suggestion via Rita Dove

Suggestion is a key element to poetry. Whether it’s a matter of word choice, how using the word “broken,” say, suggests its opposite, “fixed”; or within the structure of a metaphor itself, the juxtaposition of two things bringing to mind a further connection, suggestion is one word for poetry’s ability to tap into language’s conspiratorial nature.

The poem below, “Flirtation” by Rita Dove, is a good example of what I mean. Dove takes the contextual framework of the title and aligns it right away with a variety of evocative images:

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

First, the movements here of an “orange, peeled / and quartered” are said to flare “like a tulip on a wedgwood plate,” a parallel that works both on a visual and sensory level. This parallel implies subtle physical shifts, similar to one person becoming particularly aware of another. The type of attention described here is sharp and visceral.

peel-and-unpeeled-orangeThere is suggestion at work in Dove’s line break’s as well. The enjambment of the above lines, with line breaks on “peeled” and “flares,” creates tension as image and simile develop. This tension is broken by the following line “Anything can happen.” whose conceptual certainty is echoed in the use of a period to create an end stopped line.

A similar push and pull occurs later in the lines:

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

The line “across the sky. My heart” is especially effective as the enjambment and line break here both end and start a sentence, but also imply another parallel, that of a heart being like a sky. This deft way with the line creates a dizzying atmosphere, which brings us back to the title and its implied feelings. Dove continues to develop this atmosphere straight through to the poem’s elegant ending.

Flirtation – Rita Dove

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh–
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

*

from Selected Poems (Vintage)

rad Wallace Stevens

This week’s poem – “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm” by Wallace Stevens – takes me back to a conversation I had with a co-worker when I worked at a bookstore years ago. I had been arranging the poetry section for National Poetry Month and positioning a Wallace Stevens book to face out from a eye-level shelf. My co-worker happened to pass by and say: Stevens! Cool! I know one poem by him. “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm.” It’s rad!

I hadn’t read the poem but I was intrigued, as Stevens is often not the easiest person to follow line by line. Not that I didn’t think my co-worker incapable of following a Stevens poem, but rather that a conversation about Stevens, for me, usually brings in difficulty, his use of ambiguity and lyrical obfuscation, and the way you have to work at following what he has to say. At least that’s been my experience. I usually tell folks that I’ve picked up and put down Stevens’ Collected Poems three times in my life, each time getting a little farther into it, before moving on, not defeated just knotted with questions. And yet, getting through more and more poems of his continues to be a rich experience.

bookstore_eugene_oregonWhen I finally read the poem below, it was a double surprise. Not only is it a poem that feels like looking through a beam of light – the clarity of the language and meta-thought is such that I immediately doubted my ability to follow what was being said – but the subject of the poem at the end, the way it honors the reading act, makes it an apt poem to be shared between bookstore employees. I mean, our living was made around reading.

I suppose this post is less about the poem but more about reading acts and reading experiences shared. As this blog began as an effort to share my own reading experiences, it’s nice to come back to those roots as dwell a bit on how they’ve been inspiring me throughout my life. Whether you find the poem below “rad” or not, see what you catch of it. See what you “become” and what becomes of you in the process.

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm – Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

from Collected Poems (Vintage)

with Rae Armantrout

This summer has me putting in office hours on campus, spending the mornings thinking through the syllabi & co. for the courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I then, to varying success, allow myself time in the afternoon to work on writing projects, including a nonfiction essay collection, a book of poems in Spanish, and new poetry collection.

Could be the range of the projects, how each pushes me to different thresholds of memory, presence, and ability, but I’ve been experiencing pockets of doubt, not of the projects exactly (but maybe), more of my sense of what it means to articulate. If language is a wooden dock leading across water, then this doubt is the appearance of missing wood planks here and there, which make me falter, slow, change my gait. I’m sure it’s all part of another season in my understanding of writing and its place in my life, but damn if it ain’t awkward.

 4904054_ae891eb9I feel some of this awkwardness, at least in spirit, is evoked in Rae Armantrout’s poem “With” (below). While the poem doesn’t contemplate some odd metaphor of water and wood planks, its three sections stir up some dust around words and the meaning-making process. The first section brings attention to action, only to end on being “still.” This stillness is furthered in the second section by the mention of the act of writing. Yet, the dichotomy of action and stillness remains in the apt use of “or” and how it splits what the stanza presents into indecision. The third section departs in another direction, focusing on the word “with” and its inexactness. Armantrout’s sensitivity to language creates a moment that leaves the poem open-ended in a way that feels, in itself and the reading experience, like closure.

With – Rae Armantrout

It’s well
that things should stir
inconsequentially
around me
like this
patina of shadow,
flicker, whisper,
so that
I can be still.

*

I write things down
to show others
later
or to show myself
that I am not alone with
my experience.

*

“With”
is the word that
comes to mind,
but it’s not
the right word here.

*

from Money Shot (Wesleyan University Press)

poetry feature: Dah

This week’s poem is drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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One of my favorite things about reading a new poet is being introduced to their ways of noticing. Whether it’s what they notice in the world around them or their interior world, this kind of noticing leads naturally to the noticing that plays out in language through word choice and phrasing. This week’s poem – “Inheritance” by Dah – captivates through its evocation of a unique sensibility and way of seeing.

First, the poem sets itself as being about seeing, about “Adjusting to darkness…” and “beginning to see.” From there, we get a catalog of sensation and detail starting in the second stanza. The speaker’s voice has a directness that is near terseness; for example, “wind-slap” and “moldy apples” are rendered through enjambment across line break and phrasing. One gets the feeling of overhearing someone sussing out the right words for things.

red tail hawkThis terseness opens up to the third stanza’s longer sentence about Death Valley. While this sentence is broken across four lines, the phrasing is only interrupted in a natural way at the end by a list. Yet, the pace continues to change. The third stanza’s last line is an interrupted sentence, taken up by the fourth stanza. There is subtle momentum that brings the reader closer in attention to what is being detailed. This attention is rewarded by the final interruption of the last two lines; here, the action of hearing “flapping, swishing” wings interrupts the pacing in a way that doesn’t disrupt the sense of the poem. Instead,  the action of these lines, and of the noticing and wording of them, ends the poem with a lyric turn reminiscent of haiku. We are left, like the speaker, listening close.

Inheritance – Dah

Adjusting to the darkness
my eyes dilate. Stars cast faraway
doubt. I’m beginning to see.

Against my face, a wind-slap
rattles my teeth. On the ground,
like musty breath, moldy apples
splayed open in crates;
I pocket the seeds and head west.

The expanse of Death Valley
is an exhausting sandbox
strung with ghost-rivers,
white sage, wild mules.
Under a littered moon

meteorites are agitated sparklers
or troubled spirits.
I hear flapping, swishing,
a red tail hawk.

*

DAH_02 copy*

Dah’s sixth poetry collection is The Opening (CTU Publishing Group 2018) and his poems have been published by editors from the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Africa, Singapore, Spain, Poland, Philippines and India. Dah lives in Berkeley, California and is working on the manuscript for his eighth poetry book. He is a Pushcart nominee and the lead editor of the poetry critique group, The Lounge. Dah’s seventh book, Something Else’s Thoughts, is forthcoming in July 2018 from Transcendent Zero Press.

 

two by Barry Spacks

In an interview with Grace Cavalieri, Kay Ryan talks about a certain “chill” and restraint she feels is necessary to writing:

I sometimes compare the chill to say, if you put an ice cube on your hand, your hand – your skin would turn pink when you took the ice cube away, and you’d see that your skin was pink where you’d had that ice, because your blood is all sent to where the chill was. So that if you have a somewhat chilly surface in work, it brings the reader’s blood to that place.

I’ve been fascinated by this quote for years now. I admire what it honors about language, its ability to have an effect, to draw meaning to itself, and how, even with restraint, language remains as intimate as ice on skin.

I also enjoy what Ryan’s words make me think about in regards to writing about personal material. In a way, a writer is always negotiating how much of their personal life they put into their work; and because even writers are humans, and as humans things are messy, never strictly one way or another, language remains fluid, directed rather controlled by how we use it.

treesI’m always fascinated by this idea of personal and creative negotiation and how it plays out across a poet’s work. This week, I’m sharing two poems by Barry Spacks. Both poems stood out to me in my reading of his book Spacks Street: New & Selected Poems, enough to write them out in my notebook. What fascinates me looking back at these two poems specifically is how different yet connected they are.

“Poem” is as enigmatic as its title in terms of what it is about, working as an ars poetica almost, a meditation on the fluidity of language. “At 35,” on the other hand, delves into specifics, ideas of age, fatherhood and son-hood. Where these two poems connect is in their haunted tone. Whether contemplating the abstract or the personal, these poems by Spacks are charged with intimate lyrical sensibility.

*

Poem – Barry Spacks

Will it come again like this?
Will we ever get it right?
It is always as it is,
And it passes.

Never as it was,
Yet always somehow bright,
Always somehow sweet
In its changes.

We will never get it right.
It will come, but not like this.
It is always as it is,
And it changes.

*

At 35 – Barry Spacks

Father, what would you make of me? I wear your face.
I hear my cough and think the worms have sent you home.
Here at my table in my insubstantial house,
your myth of hope,
the piece of man you left,
I live your death
stroke for stroke.

There are no vows you did not keep I will not break.
I leave no darkness unacknowledged for your sake.
You are the school I teach. The course I take.
I move toward age, and you become my son.
Along the path ahead
you lift aside
the branches.

*

To learn about the work of Barry Spacks go here.

one more from Hannah Cohen

anatomyIn my recent microreview & interview of Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press), I wrote about recklessness in poetry as being the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. My thinking even now is that it’s not enough in poetry to be honest and tell what happened, but to summon the nerve to make art out of it, to reach out and engage with poetic elements like image and metaphor, and suss out the aesthetic possibilities in this meeting between life and art.

Cohen’s Bad Anatomy does this work in every poem. In “Superficial” (below), the work plays out in a narrative that starts with a Google search and ends with a moment of vulnerability and admission. The vulnerability of the initial subject of babies born with their intestines outside their body is pivoted into another kind of vulnerability that is felt by the speaker; for them, this other vulnerability is another thing that is hard to see. Yet, the fact of the poem proclaims that because it is felt, it must be seen.

It is the gift of lyric poetry to provide tools that take us to such places of insight; it is the gift of each poet to let us in on what they make with these tools.

Superficial – Hannah Cohen

Today I learned there are babies
born with their intestines
outside their little baby bellies.
I don’t know how I spent
three hours on Google scrolling through pictures
of guts, viscera, that lucent sac

like God’s after-thought.
What if in some alternate universe,
I had my heart and lungs out
for everyone to see? The kidneys,
the liver poked, judged—hell,
maybe even loved. And you’d be with me

in that world—because you’re not
with me in this world—and I’d let you
touch me. Here, the babies have
their guts shoved back in.
Here, I only see what isn’t
and what isn’t us.

*

To learn more about Hannah Cohen’s work, check out her site.

unapologetic with Sharon Olds

I recently found myself returning to this week’s poem, “Station” by Sharon Olds, in conversation with students. Specifically, I referenced what happens in the poem as a way to describe the work writers have to do to find space and time to write. Among the themes addressed, the poem makes clear how the decisions made in balancing obligations and artistic ambitions aren’t always easy, but they are always necessary.

dock-2820217_960_720The poem presents a scene where the speaker has taken time away from parenting to write poems out on the dock by their house. The speaker describes the walk back with unapologetic clarity. The speaker’s unapologetic clarity reads like a response to being watched “with no / hint of shyness” by their partner. The tension between the necessity of the speaker’s act and the combined judgment of the partner plus the other work waiting for the speaker at home is anchored in the final line by the image of poems feeling “heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.”

Station – Sharon Olds

Coming in off the dock after writing,
I approached the house,
and saw your long grandee face
in the light of a lamp with a parchment shade
the color of flame.

An elegant hand on your beard. Your tapered
eyes found me on the lawn. You looked
as the lord looks down from a narrow window
and you are descended from lords. Calmly, with no
hint of shyness you examined me,
the wife who runs out on the dock to write
as soon as one child is in bed,
leaving the other to you.
Your long
mouth, flexible as an archer’s bow,
did not curve. We spent a long moment
in the truth of our situation, the poems
heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.

from Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press)

time travel & W. S. Merwin

Screenshot_2018-01-31-17-22-38-1In the spirit of the syllabic breakthrough I mentioned last week in the poem that inspired the title for my latest collection, Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press), I share “A Letter to Su T’ung Po” by W. S. Merwin. Merwin has been an inspiration for over a decade. His lyric insight and meditative verve worked through in syllabics made me ambitious and had me counting mine own syllables regularly. The poem below is a fine example of how sometimes the words fall into place how we need them.

Revising from old journals earlier this week, I discovered the following note I made underneath where I had written out Merwin’s poem by hand. I share it now as a way to mingle with the time travel implied in the title and content of the poem:

I heard Merwin read this poem a week after filing for divorce from my first marriage. Ani was with me , both of us full of questions. This poem is a river in itself. The last line crosses centuries in a gasp, like one stepping away from the face of a river.

A Letter to Su T’ung Po – W. S. Merwin 

Almost a thousand years later
I am asking the same questions
you did the ones you kept finding
yourself returning to as though
nothing had changed except the tone
of their echo growing deeper
and what you knew of the coming
of age before you had grown old
I do not know any more now
than you did then about what you
were asking as I sit at night
above the hushed valley thinking
of you on your river that one
bright sheet of moonlight in the dream
of the water birds and I hear
the silence after your questions
how old are the questions tonight

from The Shadow of Sirius (Copper Canyon Press, 2009)

finding with robert wrigley

I’m a fan of when poems seem self-contained visually, but surprise me as I begin reading. This week’s poem – “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin” by Robert Wrigley – is a good example of what I mean. On a purely visual level, the poem sits in two six line stanzas. When one considers the title includes the word “bible,” the symmetry of these stanzas mirror an open book. This suggestion charges the poem with expectation.

cabinIn the first stanza, the title’s premise is followed through in rich detail. From the look of “the book’s leather cover” to the “back-of-the-neck lick of chill” the speaker feels as they move closer to the book, Wrigley sets up image and evocation as a means of attention. The poem would be engaging enough with such vivid description, but it grows in its depth across the stanza break.

The speaker’s hesitant movement and approach in the first stanza is pushed back against in the first line of the second stanza as we’re told “the book / opened like a blasted bird.” Suddenly, the speaker’s knack for articulation is put in the service of keeping track of the new details. The choice in words remains rich as we’re told about the “thoroughfares of worms, and a silage / of silverfish husks” that have rendered a book down to “perfect wordless lace.” What is most surprising is how much life is found in these “abandoned” things, and how these things live now in this poem, another kind of “box” of “miraculous inks.”

Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin – Robert Wrigley

Under dust plush as a moth’s wing,
the book’s leather cover still darkly shown,
and everywhere else but this spot was sodden
beneath the roof’s unraveling shingles.
There was that back-of-the-neck lick of chill
and then, from my index finger, the book

opened like a blasted bird. In its box
of familiar and miraculous inks,
a construction of filaments and dust,
thoroughfares of worms, and a silage
of silverfish husks: in the autumn light,
eight hundred pages of perfect wordless lace.

from Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin 2006)

poetry feature: Shirani Rajapakse

chant-of-a-million-women-shirani-rajapakseFor this poetry feature, we have two poems and short essay by poet Shirani Rajapakse. The poems are from her recent collection,  Chant of a Million Women, and her essay goes into the themes of the collection and the role these two poems play.

I am honored to provide a forum for the discussion and interrogation of such complex issues as these poems and prose take on. Rajapakse’s work is filled with astute observation and insight. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” takes its time meditating on the act of men groping a statue; the pace of the poem allows the nuance and charge of the situation to be dwelled upon in a way in an unflinching manner. This ability to dwell on the problematic until it gives over something human is found again in “On a Street in London.” In both poems, and throughout Chant of a Million Women, Rajapakse provides space to acknowledge discomfort, injustice, and hurt, but also to begin the work of healing.

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At the Side of the Old Mandir – Shirani Rajapakse

They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.

You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.

Satiated temporarily,
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.

Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
comprehension.

Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting,
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
circumambulating
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.

Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?

*

Shirani Rajapakse on “At the Side of the Old Mandir” & “On a Street in London”

Women’s bodies have always been depicted in art as objects of desire and of un-attainability. The artiste or sculptor creates his work of art that is so perfect it moves the audience to gawk and stare and imagine possibilities in their drab little lives. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” speaks of this desire for a statue by a man who can’t have the real thing – a woman in his life  – because of whatever economic or social factors, or maybe because the wife he has doesn’t reciprocate his love. He stands in front of a statue fantasizing about what could be.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (Hindu temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outside of mandirs depict women in many poses. Almost all of the women have large breasts and voluptuous hips. What was interesting was that in some Mandirs the breasts of these statues of women were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw the reason.

“At the Side of the Old Mandir” sets the stage to the collection. It also pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present and demonstrates that it really isn’t very different, although separated from time and space. Women were seen and continue to be seen as objects of desire; larger than life depictions of male fantasies.

The image of the abused female statues reminded me of what I once saw inside telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time just before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.

It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men, and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced and will continue to face unless and until society realizes that something has to be done to halt this negative trend.

If women were objects that men in ancient times used to sculpt dreams of – narrow waist broad hips and voluptuous breasts – then women have down the centuries become the objects themselves, sculpting their own bodies to create a false view of what men want. Between the ancient statue and the modern woman who add breast implants and nips and tucks her body to please a man we have not progressed much. In fact we have come full circle to finally become what men have always wanted us to be – objects, a very visually pleasing object that is molded to certain parameters.

*

On a Street in London – Shirani Rajapakse

Watermelons jostle
inside the telephone booth too small to hold
such wonders overflowing their space.

Glass and steel surround him
with a view of the street beyond.
They stare at him defiantly at
eye level sticking out strong and proud.

Watermelons big,
watermelons small,
watermelons cheap,
come buy my wares, a business card
stuck to the side cries out to the world.

Lonely hearts stir at the sight
every time they glance inside.

Her eyes beckon, pick up the phone and
dial me in, they blink lustily, as
watermelons heave inside tomato red spandex
stretched to accommodate.

Tiny shivers run marathons down
his spine as he envisages the feel of it
in his palm yet dares
not lift a hand to touch.

Too many eyes watching silently as
footsteps tap around him.

The city drifts this way and that as he stands
still, inside the box in the middle
of the pavement watching her globes
straining to jump out.

Her voice purrs at the other end,
trembles down the line, he
listens mesmerized and
imagines the thousands of possibilities
squashed between watermelons
brown like the earth, trembling
like an earthquake.

*

SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAShirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Chant of a Million Women was self-published (August 2017). She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India). She interviews, promotes and reviews books by indie authors on The Writer’s Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com