* in the trees with John Ashbery & new work

After many walks in the snow the body learns a new rhythm. At least that’s what it’s felt like these past few weeks. I’ve got myself a mean snow trudge.

What I admire about John Ashbery is the way he can keep his line close to the shifts of not his mind but the mind of the poem. In the poem below, whose rhyming couplets have a music that sneaks up on you rather than chimes on in, I feel a recognition of what is termed “puzzling light.”

Not the kind of light that leaves you puzzled (past tense) but a sense of light as vision, where you look at something and keep seeing new things in it, puzzling out what there is.

Like steps in deep snow: each a different mark and feel.

* and miles to go and all that *
* and miles to go and all that *

Some Trees – John Ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.


Happy accenting!


p.s. I am happy to announce that I have 3 poems in the latest issue of the Inflectionist Review. Check them out here. Special thanks to John Sibley Williams and A. Molotkov for giving these poems a home.

* what we want & Chase Twichell

* frozen lake, yo *
* frozen lake, yo *

The above is a picture of the Burnet Woods Lake taken earlier this week.

It be frozen.  Cincinnati got pulled into what’s been termed a “polar vortex” – a fantastic phrase which of course has made its way into a poem or two already.  That said, the vortex itself was not so fantastic.  Kinda scary.

The opening in the picture above is usually filled with a constant stream of lake water.  On my walk, I couldn’t help but stop by and take note.  There was also this:

* lake cracking up *
* lake cracking up *

I say “take note” but the impulse to stop and assess plays out in truly complicated and meaningful ways inside each of us.

Today’s poem Roadkill, by Chase Twichell, explores some of what is behind that impulse, posits want as what drives it and, consequently, drives us.

The poem was published in this week’s New Yorker and posted on Facebook by a friend.  One’s Facebook feed is another place where one streams through quickly, trying to keep up.  Finding this poem had me taking note.  I’m glad I did.

And yes: I just did compare checking out your Facebook feed with checking out roadkill.  Just sayin’.


Roadkill – Chase Twichell

I want to see things as they are
without me.  Why, I don’t know.
As a kid I always looked
at roadkill close up, and poked
a stick into it.  I want to look at death
with eyes like my own baby eyes,
not yet blinded by knowledge.
I told this to my friend the monk,
and he said, want, want, want.


Happy wanting!


* old friends from Australia

* candy of two kinds *
* candy of two kinds *

The above book and treats arrived yesterday from my friend in Australia, Catherine Baab-Muguira – poet/novelist/and overall amazing person.  She has been kind enough to send along the book Poser by Claire Dederer across many miles between continents because a good book should travel far in so many senses of that phrase.

Those are also chocolate bars up there: those only have a day or two left of travel *ahem*.

Cat and I met each other in 2004 during the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets.  I was an insufferable young poet in my twenties (mind you, I continue to be insufferable in my thirties, no slacking there) and she was one of a gang of good people with which I had the gift of a month of writing/reading/talking poetry.

The poem below, by Australia’s legendary Les Murray, came to mind as I thought about doing this post in gratitude to my friend who lives in such a faraway and cool place (her beach photos are the best).  The poem came to mind because of the youthful drama of being a young poet that played out during the seminar in 2004 – a drama that still continues today.

Those last two lines:

As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable

pretty much describe me after any particularly productive writing jag.

As a poet, you are never closer to the stuff than in the writing and rewriting.  The before and after, well, that’s the rest of your life.


Performance – Les Murray

I starred that night, I shone:
I was footwork and firework in one,

a rocket that wriggled up and shot
darkness with a parasol of brilliants
and a peewee descant on a flung bit;
I was busters of glitter-bombs expanding
to mantle and aurora from a crown,
I was fouettés, falls of blazing paint,
para-flares spot-welding cloudy heaven,
loose gold off fierce toeholds of white,
a finale red-tongued as a haka leap:
that too was a butt of all right!

As usual after any triumph, I was
of course, inconsolable.


Happy triumphing!


* what I don’t know – with Hayden Carruth & Joseph Massey

Swept – Hayden Carruth

When we say I
miss you what
we mean is I’m
filled with

dread.  At night
alone going
to bed is
like lying down

in a wave.  Total
absence of light.
Swept away to


This week I am sharing poems by Hayden Carruth and Joseph Massey.

The thread between them is how nuanced the lines are – both in terms of line breaks as well as pacing – in order to work their magic.  Read Carruth’s poem too fast and you miss the power of like lying down // in a wave – how the stanza break opens up after lying down and places you in a wave as you read.

A similar thing happened for me in the following poem by Massey in the second stanza.  The phrasing of I know/them, not/knowing their/names is tricky.  It took me a few readings to really cotton to what was happening there at the level of language.  More than an admission of not knowing the names of the things in spring, it elevates that not knowing into a knowing all its own.

I feel it in terms of this: what I don’t know could fill libraries – and does!

Hear – Joseph Massey

The field
throbs.  Early
spring splits
a few things

open; I know
them, not
knowing their

— my only
Here at the

it’s all said


Happy illegibling!


* summer dancing with Alice Fulton

* Jimmy being told they are out of donuts *
* Jimmy being told they are out of donuts *

At the start of summer we started an old movie kick sparked by Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  James Stewart is a champ in it.

Since then, we’ve done more Hitchcock as well as a few others.  The most surprising was Singin’ in the Rain – straightforward joy and spirit (with a few dance montages out of a really bad acid trip!).

* word to your soft shoe *
* word to your soft shoe *

It made me think of me and Ani’s first summer together.  We took a waltz class with her parents.  Evenings of following each other’s moves and learning something new together made summer feel like spring – in spirit at least.

The waltz became a part of our history that summer.

Alice Fulton’s poem below explores some of the history of the waltz – the real history, what it has meant to people, what all moves between people when they dance.


The Orthodox Waltz – Alice Fulton

Courtship, the seamless mesh
under taffeta havocs
of hoop skirt, smoke

hoops from his Lucky Strikes
her words jumped through.
Women dancing had the harder part,

she’d heard, because they must
dance backward.
He kept his ear pressed

like a safecracker’s
stethoscope against
her head, kept his

recombinant endearments
tumbling toward a click.
The lachrymose music,

his clasp and lust-
spiel, displaced her
mother’s proverbs.  How nimble

they were, those girls
gliding by on dollies.
What had her mother said

that sounded wise?  Was it
“Women dancing must be agile
as refugees with jewels

tied to their thighs?”


Happy dancing!


* cemeteries, thrift stores & Hayden Carruth

*wonder why they call it Vine Street...*
*wonder why they call it Vine Street…*

This vine-riddled chap of a chapel can be found at the Vine Street Hill Cemetery – founded in 1849 – which we drove by yesterday on our way to a thrift store.  (We were hunting for a funky tablecloth and were not disappointed.)

In general, cemeteries are pretty charged places for people, myself included.  They are the great plots of our lives.  Ahem.

All seriously bad jokes aside, I am comforted by cemeteries because there is one that I have yet to walk through – the one where my father is buried – the location of which I have never been told.  I just know it’s out there.   A walk through a cemetery for me is a connection to all hallowed ground, here and elsewhere.  It is a space where life is put down and remembered.

Kinda like thrift stores.  A walk through a thrift store is a walk through former lives, former use and purpose.  Somebody argued over this mug, somebody turned restlessly in these sheets.  Somebody really needed/needs this black velvet painting of Elvis.

I know someone who took her grandson to a thrift store and together with him came across a tin of ashes.

Needed/needs.  There is the door you walk through in life.


The poem below by Hayden Carruth has stuck with me for some years now.  I want to call it light-hearted, but I think it’s more life-hearted.  The ending in particular moves me still to look at the world a little closer.


Graves – Hayden Carruth

Both of us had been close
to Joel, and at Joel’s death,
my friend had gone to the wake
and the memorial service
and more recently he had
visited Joel’s grave, there
at the back of the grassy
cemetery among the trees,
“a quiet, gentle place,” he said,
“befitting Joel.”  And I said,
“What’s the point of going
to look at graves?”  I went
into one of my celebrated
tirades.  “People go to look
at the grave of Keats or Hart
Crane, they go travelling just to
do it, what a waste of time.
What to do they find there?  Hell,
I wouldn’t go look at the grave
of Shakespeare if it was just
down the street.  I wouldn’t
look at — ”  And I stopped.  I
was about to say the grave of God
until I realized I’m looking at it
all the time….


Happy looking!


* photo found here.

* living, dreaming & apples

Between living and dreaming
there is a third thing.
Guess it.

— Antonio Machado

I look at this quote and see much of the poetic craft summed up in it.

There is the living of everyday life – work, chores, relationships, food, tying your shoelaces – all the things that make up routine, the background to who we are.

Then there’s dreaming – both the idealizing of the future as well as the literal act of what is seen when we sleep.  The unspoken times.

Between these two things – the background and the unspoken – we do our best to do the guessing that Machado encourages.


In the poem below, Jay Leeming takes an everyday thing – in this case, an apple – and pushes it into dream.  The image of the apple’s core as a “little room” is a guess towards what the act of eating an apple suggests beyond the everyday.  You get the usual connotations of Adam and Eve, the Fall – but there’s something more to it.

The turn for me here is at the end, how the poem leaves you with enough image to keep on talking inside of you.  Just watch what happens when you get to the powerful compound word “tear-shaped.”

Apple – Jay Leeming **

Sometimes when eating an apple
I bite too far
and open the little room
the lovers have prepared,
and the seeds fall
onto the kitchen floor
and I see
that they are tear-shaped.


Happy appling!


p.s.  Jay Leeming is also the editor of Rowboat: Poetry in Translation, a great journal you can find out more about here.

* photo found here.

** published in the book Dynamite on a China Plate, The Backwaters Press.

* cynicism via Adam Levine & Philip Larkin

This show changed my life.  I was a cynic.  It brought back the joy…
(Adam Levine)

*at cynics not-so-anonymous*
*at cynics not-so-anonymous*

This week on the Influence: Philip Larkin!

FIRST, though, a confession: I watch The Voice.  There I said it.

Sharing this information in a public forum is tough.  Indeed, admitting what T.V. shows one indulges in can be as nerve-wracking and potentially embarrassing as…uhm, I don’t know – writing poetry.

Growing up in Texas, some of my homeboys back in the day didn’t take kindly to my versifying ways (I say it this way because it wouldn’t be polite of me to share exactly what they said of my ambitions to be a poet).

And yet I forged on – not out of any well-thought out conviction that I had been born with a direct line to the Muse – I forged on out of a sheer inability to do anything else but forge on.

It is this reflex, this connection that cannot be denied, that gets me to the page each day.  This reflex has its roots down where everything I enjoy resonates – from what I eat to what I read – and, yes, what I watch on T.V.

What moves me about Adam Levine’s words above is that simple admission: that he was a cynic.  One spends years entrenched in an art and risks slowly growing competitive and desensitized, unwilling to see beyond the niche one works out of.  One must seek ways to push beyond such limits, experiences that bring back the joy of what you do, that bring you back to why you do it.

Nothing beats finding a new writer you enjoy – someone who raises the temperature in the room you’re in, that has you smiling despite yourself as you read each incredible, engrossing word.

Afterwards, you judge.  You gauge how good it is against what you see as better.  You go back to your page to catch up, to outdo.  But for awhile there, you simply read.

Watching Adam Levine & co. listen to music and talk about it passionately has taught me a lot about humility and generosity.

Across the Street

Philip Larkin, too, has been a model for humility.

His poem “This Be the Verse” is infamous for its bitterness and warning against ever becoming a parent.  He HATED this poem being what most people recalled when his name was brought up.  While being popular, he felt it also made him seem less serious.  People often miss when the bitterness gives way.  He was a man of strong opinions – who knew what he liked – and it is that strength and nerve that guided the many illuminating and well-crafted poems he left us.

Here’s another poem about “mum and dad.”  I love how it leaves you at that moment of not understanding something fully but feeling it.

Ultimately, what we like is what we feel.


Coming – Philip Larkin

On longer evenings,
Light, chill and yellow,
Bathes the serene
Foreheads of houses.
A thrush sings,
In the deep bare garden,
It’s fresh-peeled voice
Astonishing the brickwork.
It will be spring soon,
It will be spring soon –
And I, whose childhood
Is a forgotten boredom,
Feel like a child
Who comes on a scene
Of adult reconciling
And can understand nothing
But the unusual laughter,
And starts to be happy.


Happy starting!


* Donald Justice & the friday influence

The Assassination – Donald Justice

It begins again, the nocturnal pulse. 
It courses through the cables laid for it. 
It mounts to the chandeliers and beats there, hotly. 
We are too close. Too late, we would move back. 
We are involved with the surge. 

Now it bursts. Now it has been announced. 
Now it is being soaked up by newspapers. 
Now it is running through the streets. 
The crowd has it. The woman selling carnations 
And the man in the straw hat stand with it in their shoes. 

Here is the red marquee it sheltered under. 
Here is the ballroom, here 
The sadly various orchestra led 
By a single gesture. My arms open. 
It enters. Look, we are dancing.

(June 5, 1968)



This week on the Influence: Donald Justice.

Picked up the poem above from reading through John Drury’s Poetry Dictionary.   The assassination in the poem is that of Robert Kennedy’s in 1968.

Drury places the poem in the chance poetry category.  In writing this poem, Justice wrote words on cards and picked them out at random as he wrote.

I sense some of the risk-taking of this practice in the “charged” words of the first stanza, and in the phrase “soaked up by newspapers” in the second.  It’s only a guess, but on my third reading of the poem, the phrase struck me as masterfully plucked from its context of what to do about a spill and given a new life in this poem.

I am moved by the menace and epic feel achieved in the indirect take on the subject.  Here you have a poem about a political misfortune that delves into the human aspect of it – how news travel into our lives.  I noted on each rereading of the poem how the word “it’ becomes sinister and carries the emotion of the poem to the end.  The end itself drives home a sense of mortality, of interrupted life.

On a lighter note: the carnations are brought to you courtesy of last week’s birthday celebration.

Bought them on the fly before dinner.


Also: I have two poems in Turn, an anthology of poems about seasons put out last month by Uttered Chaos Press.  Copies can be purchased on the Uttered Chaos website here OR on Amazon here.  Special thanks to UC editor Laura LeHew.


Happy uttering!


* Robert Hayden & the friday influence

Those Winter Sundays – Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.


I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,


Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?


This week on the Influence – Robert Hayden!

*the man*
*the man*

This poem gets a lot of love – on the internet, in anthologies, in classes – and deserves every bit of it.

I opened up my reading this past Tuesday with this poem, reciting it from memory.  It is one of those poems I’ve carried close to me for years now.  The poem never stops teaching me something.

Here’s what I said about it at the reading:

This poem opened up a lot of doors for me.  It is a poem of presence: blue black cold – splintering breaking – there is presence in the very sounds!  But the poem ends with that question – What did I know, what did I know… and that question comes from a place of absence.  The origins for my book The Wall started from a similar absence, from not knowing my father at all growing up because he died when I was six and spent most of those last years in prison.  The poems start from absence – like a blank page, and the poems fill it up.

This week was a big week for me – I don’t get them often.

Thank you to everyone who was a part of it.

See you next Friday!


p.s. A little more love for Hayden from the Poetry Foundation can be found here.