Reading through Kelli Russell Agodon’s collection, Letters from the Emily Dickinson Room, I was moved again and again by the kinship evoked between speaker and the poets addressed throughout the poems, but also between poet and craft, and poet to poet. In this week’s poem, “Yakima Ferry at Sunset,” this idea of kinship is there for me from the first line’s declaration:
Tonight I could write a thousand poems
no one should have to read . . .
This line brings to mind a line from Pablo Neruda:
Puedo escribir los versos más tristes esta noche . . .
(Tonight I can write the saddest lines . . .)
This kind of lyric echo speaks to the poet in me, or, rather the poets in me. At times I am the poet of Neruda’s line, lost in reverie and sorrow; at other times, I am the poet of Agodon’s line, possessed by writing, the sheer event of it inspired by the immediacy of a given moment and place.
I often go with my wife to look at fabric or yarn for the projects she’s working on. Walking through the aisles of material, I imagine the possibilities closed to me, but open to anyone who knows how to sew or knit. I can only compare it to the surge of feeling I get when I walk around the woods or body of water in just the right mood, or sit by a window at a café that happens to be in the right light, a feeling of: Today I could write . . .
There’s no guarantee, only a glimpse. One can’t recreate this feeling, one can only acknowledge it for the call to words that it is, and get down what one can, “skimming the edges like every poet.”
Yakima Ferry at Sunset – Kelli Russell Agodon
Tonight I could write a thousand poems
no one should have to read.
All around me are hippie grandmothers
and grey-haired men with dreamcatchers
hanging from the rearview mirrors of their
Hondas. Everyone is irresistable tonight:
the man in his NRA t-shirt, the child
on the upper deck screaming about licorice,
the woman who cut in front of me to buy a latte.
I am skimming the edges like every poet
on this boat, starting my sentences
with the easiest words – I love, I love, I love
to travel home by ferry, the women
who smile at the men they don’t know,
how my tongue feels in my mouth,
a sort of heaviness that never leaves.
If you were a scientist, if you were an explorer who had been to the moon. . . What you said would have the force of that accumulated background of information; and any mumbles, mistakes, dithering, could be forgiven . . . But a poet – whatever you are saying, and however you are saying it, the only authority you have builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build. The moon you are describing is the one you are creating. From the very beginning of your utterance you are creating your own authority. (William Stafford)
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of talking at Foy H. Moody High School (Go Trojans!), the high school I graduated from in Corpus Christi, Texas. My talk was structured around the above quote from William Stafford and the idea of writing as performance. Along with reading poems about the moon, I provided students with index cards where they could try their hand at describing/creating the moon. Here’s one that a student, Ashley, was kind enough to allow me to share here:
It makes me want to swallow my tears, it makes me believe I can forget my fears. It gives me hope.
One of the things that moves me about this young poet’s lyric is how it reaches out to a similar sentiment as the Izumi Shikibu tanka I shared last week. Both lyrics set the solitary figure of the moon against the solitude of the self and work out of that tension a feeling of hope. Truly inspiring!
As part of my visit, I donated copies of Corpus Christi Octaves, Reasons (not) to Dance, and Everything We Think We Hearto the library. As I made my way through readings from Reasons and Everything, I found the moon popping up over and over again in the poems, serendipitously chiming along with the framework of my talk. It was one of those happy accidents that happen while teaching that, in a way, show your intuition paying off.
When a student asked why I thought the moon came up in the poems so much, I surprised myself again by sharing that it might have something to do with having shared a room as a child with my mother. She would work late nights, and often I would stay awake in bed staring out the window. And most nights the moon was there; when not, then the stars.
Looking back on this moment, I can’t help thinking about the following poem by Jack Gilbert, where he gives his own moon-reasoning:
Secrets of Poetry – Jack Gilbert
People complain about too many moons in my poetry.
Even my friends ask why I keep putting in the moon.
And I wish I had an answer like when Archie Moore
was asked by a reporter in the dressing room
after the fight, “Why did you keep looking in
his eyes, Archie? The whole fight you were
looking in his eyes.” And old Archie Moore said,
“Because the eyes are the windows to the soul, man.”
Another “wish I could back and share” thought: It completely slipped my mind that in the Octaves I have the following poem where I riff and hold conversation with the Stafford quote. I share it here in the spirit of belatedness:
The moon you are describing is the one you are creating
– William Stafford
How many moons between us, friend?
I meet you under circumstances
bad and good: bad, because you’re not here,
good, because I get to listen
and hear the moon you’d have me see.
Moon of my own efforts: where to start?
My questions? What are questions? Tonight,
the moon is in the shape of one.
Special thanks to Simon Rios and Melissa Yanez of Moody for helping set up the talks! Thanks also to Ashley, Marcos, and all the other students who participated in the talk about the moon!
Once upon a time, I was a young poet reading through an anthology of Latin American poetry when I came across a poem by João Cabral de Melo Neto that just blew me away. I wrote the poem down in a notebook – it was in Spanish, translated from the original Portuguese – to translate into English later, which I did, happy to be in conversation with the poem.
The thing is when I discovered this poem years ago, I had it in my head that it was made up of only one part, and so for me, the poem was only one section long. And this one section is lovely. See for yourself:
Weaving the Morning – João Cabral de Melo Neto* translated into English by José Angel Araguz
One rooster alone does not weave the morning:
he will always be working with other roosters.
One to pick up the cry that he
and throw it to another; another rooster
to pick up the cry of the previous rooster
and throw it to another; and other roosters
with many other roosters crossing
the sun-threads of their rooster cries,
so that the morning, made of a soft fabric,
goes on being woven among all roosters.
Later, I rediscovered the poem and learned that the poet had written it with two sections, not just one. And what’s worse, that second, new (to me) section was kinda clunky (again, to me). Again, see for yourself:
And taking shape in this fabric, gathered,
stored and waiting where everyone will enter,
entertaining itself in the awning
(morning) sets down its frameless plans.
Morning, a canopy woven of such airy material
it rises by itself: a globe of light.
So there I was, mistaken and shaken. Was the poem I ran into in the anthology misprinted? Or had it been printed at the bottom of a page, and had younger me – floored and amazed by that first section – not turned the page when I copied it down? What else but poetry can have us slipping past ourselves like this?
There were also the questions of translation: Was the poem in its entirety a finer product in the original Portuguese? Should I consult other Spanish translations? What is a translation but a reaching into the material of memory, other’s and one’s own?
Now, my goal in sharing this story – well, not really story, more snapshots of poetic fumbling – is not to make a case against the second section, but to share the poem (it’s charm can withstand my fumbling). I also wanted to engage a bit with ideas of memory and enchantment (charm, enchantment: très magique) and how both work in specific ways in poetry. The way the roosters build off each other’s cries is much like the way one poem is answered by another, and how one memory is blurred and built upon by another. One reads and writes, in order to read and write some more.
In a recent postcard exchange with Edward Vidaurre, I held onto my earlier enchantment as I wrote the first section of the poem out. I figured, hey, the first section’s the best part and there’s only so much room on a postcard for a poem plus my own meandering explanation at how I failed to remember the second section initially.
So, really, this is a tale of failure. Speaking of: As I prepared to write this blog post, I flipped through my sketchbook, remembering distinctly that I had sketched a rooster sometime in the past, had the image of it vividly in mind (see above).
Alas, when I found the image, it was no rooster:
*p.s. Here is the poem in the original Portuguese as well as the Spanish translation I worked from:
Tecendo a Manhã – João Cabral de Melo Neto (original)
Um galo sozinho não tece uma manhã:
ele precisará sempre de outros galos.
De um que apanhe esse grito que ele
e o lance a outro; de um outro galo
que apanhe o grito de um galo antes
e o lance a outro; e de outros galos
que com muitos outros galos se cruzem
os fios de sol de seus gritos de galo,
para que a manhã, desde uma teia tênue,
se vá tecendo, entre todos os galos.
E se encorpando em tela, entre todos,
se erguendo tenda, onde entrem todos,
se entretendendo para todos, no toldo
(a manhã) que plana livre de armação.
A manhã, toldo de um tecido tão aéreo
que, tecido, se eleva por si: luz balão.
Tejiendo la mañana – João Cabral de Melo Neto translated into Spanish by José Antonio Montano
Un gallo solo no teje una mañana:
precisará siempre de otros gallos.
De uno que recoja el grito que él
y lo lance a otro; de otro gallo
que recoja el grito del gallo anterior
y lo lance a otro; y de otros gallos
que con otros muchos gallos se crucen
los hilos de sol de sus gritos de gallo,
para que la mañana, con una tela tenue,
vaya siendo tejida, entre todos los gallos.
Y tomando cuerpo en tela, entre todos,
erigiéndose en tienda, donde entren todos,
entretendiéndose para todos, en el toldo
(la mañana) que planea libre de armazón.
La mañana, toldo de un tejido tan aéreo
que, tejido, se eleva de por sí: luz globo.
This is the real secret of life — to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.
– Alan Watts
I like this quote because of the shift in gears it implies about life and how we approach it. I feel it easily mirrors something done in writing, how one must fight against being caught up in making a point and rather be open to what is at play. In a poem, it is being aware of the possibilities in an image or a turn of phrase, and digging further.
This week’s poem – “The Time Around Scars by Michael Ondaatje” – digs into the image of a scar and ties it to ideas of memory and time. As the poem develops, I feel myself as a reader traveling as if on a moebius strip. Ondaatje, by staying close to an image and emotion, is able to create a reading experience where time is traversed as it only can be in a poem.
The Time Around Scars – Michael Ondaatje
A girl whom I’ve not spoken to
or shared coffee with for several years
writes of an old scar.
On her wrist it sleeps, smooth and white,
the size of a leech.
I gave it to her
brandishing a new Italian penknife.
Look, I said turning,
and blood spat onto her shirt.
My wife has scars like spread raindrops
on knees and ankles,
she talks of broken greenhouse panes
and yet, apart from imagining red feet,
(a nymph out of Chagall)
I bring little to that scene.
We remember the time around scars,
they freeze irrelevant emotions
and divide us from present friends.
I remember this girl’s face,
the widening rise of surprise.
And would she
moving with lover or husband
conceal or flaunt it,
or keep it at her wrist
a mysterious watch.
And this scar I then remember
is a medallion of no emotion.
I would meet you now
and I would wish this scar
to have been given with
all the love
that never occurred between us.
This week’s poem by Juan Felipe Herrera (recently appointed as the first Chicana/o U.S. Poet Laureate) caught me towards the end the first time I read it. The way the details come together. The turn and return at the end to the image of something dark around the neck. Each reading of it since that first helps me appreciate the lyrical nerve at work.
The words about the grandmother had me in my memories of my own grandmother who passed when I was nineteen. I’ve been in a similar space as the poem describes, “inventing her memory.” For me, “black sparkles” is ink, each word more of the “leash” the poet writes of.
Cimabue, Goya, Beginnings – Juan Felipe Herrera
I carry a dark necklace around my neck.
It’s painted on.
No one has taken notice.
They think it’s an outline or an odd shadow.
No one has stared longer than a few seconds.
I’ll tell you.
I didn’t know where to put all the fragments of the novel
that family never finished. It had such sweet beginnings,
but it grew umber with a one-eyed madonna hovering
over the lampshade.
So many years, I whispered to her come to me,
listen to me
She would appear to me with gold-leaf
around her braids and seven daggers erect over the heart;
perhaps the last desire; the first real words
escaping from my grandmother’s grave, trying to touch
my hair as I sat at seventeen, writing,
inventing her memory.
Her voice was so loving,
now, all that remains is this broken leash
of black sparkles.
I’d also like to announce that my full-length microfiction collection Everything We Think We Hear has just been accepted for publication by Floricanto Press!!!
This manuscript has gone through several incarnations since 2012. The move towards microfiction happened in the last year. Something conceptually clicked about these pieces as I was working with FutureCycle Press on the finishing touches of my recent chapbook Reasons (not) to Dance. FutureCycle’s belief in one project breathed life into another.
I’ll be sharing more updates on the project as the book comes together.
I came across this week’s poem – “Winged” by Valerie Wallace – reading through the latest issue of Rust + Moth.
I was taken in by the Auden reference to the “old masters” from his poem Musee des Beaux Arts. I find the reference suiting since the impetus for Wallace’s poem comes from Alexander McQueen, whom I don’t know too much about except that his singular designs had him working with Bjork and Lady Gaga as well as designing Kate Middleton’s wedding dress (more to the point: Alexander McQueen the person didn’t design Middleton’s wedding dress – because he was dead. His label did – more specifically Sarah Burton, the creative director since his death).
In Wallace’s poem, the corset in question is taken on both conceptually as well as visually in the structure of the poem. The couplets themselves work down the poem like stitches as the speaker goes further into breaking and fraying as much meaning from each word “Be/hold balsa ribbons” is an especially powerful revelatory reading moment.
Enjoy the poem below and check out the rest of the issue of Rust + Moth here.
Winged – Valerie Wallace
—Corset from the Alexander McQueen collection No. 13, spring/summer 1999
The old masters
got them wrong,
their locations, at
least. Not pinned
at the spine like a moth
or the bone blade spurt.
From the tiny bloom
of sternum I swept
over shoulders, fanned,
arc’d. Slit for heavy arms.
How on earth do you expect to walk in them? Ha.
Be/hold balsa ribbons
planed, laced, bindings,
not for flight but descent.
How will you care for me,
The above, by the Honduran writer Augusto Monterroso, is credited as being one of the world’s shortest stories. Monterroso is one of my favorite writers in the Latin American microcuento tradition.
When I first read him, I was amazed at how much spookiness can happen in a short amount of prose. The form – which in English goes by various names: flash fiction, prose poetry, short shorts, microfiction, etc. – allows for a certain kind of sensibility to play.
Myself, I find a complicated humor in the form at times, as can bee seen in two new pieces published in Star 82 Review’s Issue 2.4.
Given this week’s news of Galway Kinnell’s passing, I find myself heading into Dia de los Muertos this weekend with him on my mind.
I had the pleasure of attending a reading he gave alongside Phil Levine in NYC. The two great poets chatted at their table before the reading. When the time came to start, Galway walked up to the mic and in his booming, majestic baritone gave a stellar reading of Phil’s poem “They Feed They Lion.” The room was collectively knocked out. Phil then walked up and replaced Galway at the podium, and said: “Gee, that was pretty good.”
They then proceeded to take turns, poem by poem, reading each other’s work. I remember how well the two voices complimented each other’s work, Phil adding some lyric subtlety to his reading of Galway’s “The Avenue Bearing the Initial of the Christ into the New World,” and Galway delivering the grit and grace behind Phil’s poems.
Grit and grace are two solid words to remember Galway Kinnell by, words exemplified in the meditation in the poem below.
The Man Splitting Wood in the Daybreak – Galway Kinnell
The man splitting wood in the daybreak
looks strong, as though, if one weakened,
one could turn to him and he would help.
Gus Newland was strong. When he split wood
he struck hard, flashing the bright steel
through the air so hard the hard maple
leapt apart, as it’s feared marriages will do
in countries reluctant to permit divorce,
and even willow, which, though stacked
to dry a full year, on being split
actually weeps—totem wood, therefore,
to the married-until-death—sunders
with many little lip-wetting gasp-noises.
But Gus is dead. We could turn to our fathers,
but they help us only by the unperplexed
looking-back of the numerals cut into headstones.
Or to our mothers, whose love, so devastated,
can’t, even in spring, break through the hard earth.
Our spouses weaken at the same rate we do.
We have to hold our children up to lean on them.
Everyone who could help goes or hasn’t arrived.
What about the man splitting wood in the daybreak,
who looked strong? That was years ago. That was me.
I’m delighted to share the news of my having become married. 🙂
Those of you who’ve followed me on the Influence for a while may have caught me speaking about a previous divorce. I’m happy to have been keeping up this blog long enough to show that life has turns and revolutions, and that life moves on.
In keeping with this spirit of movement and (new) connections, enjoy the lyrical alignment below, in which William James connects more than a few dots for us. James’ knack for being at turns psychologist, philosopher, and mystic (usually all in one paragraph) always impresses me.
The Charm – William James
a lyrical alignment from The Will to Believe
Who does not feel the charm of thinking
that the moon and the apple are,
as far as their relation to
the earth goes, identical;
of knowing respiration and
combustion to be one; of
understanding that the balloon
rises by the same law whereby
the stone sinks; of feeling that
the warmth in one’s palm when one
rubs one’s sleeve is identical
with the motion which the friction
checks; of recognizing the difference
between beast and fish to be
only a higher degree of that
between human father and son;
of believing our strength when we
climb the mountain or fell the tree
to be no other than the strength
of the sun’s rays which made the corn grow
out of which we got our morning meal?
The Arctic moose drinks at the tundra’s edge,
swirling the watercress with his mouth.
How fresh the water is, the coolness of the far North.
A light wind moves through the deep firs.
Reading this week, I came across these two short lyrics by Robert Bly. I love how in the lyric above there is a sound repetition going on: “moose drinks” followed by the sounds of “swirling the watercress” and on into the next line in “fresh” and “coolness” – all of it a subtle surge of sound.
A similar sense of sound governs the poem below, but also with it is a bit of that Deep Image mojo Bly and others helped to perfect. With the aptness and pacing of a great tanka, the lyric goes from a note on nature to a more personal, inner note. The last line leveled me with its directness: after the tension created between the fanciful note on the herons and the speaker’s inner turmoil, the clarity suggested in the last line evokes “another world” indeed.
Herons – Robert Bly
After trailing their bony legs the herons dance
in their crystal house far up near the clouds.
I need you in sand, touching your hand I weep.
In another world I am clear and transparent.