On the Other Hand; or, Some Poems I Like

To counteract my lament from last week, here are some poems I’ve encountered recently that I quite enjoyed. I’ll collect more as I go along, to keep us cheery and hopeful. Well, okay, I know these are cheery and hopeful poems themselves, but I quite liked them, which itself makes me feel c and h.


The first tumor distends
through his shirt like a cartoon
heart beating out of its chest–
others wrangling liver & spleen.
We are carrion & meteor, our meat
dress in fire & diaphanous gas.
How to measure dark matter
amidst bright coordinates of stars?
At the cusp, as breath constricts,
slows–we betroth to zero,
held in a dilating spotlight.

— Willa Carroll, Nerve Chorus, The Word Works


A Violence

You hear the high-pitched yowls of strays
fighting for scraps tossed from a kitchen window.
They sound like children you might have had.
Had you wanted children. Had you a maternal bone,
you would wrench it from your belly and fling it
from your fire escape. As if it were the stubborn
shard now lodged in your wrist. No, you would hide it.
Yes, you would hide it inside a barren nesting doll
you’ve had since you were a child. Its smile
reminds you of your father, who does not smile.
Nor does he believe you are his. “You look just like
your mother,” he says, “who looks just like a fire
of suspicious origin.” A body, I’ve read, can sustain
its own sick burning, its own hell, for hours.
It’s the mind. It’s the mind that cannot.

— Nicole Sealey, Ordinary Beast, Ecco


Lost in the Tachana Merkazit; or, Embracing Changing Poetic Tastes

I’m starting to feel a twinge of dread every time I open up a newly published book of poems from some of my favorite publishers. I read the blurbs and raves, think okay! as I open the first page. Read a poem, and hm. Read a poem, and falter. Read a poem, and fade. Read a poem read a poem, and I am lost in a maze, I cannot understand the announcements over the loudspeaker, I am in the Tel Aviv bus station again — a great place to get felafel (something about the added taste of diesel fuel?) but an easy place in which to feel confused.

I have this sense that the publishers are moving farther and farther away from work that I connect with, much less work that resembles my own. I am paranoid that I’m falling out of touch with the kind of poetry the modern world wants to publish, wants to read. I feel like people are connecting to poetry all around me and I’m standing in the middle of it lost. Is there a shift in taste happening? Or is it my tastes that are changing?

I guess there is indeed a kind of grace in contrast — this disconnected feeling makes it all the more wonderful when I stumble upon a book I do connect with, poems that inspire me, that cause me to wonder, to envy, to just enjoy. I fall upon them as a starving person. These are poems I can learn from, I think. These are poems toward which I can work.

It feels like I have to revisit my A-list of publishing houses because maybe it’s no longer worth it for me to fling my poems against their walls. I’m just not doing work they’re going to be into. The good news is that I need to keep reading and reading more widely among the many fine small publishing houses in the contemporary poetry world. In poetry’s house there are many mansions.

I appreciate Small Press Distribution’s lists of bestsellers and staff favorites. These have been great sources of publishers and authors new to me. Grace Cavalieri’s best-of lists in the Washington Independent Review of Books also has great leads.

Creating a new A-list is an opportunity. My bus is around here somewhere. But until I find it, there’s some good felafel to be had.



You Must Remember This; or, On the Impossible Past

My mother has lost most of her memory, so any bits and pieces of her history or family history are beyond reach now. But memories are tricky things anyway, murky, half-imagined, subject to distortion over time. I think of those fading Polaroid pictures, blotchy and pale with age. A friend was telling me about her own mother’s memory blotches. When asked about a photo in her possession, some years ago this woman had told a startling family story. Now, when the photo turned up again, she denies knowing who it is, and when her children told her the story she told, she says she had no idea what they are talking about. So was it true, then? Or had she misremembered then, or has she forgotten now? They will never know.

So much of the past is only what we think we know based on what we remember, or think we remember. The past is a fun-house maze of stretchy mirrors and blind corners.

In Q.M. Zhang’s book Accomplice to Memory the author is frantically trying to piece together her father’s past as his memory fades into dementia. The stories he once told, stories she had grown up with about who he was and how he came from China to the US, he had begun to retell differently. Had he lied earlier, was this closer to the truth? Soon he would not remember at all.

In the face of uncertainty, the author blends in this book recounts of her conversations with her father past and present; fictions of her imagination of what her father must have gone through, fleeing China after the Nanking massacre to start a new life in the US; recollections of her own childhood with this man eager to fit into his adopted home, and her own travels back to China to try to understand. She also adds to the book the closest she can get to fact: photographs — of China at the time of her father’s life and departure, of family members.

But what do photographs really tell us but of one perspective on one briefest moment: this person was on this streetcorner, the wind blowing a pale skirt, a street sign half-readable. You can almost smell whatever the street vendor is selling in the background.

But you can’t. The past is impossible.

I keep thinking about these shadow boxes made by a woman who splits her time between Alaska and Maine. I can’t tell you exactly why this book and these objects are connecting in my mind, except maybe at how we hold onto objects to try to hold on to the past. Margo Klass makes beautiful boxes and altarpieces that contain a few carefully chosen and set objects, sometimes creating windows in the top so light can strike the objects in certain ways.

These works seem to have something to say to me about memory, the way a place lingers through objects and light, are lit by the light of your moment with them. But you cannot return to that place in that moment. It’s all gone, as is the person you were then, and as will be someday your recollection of what or who brought you to that place and why.

It seems like our grasping for the past should teach us something about the present. But it never does.

Zhang, Q.M., Accomplice to Memory, http://kaya.com/books/accomplice-to-memory/

Margo Klass, margoklass.com

Top to Bottom: or, Reading Good Stuff: Margulis and Pines

I am reading the essays of biologist Lynn Margulis and her son Dorion Sagan. As a biologist and peerer at the microcosmic, Margulis sees the world as divided basically into bacteria and everything else, and basically regards humankind as a big vehicle for the wily adventures of bacteria over time.

At the same time I’m reading the poems of Paul Pines, Jungian, fisherman, seaman, flaneur of NYC jazz clubs, Bourbon Street, the beaches of Belize, and the ideas of ancient philosophers and gods.

The juxtaposition is mind-whirling.

Margulis’s essays contain sentences such as: “Whether we are discussing the disappearing membranes of endosymbiotic bacteria on their way to becoming organelles or the breakdown within the global human socius of the Berlin Wall, we must revise this rectilinear notion of the self, of the bounded I.”

Here is Pines: “Father//cross my fears inside the lotus/move me to grace like a swallow/my soul is an anagram show me its shape/I am not who I am”

I love Margulis’s large view of time and life, and her unromantic and yet appreciative consideration of humankind, our cells plodding along, our genes unraveling and reraveling. “Thinking, like excreting and ingesting, results from lively interactions of a being’s chemistry,” blandly states an essay by Margulis, Sagan, and scientist Ricardo Guerrera. So there it is, all my lines towards poems, my strategies toward publication, hopes and dreams, all just a bunch of elements having fallen off the table of elements and rolling around inside of me.

But I love too that Pines enshrines in his poems our human imagination, the gods we’ve conjured, the dreams considered, the ways in which we affect each other, we tender bacteria-vehicles, we wayward chemistry experiments. He writes:

talked about
a unifying idea in Nature
the way Aquinas did
an uncreated Creator
about space
generating itself
out of itself

the way Nicholas Cusanus
did a circle

whose center
is everywhere…

and now we know
what they meant
may still be detectable
at the moment
of creation
as a broken symmetry
that eventually comes to rest
in a symmetry
so sublime
it contains
the death
of every atom
and every star
and unites us
even as we speak

I read for this. I read for this kind of shoving around of my perspective on life, this dizzying shift of the telescope’s scope, skin of a hand, pocked and creviced as a planet, and dust of star, plumed, fingered. The ridiculousness of what we are; the sublime. This is the grounded and the heavenward, this is literature of what we are, and of the best we can be.

Margulis, Lynn and Dorian Sagan, Dazzle Gradually, Chelsea Green, 2007.
Pines, Paul, A Furnace in the Shadows, Dos Madres Press, forthcoming.

Let Me Take You By the Hand; or, On Developing a Reader’s Guide

Friends and family have been extremely generous about supporting my poetry — buying each book as it has come out, sometimes buying an extra copy to give away, sometimes even reading them! Sometimes even reaching out to tell me about a poem that affected them in some way. But a few have said things like “I’m sorry, I don’t really understand the poems” or “I don’t like poetry” or “I don’t read poetry at all.” With them in mind, for my last book, Glass Factory, I created a short reader’s guide, thinking that I could provide some hand-holding to those who might enter the book with trepidation, or those who might not enter at all without some guidance.

It turned out to be quite a fun process for me (although I confess, I don’t know if anyone really used the guide — perhaps it was more fun for me than anyone else….)

I started thinking about some of the most important poems in the book in terms of theme, the most difficult poems in the book in terms of easy access by the reader to what was going on, some of the craft stuff I was doing in some of the poems, and the ideas or impetus behind some of the poems, some backstory, so to speak. Then I started writing up little paragraphs about some of the poems. Once I had a few of these, I started to see that I could break up the guide into what I termed “Inspiration,” “Craft,” and what I ended up calling “Obscure References and Inside Jokes.”

I also thought it was important to give readers some idea of who I was, and how these poems fit in the context of my life, so I created an “About Me” section. I also know people are also interested often in how people work, so I added a section about my process.

I did spend some time trying to think about questions for further thought that I thought might come out of the collection — but I only did that tedious task because all the other reader’s guides I’d looked at had done that.

What the process of creating the guide did for me is to help me step back and look at the individual poems and the collection in the way I had not before. Writing about the life context within which the poems were written gave me surprising insight about what had been going on for me in the years in which the poems were written. It made me enjoy the process of writing some of these poems in a way that I hadn’t been conscious of when I actually wrote them. It was such a useful process that I wonder if I should do it now for the full length collection I am sending around for publication at the moment, because it might give me some ways back into the collection to make it stronger.



Oil and Water; or On Feeling Heartened…If Not Entirely Optimistic…

As I’ve written before, I have a love/hate relationship with the magazine Poets & Writers (Fear and Loathing on the Publication Trail: https://wp.me/pCJhS-1L), wreaking as it does in me the havoc of hope and despair with each turn of the page. But what a wonderful little jolt I got from an article in the most recent issue.

In “On the Trail,” Mary Allen meditates on rejection, writing, and faith. She writes: “If writing gets too tied up in ego, or in the desire for approval, faith can get lost. I have an inking that for writers, faith resides inside the act of writing itself — that if you stop writing for any stretch of time you’ll lose your faith, and if you lose your faith for any reason, the act of writing will lose its luster in your mind. And all the allure and appeal and belief that writing is a sensible, worthwhile endeavor will leave you, and you’ll be depressed, disheartened, deflated — because you will have lost the very thing that keeps you going.”

I had been feeling that very thing — depressed, disheartened — and know in some ways it is an ego thing (when I announced to my writing group that I was in the slough of despond, their only reaction was along the lines of “Still?”), okay, in ALL ways it is an ego thing. And Allen prods me to get back to business.

Even if I think I have nothing to say, I need to say stuff anyway — what I see, what I imagine, what I remember, or just words for the sheer glorious sound of them.

I tire of toiling in obscurity but it’s not the obscurity that’s important but the toil. Toil is etymologically from the idea of crushing something (namely, olives, way back when), and I like that. And obscure only means, after all, cover. And a camera obscura is a dark room in which a fine image can be projected.