microreview: Word Has It by Ruth Danon

review by José Angel Araguz

word has it

One of the things I admire about Ruth Danon’s Word Has It (Nirala Publications) is how the collection brings together via short lyrics and prose poem sequences a vibe of being a spy of language. I say “spy” and mean specifically a sensibility able to evoke the range of curiosity, intrigue, and vigilance that is associated with the heightened awareness one might associate with a spy. In “Floridian,” for example, we have the following lines:

Unseasonable chill in the palms.
Fronds I mean, and also the cold
fingertips that touch them.

Here, the wordplay that occurs across the punctuation and line break on “palms” of the first line, and the addition and jolt of the second line’s “Fronds” emphasizes both the human and plant double meaning in the words as well as the speaker’s awareness of this connection. It’s a pun of sorts rendered in a tone that is intriguing, as the formulation of “Fronds I mean, and also” have an air of nervousness as the lines continue back to the original human sensory association of “cold / fingertips.” This back and forth of sensory and conceptual perception is engaging for the way it creates an air of heightened awareness which has us in a different place than expected given the title “Floridian.”

This engagement with the unexpected continues throughout the book. In “Domestic,” there are three moments that riff on the concept of a shot of whiskey around which the poem is developed. Here are the opening lines:

“Shot of whiskey,” she thought, from
nowhere, not because she ever drank
the stuff, but because it seemed the kind
of random association one might have at
the end of a long day.

These lines are effective in the way they intellectualize associations around taking a shot, using phrases like “drank / the stuff” and “the end of a long day” to ground the poem in a heightened sense of the familiar. This familiarity is then riffed against in moments like the following:

“Shot through with light,”
was an expression she liked. Radiance or
the idea of glowing from within seemed
a worthy aspiration.

Here, the word “shot” from the start of the poem is repeated but changed from noun to verb. This change evokes the sensibility of the “she” being described who has gone from the poem’s opening “random association” to this aspirational one. It is a moment of hope, in a way, where the interrogative tone is left for a moment. This moment is short-lived, however, as the poem quickly narrates how “Unruly she was,” and then takes us to the ending where “She looked ahead, steady / on her feet, or so she thought.” The charm of this poem is how the established heightened awareness takes the idea of a shot of whiskey at the start and through the poem’s development gestures towards inebriation as a state of being due to overthinking.

There’s a moment in the sequence “Divination” that presents an encapsulated version of this idea of heightened awareness:

Consider now that the birds scrawl their
messages and you are too far from the sky to
read their words.

What then?

It is in asking “What then?” after the logic of birds scrawling messages we can’t read that the heart of the collection pulses. The human spying we do of language, so to speak, is frustrating work. At the end of the day, we don’t know the world through words, we know only words and persist with our vague sense of the world. The act of writing in Word Has It is imbued with a charge of responsibility and need despite this frustration, however. In “Birding” (below), the poem’s play and progression of thought show how much can be seen in light of having our “stupid eyes closed.”

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Ruth Danon

Birding

So listen, let me confess, I do not live in a world
that lends itself easily to description or evocation
or adoration. In my ordinary life I face one brick
wall on one side and another brick wall on the
other. I do not even have words to distinguish
one brick wall from another and if there are
windows in yet another wall they give over to a
wall on the far side of any small opening. I envy
those who stand quietly on shores and watch
plovers. I do not know what a plover looks like
and I do not know if it makes a sound. The word
contains the word “lover,” and also the word
“over” and that is yet another brick wall. I
believe in the power of birds, but I do not know,
not for a minute, how to describe their quivering
hearts or their flights or the mad plunge of
herons into salty marshes. A little while ago I
washed my face in clear water. I plunged right in,
my stupid eyes closed.

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To learn more about Ruth Danon’s work, visit her site.
Copies of Word Has It can be purchased via SPD.

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.

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from Selected Poems (Vintage)

disbelief y Concha Méndez

In my fascination with the short lyric, one of the variations I enjoy are poems that work like door hinges into an emotion. These poems walk the fine line of narrative and abstract language, and take on risks in order to create an emotional impression.

This week’s poem – “No es aire lo que respiro…” by Concha Méndez – is a good example of what I mean. In typical short lyric fashion, the poem is carried by a personal tone that evokes intimacy. From there, the voice delves into metaphoric language, developing a narrative of air-turned-ice, ground that opens, and eyes that see an ever-darkening world. The poem ends on lines of sorrow and disbelief.

dawnDespite the bleak turns in a small amount of lines, this poem is one of hope in the way that poetry writing in general implies hope. Here, in ten lines, is the presence and direct statement of one’s feelings. Also, there’s the sense of one reporting from an inner landscape in language whose ambiguity leaves what poet D. M. Garrison calls “dreaming room,” that is, a space for a reader to dwell on what the words bring up for them. In the light of recent events in the news, including climate change reports and the Kavanaugh confirmation, we have been given many reasons to “look at the world” and “not want to believe.”

In my translation, I worked towards having the words do the “hinge” work I spoke of earlier, and downplaying some of the cadence in the original Spanish that doesn’t exactly carry over into English. My goal was to drum up some of the tension and air of dwelling in Méndez’s original. Enjoy!

No es aire lo que respiro… — Concha Méndez

No es aire lo que respiro,
que es hielo que me está helando
la sangre de mis sentidos.
Tierra que piso se me abre.
Cuanto miro se oscurece.
Mis ojos se abren al llanto
ya cuando el día amanece.

Y antes del amanecer,
abiertos miran al mundo
y no lo quieren creer…

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It’s not air that I breathe … — by Concha Méndez
English translation by José Angel Araguz

It’s not air that I breathe,
that is ice freezing
the blood of my senses.
The ground I tread opens for me.
Wherever I look darkens.
My eyes open, weeping
already when the day dawns.

And before dawn,
they look at the world
and do not want to believe…

intuiting with Mary Oliver

The beginning of the school year for me is always a time of advice. New students come into the fray of doing the work to better their lives via education, making the necessary sacrifices of time, energy, and finances. It’s a sensitive position, and I work hard to be sensitive to it. Whether the topic is making decisions about what classes to take or simply a poem or essay they are working on, one of the things I think I’m guiding a student towards is intuition. I figure if a person learns to listen to themselves and hear what they already know, they’ll be that much more aware of what they don’t know and how to seek it out.

night treesThis week’s poem – “The Journey” by Mary Oliver – is a poem that I associate it with this kind of intuition and listening. The poem is grounded in a narrative that is richly ambiguous; the choice of the second person “you” address brings a reader close to the stakes of the poem while the language is kept in a register that is accessible and fluid. Yet, rather than fall into any cliches about “journeys,” the poem creates a creeping urgency through its physicality. A house “trembles”; something “tugs” at the ankles; and by the end, the you is striding forward with a newfound conviction, if not confidence.

This poem, in particular, is a favorite because this feeling I’m attempting to describe remains consistent over my twenty years of admiration and rereading. The poem lives in a lyrical mode that asks the reader to be present in themselves, a position where all strong writing – and living – begins.

The Journey – Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

from Dream Work (The Atlantic Monthly Press)

poetry feature: Adeeba Shahid Talukder

This week’s poetry feature comes from the work of Adeeba Shahid Talukder whose chapbook What Is Not Beautiful is out now from Glass Poetry Press. Talukder’s work was featured here once before in 2012 and I continue to be floored by her consistently engaging lyric sensibility.

I actually had the opportunity to get an early read of What Is Not Beautiful and got to share my thoughts on it via the following blurb:

“In poems that weave the lyrical passions and strains of Urdu literary traditions with contemporary nerve and insight, What Is Not Beautiful by Adeeba Shahid Talukder presents a new and necessary voice. This collection invites the reader to follow meditations on family, self, womanhood, and culture rendered with the intimate urgency of the best lyric poetry. In the same way the speaker of one poem “[searches], again for beauty” only to find it “means something / else now,” the readers of Talukder’s poems will find the world around them cast in a new, vivid clarity.”

beautifulFor readers new to Talukder’s work, I would add that the poems of this collection live together in a rich atmosphere of perception. Perceptions of beauty, specifically, are engaged with to gain an idea of as well as to challenge their role in forging a sense of self. Yet, there is also lyric perception at work here, a way with the line that invites the reader into perceiving what is at stake for themselves.

The poem “Mirror” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Starting with an image of the sky “watching” herself in a river, the poem adapts its personification of the sky around a narrative imbued with human resonance. We are, in a way, seeing two narratives at once: the sky’s perception of her seemingly “heavy, wrinkled” self and the speaker’s indirect identification with these images and implied feelings. This braiding of image and emotion is an aspect of Talukder’s work that reads both as spontaneous and natural as well as a feat of craft and intuition. Furthermore, this braiding results in a voice, here and elsewhere in the collection, that is intimate and accessible, yet capable of reading into the nuances and depths of complex perceptions. Despite the narrative’s finality in the ending lines, the poem remains an open-ended experience for both speaker and reader.

Mirror – Adeeba Shahid Talukder

the sky watches the river,
finds herself
heavy, wrinkled.

the furrows in her
as the ship pulls in,

the light on the noses
of the wavelets,

the fitful wind —

each a particle
of her mind in flux.

the fog says: nothing is
as it seems. you

will never know
if you are beautiful.

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Copies of What Is Not Beautiful can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.
Check out this interview with Talukder to learn more about this collection.

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adeebaAdeeba Shahid Talukder is a Pakistani-American poet and translator. She translates Urdu and Persian poetry, and cannot help but bring elements from these worlds to her own work in English. Her book Shahr-e-jaanaan: The City of the Beloved is a winner of the Kundiman Prize and is forthcoming through Tupelo Press. A Best of the Net finalist and a Pushcart nominee, Talukder’s work has appeared in or is forthcoming in AnomalySolsticeMeridianGulf Coast,Washington Square, and PBS Frontline, and elsewhere. Talukder holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan and is a Poets House 2017 Emerging Poets Fellow.

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.

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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.

 

being more with w. todd kaneko

DWE_coverThis week I’m featuring a poem from W. Todd Kaneko’s powerful book The Dead Wrestler Elegies. Kaneko’s project – which takes the lives and deaths of famous wrestlers and weaves them across narratives of marriage, father/son relationships, and masculinity – conducts the kind of emotional and intellectual algebra that opens up worlds to its readers. The facts of a personal life lived are set against the facts of the mythic lives of wrestlers, each side richer for the connections made.

This week’s poem, “Be More Like Sputnik Monroe,” is a good example of what the book is able to do at its best. Springing off the braggadocio of the epigraph, the speaker goes into a personal narrative that deftly juxtaposes memory and description. As the poem progresses, Monroe is further and further established as a larger-than-life character, “a bad Elvis” who “mixed it up everywhere.” This narrative contrasts that of the speaker and their father who “shook [their] fists as [Monroe] broke rules / against guys who were easier to cheer.” These lines present an interesting dynamic: while Monroe’s star quality is based on bullying and swagger, the father and son, rather than feel emboldened by what Monroe represents, feel themselves at odds.

This moment is also where the poem begins its turn towards acknowledging the complicated nature of what wrestlers like Monroe imply about masculinity. What keeps the father and son on the side of “guys who were easier to cheer,” also keeps the father from fighting in the scene later in the poem. While this decision of conscience stays true to the fist-shaking disapproval of Monroe’s narrative earlier in the poem, the cost of this decision leaves the father at a distance from both the mother and the epigraph’s tone. Raising a fist, either in protest or to fight, remains a moral act for the father, a fact that grounds the speaker’s meditation at the end while leaving him to find his own answers. One returns to the phrasing of the title and wrestles with it as the speaker might: as a statement at turns troubling and searching.

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Be More Like Sputnik Monroe – W. Todd Kaneko

It’s hard to be humble when you’re 235 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal with a body women love and men fear. — Sputnik Monroe

When my father died, he left me a trove
of video tapes, a warped memorial
for those men he watched with my mother
before she left for parts unknown,
for those fights he relived once he was laid
off from the plane yards. We watched
men like Sputnik Monroe bleed the hard way,
shook our fists as he broke rules
against guys who were easier to cheer.
He was a bad Elvis, greased-back
hair with a shock of white, Sputnik Monroe
mixed it up everywhere, a rodeo
fistfight, a henhouse tornado. My mother
picked a fight in an Idaho truck stop
once, stabbed a man’s chest with her middle
finger, then stepped to one side
so my father could fight him in the parking lot.
Afterwards, my mother was silent
all the way back to Seattle, her disgust
with him — the way he wrapped his arm
around her shoulder, guided her to the car,
and sped back to the freeway — hanging
between them from that point forward.
Sputnik Monroe clobbered men
wherever he went, sneered at those fists
raised against him in Memphis.
Some nights, as my wife sleeps upstairs,
I watch my father’s video tapes and
imagine what I would have done that day
if I knew that my marriage depended
on what I did with my hands.

*

Happy wrestling!

José

new poem at tinderbox poetry journal!

Just a quick post to announce the release of the latest issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal which includes my poem “Pantoum for the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

This poem is cousin to my recent microessay published at the Letras Latinas blog.

This issue of Tinderbox also includes powerful work by Su Hwang, John Sibley Williams, and Anuradha Bhowmik amongst others. Check it out here.

Special thanks to Jennifer Givhan & everyone at Tinderbox for putting together such a great issue.

See you Friday!

José

 

articulating with millicent borges accardi

accardiThis week’s poem comes from Millicent Borges Accardi’s latest collection Only More So (Salmon Poetry) which I recently reviewed for Queen Mob’s Tea House.

My reading process for book reviews (or most books in general, except for novels) is to read with an index card nearby on which I jot down page numbers and key words that I can come back to for either note-taking or review ideas. This practice came out of trying not to write in the margins of books, which is all I did during my twenties, or so it feels like. Sad to say, other than a lot of underlining and the rare sharp observation, the margins of my books were primarily filled with the word “Wow!” written in various sizes. With the index cards, I’m able to have a cursory map of my reading with which to reflect upon.

I share this bit about my review process because I had a pretty strong in-the-moment/on-the-index-card reaction to its ending. While the poem deals with survival, a recurring theme in Accardi’s powerful collection, the way this specific kind of survival is articulated had for me some strong connotations beyond the poem. My note in the margin read: how poems work. I remember feeling that the way the speaker’s directions on “shaking off” the PSP have a person “curled up” and hiding, waiting for the right moment to head back, mirrors the way a poem can wait inside a person until it (and the poet) are ready for it to be expressed. I’m not sure if this makes sense, or if I can articulate the feeling any better (hence this thought isn’t in the review), but it’s a feeling that will always be a part of my memory of this poem.

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How to Shake off the Políciade Segurança Pública Circa 1970
Millicent Borges Accardi

Walk home
determined, neither
urgent nor pokey.
Make clear cut
turns and hold
your head up high.
Carry an ordinary
briefcase. Dress
in shades of brown,
as if you could fold
up and turn back
into dirt if you
needed to. Do not
stop or pause except
to honor street lights
and stop signs. Stay
in the shadows,
but do not hug them
or stay tight
to the overhangs.
Do no pause
to peer into windows,
or look as if you are
waiting for someone
like Salazar.
Disappear. Disappear.
Disappear, as best you can
into traffic
or the pulse of Lisboa.
Do not hesitate
when the men draw
closer, turn into the nearest
side street, that is dimly lighted.
Find a building
where people are entering
easily. Go up the stairs
as if you have business
there, or as if this is your
own home, which it isn’t.
Do not look back even
cautiously at the PSP,
glance down, step with surety
into the unfamiliar lobby.
Find the stairs. Sit
in the darkness under
until you have
become the earth. Hold
your breath
until the men have gone
by. Tell yourself you are safe
and everything
is fine. Remain curled up
longer than you have to,
longer than you imagine might
be necessary before
you regroup and head back.

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Happy articulating!

José

breathing with Steven Sanchez

bodyIn my microreview & interview of Steven Sanchez’s To My Body (Glass Poetry Press), I focused primarily on the use of imagery throughout the collection to explore the presence of both the physical and experiential body in a poem. It is more than fitting, then, that this week’s poem, “Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel,” takes the body metaphors and further unpacks them in an ekphrastic poem that adds new threads of myth to a familiar image.

The travel of this particular poem is where much of the image work is done. The title starts off by placing the image of Michelangelo’s painting in the reader’s mind. We are, like the speaker, considering the famous image and this fact about human breath and erosion. A few lines in, the poem shifts and imposes over this first image the image of the speaker’s hotel room ceiling, their meditation suddenly taking on a more intimate tone. This intimacy is complicated by the third shift of the poem as the speaker digs into memory. Here, the two imposed images so far in the poem are clouded, literally, by the frost breath of the memory.

These three moves present different takes on human breath: it can erode a painting on a ceiling; it can convey smoke in a hotel room; and it is what words are carried on in speech. In each take, breath leaves the human body to have an effect elsewhere. The nature of these effects is at times unmanageable, yet we continue to look, hoping to see something of ourselves in time.

god2-sistine_chapel

Human Breath Is Eroding The Sistine Chapel – Steven Sanchez

Where else do words tarnish
paint and plaster like smoke

on wallpaper, remnants of strangers
I feel close to? The dark matter

of their lungs and mouths scours
the textured ceiling. I light up and lie

down on the motel bed, becoming
Michelangelo on my back, cigarette

stroking the air. I see the world
like I used to, making cold angels

on the white expanse of my backyard
where I watched winter enter

and leave my body, transforming
words into something invisible,

almost tangible, like Adam’s left
hand that will never reach God.

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To My Body by Steven Sanchez can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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Happy breathing!

José