friday poem

Aracelis-Girmay-processed

After reading Kingdom Animalia and Teeth a few years ago, and then meeting Aracelis Girmay at a reading hosted by the Madwomen in the Attic here in Pittsburgh, I have been solidly in the Aracelis Girmay fan club. I love her work. But hearing her read her poems in person and talk about her craft made me realize I also admire the kind of poet and person she is. There was something luminous about her — that word has been co-opted by fashion magazines — but it’s true. I realize I only know her through her poems and her reading and from a five minute conversation we had, but still. Maybe by luminous — what I mean is real. I think she’s after something real and true — and there are many ways to do that. But I love her particular way of pursuing what is true with language and image.

I picked the poem “Elegy” to share because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about mortality and how “our living is not guaranteed.” It was hard for me to pick one Girmay poem. There are so many others that deserve to be read — my favorites include, “For Estefani Lora, Third Grade, Who Made Me a Card,” “To Waste My Hands,” “For Patrick Rosal Who Wore a Dress & Said,” and “Self-Portrait as the Snail.” You should pick up her books and see for yourself.

Elegy

                          What to do with this knowledge
                          that our living is not guaranteed?

Perhaps one day you touch the young branch
of something beautiful. & it grows & grows
despite your birthdays & the death certificate,
& it one day shades the heads of something beautiful
or makes itself useful to the nest. Walk out
of your house, then, believing in this.
Nothing else matters.

All above us is the touching
of strangers & parrots,
some of them human,
some of them not human.

Listen to me. I am telling you
a true thing. This is the only kingdom.
The kingdom of touching;
the touches of the disappearing, things.

–Aracelis Girmay, from Kingdom Animalia, 2011, BOA Editions.

friday poem

o-SHARON-OLDS-570

Today, I’ve got a Sharon Olds poem for you. No doubt you’ve heard of Sharon Olds, but perhaps you haven’t read Stag’s Leap, a book which won both the Pulitzer and the T.S. Eliot Prizes. Here’s my favorite poem from the book:

Last Look

In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into
his eyes. All that day until then, I had been
comforting him, for the shock he was in
at his pain — the act of leaving me
took him back, to his own early
losses. But now it was time to go beyond
comfort, to part. And his eyes seemed to me,
still, like the first ocean, wherein
the blue-green algae came into their early
language, his sea-wide iris still
essential, for me, with the depths in which
our firstborn, and then our second, had turned,
on the sides of their tongues the taste buds for the moon-bland
nectar of our milk — our milk. In his gaze,
rooms of the dead; halls of loss, fog-
emerald; driven, dirty-rice snow:
he was in there somewhere, I looked for him,
and he gave me the gift, he let me in,
knowing he would never once, in this world or in
any other, have to do it again,
and I saw him, not as he really was, I was
still without the strength of anger, but I
saw him see me, even now
that dropping down into trust’s affection
in his gaze, and I held it, some seconds, quiet,
and I said, Good-bye, and he said, Good-bye,
and I closed my eyes, and rose up out of the
passenger seat in a spiral like someone
coming up out of a car gone off a
bridge into deep water. And two and
three Septembers later, and even
the September after that, that September in New York,
I was glad I had looked at him. And when I
told a friend how glad I’d been,
she said, Maybe it’s like with the families
of the dead, even the families of those
who died in the Towers — that need to see
the body, no longer inhabited
by what made them the one we loved — somehow
it helps to say good-bye to the actual,
And I saw, again, how blessed my life has been,
first, to have been able to love,
then, to have the parting now behind me,
and not to have lost him when the kids were young,
and the kids now not at all to have lost him,
and not to have lost him when he loved me, and not to have
lost someone who could have loved me for life.

–Sharon Olds, from Stag’s Leap, Knopf, 2012.

Sharon Olds’s Stag’s Leap scrutinizes the end of her thirty-year marriage, and this poem a particular moment within that ending. The key to Olds’s poetics is her ability to observe without shame or judgment. Her work is characterized by precise imagery, urgent musicality, and a rhetorical structure that lets the reader into the speaker’s thinking process. There is a particular density, a thick quality, to an Olds poem — you feel as though you are pulled into another world.

The poem “Last Look” grounds us in the occasion of the poem swiftly: “In the last minute of our marriage, I looked into / his eyes.” And then with the line, “But now it was time to go beyond / comfort, to part,” the poem shifts to Olds’s microscopic scrutiny of the body. She likens the husband’s eyes to “the first ocean, wherein / the blue-green algae came into their early / language, his sea-wide iris still / essential, for me.” The image of the husband’s eyes as the ocean, which conjures the “essential” quality of language, rolls into invoking their two children, and their need for “the moon-bland / nectar of our milk — our milk.” The use of “our” to modify the milk is a surprising move, as milk is derived solely from the mother. Here, the speaker recalls the physical bond with her husband that created and nurtured their children, and with the repetition of “our milk” suggests a continuation of that connection. With this image, the poem dives into the unconscious realm of image.

The speaker brings us back narratively with the lines, “And two and / three Septembers later, and even / the September after that, that September in New York, / I was glad I had looked at him.” The sounds here knock the close reader out —“his sea-wide iris still / essential” — the waves of assonance and sibilance heighten the already powerful rhetorical and visual energy. Olds’s sounds are often subtle, echoing sounds within words or lines, as in the tactile “t” and “d” sounds of these lines: “the sides of their tongues the taste buds for the moon-bland / nectar of our milk — our milk.”

Following a typical Olds structure, about half the poem’s space happens within the rolling images the speaker observes during this key moment:

In his gaze,
rooms of the dead; halls of loss, fog-
emerald; driven, dirty-rice snow:
he was in there somewhere, I looked for him,
and he gave me the gift, he let me in,
knowing he would never once, in this world or in
any other, have to do it again,
and I saw him, not as he really was, I was
still without the strength of anger, but I
saw him see me

These images disorient the reader, creating an uncanny mixture of spaces and objects, which take us deeper into the murky emotional depths of the speaker’s experience. It is here that she tells us she truly sees him, as opposed to merely looking. However, even this is qualified by the speaker’s astute assertion: “I saw him see me, even now / that dropping down into trust’s affection / in his gaze, and I held it, some seconds, quiet, / and I said, Good-bye, and he said, Good-bye, / and I closed my eyes, and rose up out of the / passenger seat in a spiral like someone / coming up out of a car gone off a / bridge into deep water.” Notice that in order for the speaker to be released from the bond with the husband, she has to close her eyes. She has to stop observing his eyes, and their shared past, in order to pull herself up and out of the downward pull of their connection.

The final image in this poem, of the speaker rising up “in a spiral,” captures the movement of a body in water, escaping what would be a wreck. The reader experiences the feeling of a near-death escape. This book is full of moments in which the speaker names an uncomfortable but deeply felt emotional truth. For Olds, in her best work, the personal is always universal. In this poem, she somehow lands the poem on a triumphant note that does not feel unearned. With each loss that is chronicled, the speaker argues on the side of the gain, the near-miss, and leaves the reader on a recurring echo of hope.

friday poem

My friend, the talented poet Jennifer Stewart Miller, recently sent me a poem that appeared in The New Yorker — “Goat Hour Gospel (Such Salvage)” by Mark Wagenaar. I don’t subscribe, so I often miss poems I might love. But one of the best things about having friends who are writers is that we help each other cast a wider net, catching the poems, novels and stories that might affect and change us before they go back into the ether.

I’m struck most by these lines: “No relic is safe, it seems, from an invisible tide that presses them upward. / Sometimes it’s not the loss that hurts but the indignities of the discovery.” The idea of relics pushing upward out of the earth is disturbing and surprising. The movement works against gravity, a law that we think keeps what’s hidden underneath the surface. But this makes sense physically and emotionally. Nothing can remain hidden forever.

The second person “you” does not always work for me. But here, it feels intimate, careful, and tender.These quietly musical, long-lined couplets are grounded by a voice that has authority but does not claim to be all-knowing and all-perfect. This speaker hedges and gives us a lot of “might” and “maybe” as he lets us see his mind at work. We are in the poet’s mind as he works out the relationship between these goats “bumbling through briar, chewing through poison ivy, sniffing at trees” and the mercy that enters the poem a little later.

The image of the goats themselves is central: “Their dirty white fur shines a little in this late, lost hour.” It turns out this is a poem of praise, a subtly glass-is-half-full kind of poem. And in this 21st century nature poem (as my friend Jen calls it), Wagenaar mixes the old and the new in his assured narrative voice. The biggest surprise of the poem, though, is the assertion that mercy is what will come to all of us, “even for the undeserving, / for those of us who didn’t live right, or live best. Whatever that means. / Mercy will find us, even when we fail to recognize it, when we least expect it.” I appreciate how the poet is able to bring in the idea of mercy, something so charged and weighty, and make it feel like it could actually come to all of us.

friday poem

I’ve been re-reading Dorianne Laux’s first book, Awake, published in 1990. I’m looking to other poets’ first books as a way to help me think about how to conceive of my own first book. This poem, “Ghosts,” is the first poem of the book, and it sets the tone for the poems that follow.

Ghosts

It’s midnight and a light rain falls
I sit on the front stoop to smoke.
Across the street a lit window, filled
with a ladder on which a young man stands.
His head dips into the frame each time
he sinks his brush in the paint.

He’s painting his kitchen white, patiently
covering the faded yellow with long strokes.
He leans into his work like a lover, risks
losing his balance, returns gracefully
to the precise middle of the step to dip
and start again.

A woman appears beneath his feet, borrows
paint, takes it onto her thin brush
like a tongue. Her sweater is the color
of tender lemons. This is the beginning
of their love, bare and simple
as that wet room.

My hip aches against the damp cement.
I take it inside, punch up a pillow
for it to nest in. I’m getting too old
to sit on the porch in the rain,
to stay up all night, watch morning
rise over rooftops.

Too old to dance
circles in dirty bars, a man’s hands
laced at the small of my spine, pink
slingbacks hung from limp fingers. Love.
I’m too old for that, the foreign tongues
loose in my mouth, teeth that rang
my breasts by the nipples like soft bells.

I want it back. The red earrings and blue
slips. Lips alive with spit. Muscles
twisting like boat ropes in a hard wind.
Bellies for pillows. Not this ache in my hip.

I want the girl who cut through blue poolrooms
of smoke and golden beers, stepping out alone
into a summer fog to stand beneath a streetlamp’s
amber halo, her blue palms cupped
around the flare of a match.

She could have had so many lives. Gone off
with a boy to Arizona, lived on a ranch
under waves of carved rock, her hands turned
the color of flat red sands. Could have said
yes to a woman with fingers tapered as candles,
or a man who slept in a canvas tepee, who pulled
her down on his mattress of grass where she made
herself as empty as the gutted fire.

Oklahoma.
I could be there now, spinning corn from dry cobs,
working fat tomatoes into mason jars.
The rain has stopped. For blocks the houses
drip like ticking clocks. I turn off lights
and feel my way to the bedroom, slip cold
toes between flowered sheets, nest my chest
into the back of a man who sleeps in fits,
his suits hung stiff in the closet, his racked
shoes tipped toward the ceiling.

This man loves me for my wit, my nerve,
for the way my long legs fall from hemmed skirts.
When he rolls his body against mine, I know
he feels someone else. There’s no blame.
I love him, even as I remember a man with cane-
brown hands, palms pink as blossoms opening
over my breasts.

And he holds me,
even with all those other fingers wrestling
inside me, even with all those other shoulders
wedged above his own like wings.

I’ve always loved how this poem is rooted in an innocent act of voyeurism. The speaker watches her young neighbors and sees her own story in their simple act of painting their kitchen. She’s making assumptions that may not be true, but it doesn’t matter. The couple is the diving board for her leap into her own story. And leaping is the engine of this poem. Laux leaps into her own past, saying, “I want it back. The red earrings and blue / slips. Lips alive with spit.”

The speaker then becomes the voyeur of the younger version of herself, talking about her in the third person as though she is a different person. This feels true to me. By this age, I feel as though I’ve lived a few different lives already, and in some ways, have been different versions of myself in those times.

And the music of this poem! Laux is a master of making music from plain language. If you read it aloud, you can hear it: “I’m getting too old / to sit on the porch in the rain, / to stay up all night, watching morning / rise over rooftops.” Or, “For blocks the houses / drip like ticking clocks.” We have a sharp, direct voice that slows us down so we don’t miss anything. Near the end of the poem, Laux turns the distance between her various selves into a bodily thing as she describes her lover wrestling with all these other selves: “And he holds me, / even with all those other fingers wrestling / inside me, even with all those other shoulders / wedged above his own like wings.” The last image of wings is transcendant, gesturing toward flight while also being weighed down by the discomfort of the “other shoulders.” The perfect ending of a poem that grapples with a desire for other lives and the life she is living now.

friday poem

I’ve loved this poem by Amy Gerstler for a long time.

A Father at His Son’s Baptism

Cutlet carved from our larger carcasses:
thus were you made — from a spit and a hug.
The scratchy stuff you’re lying on is wool.
You recognize the pressure of your mother’s hand.
That white moon with a bluish cast is a priest’s face,
frowning over a water bowl. Whatever befalls you now,
you’ve been blessed, in a most picturesque
and ineffective ceremony dating from the Middle Ages.
Outdoors, the church lawn radiates a lethal green.
A gas truck thunders down the street.
Why, at emotional moments, do the placid trees
and landscape look overexposed, almost ready
to bleach away, and reveal the workings
of “the Real” machine underneath?
All bundled up on such a hot day:
whose whelp, pray tell, or mutton chop are you?
— tail-less, your cloudy gaze a vague accusation,
not of the sins of my history, but ignorance
to come, future cruelty. You’re getting red
in the face, blotchy, ready to wail. Good.
From now on protest and remember everything.
Your cries assail even the indigent dead,
buried in charity plots right outside,
slowly releasing their heat, while you,
born out of the blue into a wheezing spring,
watch a chaotic mosaic assemble itself.
You tune up. My love for you is half-adrenaline,
half gibberish. More Latin and the priest
splatters you. He’s got one good eye,
and a black patch, like a pirate.
Now, smiling as if he knows something I don’t,
he hands you to me. If I drop you, loudmouth,
will you bounce or fly? You were chalky
and bloody at first, in the doctor’s grip,
looking skinned and inside-out.
Boyhood, a dangling carrot. I stare at you
and experience the embarrassment of riches.
I need to loosen my tie or I’ll faint.
Outside a rake scrapes, sprinklers hiss.
It might be best to set you down
in one of these squares of light on the floor,
striped by venetian blinds, and leave you safe
in that bright cage. I could go have coffee,
and come back when we can carry on
a conversation. Men and women are afraid
of each other. It’s true. Whisper
and drool of my flesh, I’m terrified of you.

— Amy Gerstler, from Bitter Angel, Carnegie Mellon University Press, 1990

The poet Eileen Myles said of Gerstler’s work, “the supernatural, the sexy mundane, the out-of-sight are simply her materials.” Yes. Take the utterly original descriptions of this new baby: “Cutlet carved from our larger carcasses”(!) Or, “You were chalky / and blood at first, in the doctor’s grip, / looking skinned and inside-out.” We are ferried along in this poem with sharp, pulsing sounds hidden in plain sight — “That white moon with a bluish cast is a priest’s face, / frowning over a water bowl.”

The voice of the speaker is observant, honest, afraid, and even, at turns, wise: “From now on protest and remember everything.” There are so many subtle moments of acceleration and buildup in the poem that get us to those implicating final lines: “Men and women are afraid / of each other. It’s true. Whisper / and drool of my flesh, I’m terrified of you.” This poem brilliantly conveys that feeling of lost-at-sea-ness that is anyone closely observing a new baby — Who is this baby? Where did s/he come from?

friday poem

I’ll keep this short today since the poem speaks for itself — Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact.” I know I already shared this poem with some of you, but it’s the poem that’s haunted me this week, so I have to share it again. I had the good fortune of hearing Ross Gay read this poem at AWP a few weeks ago. I jotted down some of the language so I could find it later, and then couldn’t find it anywhere. Then Split this Rock sent it into my inbox (I recommend signing up for their newsletter). And thank god. I needed this poem and I imagine a lot of other people need it, too.
 
A Small Needful Fact
Is that Eric Garner worked
for some time for the Parks and Rec.
Horticultural Department, which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.
***
Used with permission.
***
Ross Gay is a gardener and teacher living in Bloomington, Indiana. His book, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, is available from University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015.
***
Please feel free to share Split This Rock Poem of the Week widely. We just ask you to include all of the information in this post, including this request. Thanks! If you are interested in reading past poems of the week, feel free to visit the blog archive.

friday poem

I’ve been reading Malena Mörling’s Astoria. My favorite poem so far is “Simply Lit.” I’m going to let you read it first and then tell you why I love it.

Simply Lit

Often toward evening,
after another day, after
another year of days,
in the half dark on the way home
I stop at the food store
and waiting in line I begin
to wonder about people—I wonder
if they also wonder about how
strange it is that we
are here on the earth.
And how in order to live
we all must sleep.
And how we have beds for this
(unless we are without)
and entire rooms where we go
at the end of the day to collapse.
And I think how even the most
lively people are desolate
when they are alone
because they too must sleep
and sooner or later die.
We are always looking to acquire
more food for more great meals.
We have to have great meals.
Isn’t it enough to be a person buying
a carton of milk? A simple
package of butter and a loaf
of whole wheat bread?
Isn’t it enough to stand here
while the sweet middle-aged cashier
rings up the purchases?
I look outside,
but I can’t see much out there
because now it is dark except
for a single vermilion neon sign
floating above the gas station
like a miniature temple simply lit
against the night.

from Astoria, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006

This poem appears simple on the surface. The speaker stops to get groceries on the way home in the “half dark.” It’s a poem of wondering, organized by the engine of the tiny conjunction “and”: “and waiting in line I begin / to wonder about people —.” This poem moves me along so steadily it feels trance-like, which comes from the flow of the speaker’s thoughts and the subtle sounds. But the part that makes me stop is: “And I think how even the most / lively people are desolate / when they are alone / because they too must sleep / and sooner or later die. / We are always looking to acquire / more food for more great meals. / We have to have great meals. / Isn’t it enough to be a person buying / a carton of milk?” Mörling gives us the human condition with her questioning voice (“Isn’t it enough?”), wry humor, and spare, sonic pleasures. Long after reading, I remember the “single vermilion neon sign / floating above the gas station / like a miniature temple simply lit.” The transcendant in the ordinary. I can’t stand in a grocery line without thinking about this poem. To me, that’s the mark of a great poem. It persists — it won’t leave you alone.

friday poem

I’m taking a page from my dear friend and talented poet Cassie Pruyn and have resolved to share a poem with you here every Friday. I used to post a poem a week on my now-ancient blog, and I’ve been wanting to resurrect that practice for awhile. I found that it focused my reading, knowing I was searching for poems to share.

First up is a poem by James Allen Hall, who Jan Beatty introduced me to briefly last week at AWP in Minneapolis. Hall has two poems in the first volume of Tinderbox Poetry Journal (a journal you should read if you don’t already) — “Greenhouse” and “An American Porn Star Contemplates the Divine.” “Greenhouse” is hitting me hard right now, since I’ve been thinking a lot about my Grandma, who died a few months ago. There was no one like her — she had a green thumb, and well into her 80s still did her own yard work, gardening, moving big rocks, just getting things done.

Like the best sonnets, Hall weaves sound and meaning deftly, and makes so much happen in this small space. “Her hands never lost / the mineral smell, the crocus’s rot darkening under / her thumbnails” is perfect – the diction, sounds, and that “mineral smell.” I can smell it. I think what I love most is how this poem sees “absence” as “a new life” that contains “a new death” within it. That absence — grief — can persist and grow like a living thing.

new issue of Poet Lore

IMG_6674

My poem, “To the Question, ‘What Happened’?” found a home in Poet Lore’s new issue! There are new poems by Lisa C. Krueger, Jim Daniels, Arthur Sze, Lynne Sharon Schwartz, Hailey Leithauser. There’s also “A Portfolio from Letras Latinas,” poems in dialogue with the exhibit Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, currently touring the US, and a “World Poets in Translation” feature showcasing the work of Iranian writer and activist Rira Abbasi. Aaaand, reviews of Rachel Mennies’s The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, and Yona Harvey’s Hemming the Water.

In short, I think you might need to get your hands on a copy.

Writing Process Blog Tour

Thanks to Cassie Pruyn for asking me along on the Writing Process Blog Tour! And to Megan Galbraith who asked Cassie — two talented writers I admire very much, and whose work you should check out. (I wish we were on more than an e-tour, though. It would be fun to be traveling in a VW bus talking poems and eating in diners).

1) What are you working on?

I’m working on my first manuscript. It’s a collection of poems I’ve been working on for a few years now. These poems center on attention, on witness — on seeing. Some are dinosaurs I’ve polished/reinvented. Most are newer poems written while at Bennington — some are very new poems written since graduating last June. I’m working a good bit on two series of poems. The first invokes Charlotte Mew, a turn-of-the-century British poet who is largely unknown and mindblowingly good. The second is a series titled “Letters to Pittsburgh.” I am deep into revision mode right now, and also trying to see it as a whole — to figure out how they speak to each other, so I can make them into an organic book, not just a jumble of poems.

2) How does the work differ from others of its genre?

Major Jackson once asked us in a workshop to think about how we would define our poetic lineage. Think about it: how would you draw your poetic family tree? I’m continually aware of the poets to whom I’m indebted, those who’ve inspired me and paved the way. But I also hope I’m adding a unique voice to the landscape. I think maybe the biggest difference between my poems and some of what is out there is that they often risk sentimentality. I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of trying to be too clever in a poem, or prizing linguistic play above an emotional core. But then, of course, that means I need to also work against that tendency so I can continue to grow…

3) Why do you write what you do?

When I was very young, I planned to write novels because that’s what I grew up reading. But then I read a poem, and another, and another — in an anthology in the library at my elementary school. I think they were Dickinson and Frost — and that was that. I felt immediately that this was the language of my inner world, and I just hadn’t realized that anyone else spoke it. This was the form where I could say the things I needed to say. This could be a much longer answer (and now I really do wish we were in a diner with some good diner coffee), so I’ll just say this: a poem enacts the experience for the reader. It is more of the thing itself than a description of the thing (prose, to me), and I’ve always liked that. It is also smaller. I like that I can have a poem in my pocket and nobody knows.

4) How does your writing process work?

My writing process is an intuitive thing — disordered, full of stops and starts. In the last few years, I’ve finally let go of the idea that I have to carve out the perfect space and time to write and think. I do “write” in some form every day. By this I mean I do things connected to writing in some way: writing down what I see or think on my walks (my son only sleeps while moving right now, so I type on my phone while pushing the stroller, which yes, has led to some embarrassing moments running into trees or people), reading, journaling, writing long emails, revising a poem. I’ve learned that sometimes if I let a poem percolate, I’ll wake up with the phrase I need, or think of it while showering. Not usually, but sometimes. Mostly, I sweat and fret and then eventually, sometimes, get it to where it feels right.

I read that Marianne Moore used to walk around her apartment with whatever poem she was currently working on stuck to a clipboard. While she was vacuuming or doing other practical stuff she had to do, she would still be looking at the poem, she would have it nearby. I love this image and although I don’t use the clipboard method, I try to always have the next poem in my head, so I can turn it over and over until I can bring it closer to what it’s supposed to be.

Thanks for reading! And look out for more posts as the Writing Process Blog Tour continues….