,
you’ll tell me everything.

6. Peel

There are feathers
and things that look like feathers:
a frost edge, a fringed petal, today
a shred of sodden apple
skin left in a bowl’s puddle,
a live thing turned dead, turned
into the leavings
of a live thing flown.

Consumed

I slice a line    from Perlman’s violin concerto.

Suck it down.             Lick

the slice of a lemon sky. Again.  A hunk of Giant

mountain I rip,                                    fists

of lavender, stuff                     them in my mouth.

Wad and gnaw a      photo: wrinkled

Galician woman. On               my lips

smear liver-red zinnias.                       I must eat

beauty. Seeing is not             enough, hearing

not enough. Taste       alone is not enough.

May I           sweat beauty.

May         I stink of. May

I       deliquesce to. May I

    disappear.

Some Poems

Just some poems today, from my books. I can’t find a copy of my first book, a chapbook from Finishing Line called Rugged Means of Grace, but I’m sure I’ve got some around here somewhere, and will add one from that little volume.

Found

There’s a baby
in the crisped litter
of a roadside wood today, made pale
and lovely by an October snow.
Then even the skin is brittle.
It’s never the big thing
but the fine and permeative that destroys
often beautifully. How are we a thing that hates
and is so hard to hate?
There’s a boy
tucks a note into the pocket
of a coat he’s sending a stranger, saying
“Have a good winter. Please write back.”
A branch breaks, a lamp flickers,
the dog digs at a flash of something
paler than snow. A boy uncrinkles a note.
What happens next?

(from Perpetual Motion, The Word Works, 2012)

The dark is shifting almost imperceptibly

toward you. I know that much 
of endings. As usual I’m mistaken,
though, about what’s moving.
Not the dark onward but you
and I falling toward it, and sometimes
it is beautiful, fanned in flame,
and some days, as today, obscure.
Hymn so cautious will lead you
humming. I hope.

( from Glass Factory, The Word Works, 2016)

[While the day]

While the day is its own
autocracy, I am citizen
staring out at world,
touch the cool glass of rain’s 
mirror. Color deepens 
then fades, a slow flicker
as if I am blinking,
as I must open the eyes
inside myself to keep
democracy alive.

::

          the day is

                    world

         the cool glass of

          Color               

                   a      flicker

                 blinking

                          the eyes 

                       to keep 

                   alive

::

          the 

                     world

                        the eyes

                          keep 

                  alive

(from Being Many Seeds, Grayson Books, 2020)