into the octaves part two

araguz coverThis post is the second of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here).

Around the time of putting the early drafts of these sequences together, I remember having a conversation with a friend about Donald Justice and the work he put into having Weldon Kees’ poetry be more well-known. I remember saying that it’s what we do as writers: carry each other forward, whether in memories, stories, or creative work. Always advocating for presence on some level.

This thought shaped the collection in a lot of ways. An influence and example of this type of carrying each other work is the sequence “Twelve Poems for Cavafy” by Yannis Ritsos. In this powerful sequence, Ritsos pays homage to the poet Cavafy through distinct lyric meditations. The ones that move me the most are the ones that focus on the every day life of the poet, honoring the things that lived around the poet and his poems.

The poem “His Lamp” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Ritsos uses Cavafy’s lamp as a jumping off point into a meditation on mortality. Similarly, the sequence “for Dennis Flinn” in An Empty Pot’s Darkness chronicles moments of my friendship with Flinn, specifically during a summer in which I lived at his house. He lived without electricity, and offered me a room during a tough period in my life. We survived in the dark together, often talking or writing by the light of kerosene lamps ourselves. In the excerpts below, I do my best to honor Flinn’s armchair. It’s the kind of thing you don’t realize plays a large part of the experience of living with someone until that person is gone.

excerpt from “Twelve Poems for Cavafy”
by Yannis Ritsos

2. His Lamp

The lamp is peaceful, serviceable; he prefers it
to any other lighting. He adjusts his light
to the needs of the moment, to the age-old
unavowable desire. And always
this odor of kerosene, this subtle presence,
very unobtrusive, at night, when he returns alone
with so much fatigue in his limbs, so much futility
in the texture of his coat, in the seams of the pockets,
that every movement seems useless, unendurable —
once more, to distract him, here’s the lamp — the wick,
the match, the flickering flame (with its shadows
on the bed, on the desk, on the walls), but especially
the glass cover — its fragile transparency
which, in a simple and human gesture,
once more involves you: in saving yourself or in saving.


excerpts from “for Dennis Flinn” sequence — José Angel Araguz

You spent afternoons in your armchair,
in and out of sleep. You’d call my name
to see if I was around. Evenings,
you’d go housesit, leaving me the dark.

Since you died in someone else’s house,
no one’s explained it to your armchair:
He is sleeping in another life.
When he wakes, you’ll know it when you creak.


No plot then, no arc, no denouement.

The day you turned ash, I wasn’t there.
I can only tell it like you might
through white, gray words: You rest in pieces.
Perhaps you’d laugh. You merely left scraps.
A chuckle. A crackle in your throat.
You left life as broke as you had lived.

I can almost hear your armchair creak.


Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

* meditating with yannis ritsos

In my recent interview as part of my Distinguished Poet feature for The Inflectionist Review, I spend some time talking about the poet Yannis Ritsos and his poem “Protection” which I wrote about two years ago here.

I feel that ever since discovering Ritsos’s work years ago I keep coming back. The most recent return has come in the form of my morning meditations which consist of my reading poems aloud for about 5-10 minutes. I discovered this practice in talking with Ani about some of the physical struggles with meditation, how sitting in one spot and focusing on breathing can sometimes bring more anxiety and pain than, say, reading poems aloud.

Because of the role poetry has played in my life, reading poems aloud for the sheer focused pleasure of it feels like returning home. Approaching it like meditation, I let myself read as I used to growing up, sinking into the words, not worrying about exacting meaning, rather, the meaning instead rising from the active engagement with words. Giving myself over in this way, I believe, takes me to a similar place of selflessness as meditation – though I wouldn’t exactly call it a substitute or equivalent, more a cousin activity, closer to prayer.

book-glasses-letters-paper-study_defaultI made it through most of Spring reading through Jack Gilbert’s Collected Poems and have moved on to Ritsos recently. In the interview, I speak of a fateful vividness in the work of Crane and Ritsos, a characteristic that can be found in the poem below. The poem’s narrative moves from a childhood scene observed from a distance, the details moving in the first two stanzas with a similar distance. The third stanza, on the other hand, zooms in and in four lines gives a fateful image that lifts the lyric beyond words on the page.

A Myopic Child – Yannis Ritsos

The other kids romped around the playground: their voices
rose up to the roofs of the quarter, also the “splock” of their ball
like a globular world, all joy and impertinence.

But he was reading the whole time, there in the spring window,
within a rectangle of bitter silence,
until he finally fell asleep on the window sill in the afternoon,
oblivious to the voices of those his own age
and to premature fears of his own superiority.

The glasses on his nose looked like
a little bike left leaning against a tree,
off in a far-flung, light-flooded countryside,
a bike of some child who had died.


Happy meditating!


* a meditation on brevity with paz, ritsos, & carruth

Writing – Octavio Paz

I draw these letters
as the day draws its images
and blows over them
and does not return


It’s suiting to begin this meditation on brevity with Paz who once said that he admired the short lyric for being the hardest kind of poem to write. Anyone who’s worked out a haiku or tanka in earnestness knows something of this difficulty. With haiku and tanka there are at least parameters, a spirit to leap after. Often, the short poem is a surprise, something arrived at when you intuit the right time to leave a poem alone.


Triplet – Yannis Ritsos

As he writes, without looking at the sea,
he feels his pencil trembling at the very tip –
it is the moment when the lighthouses light up.


I came across this gem from Ritsos in Stephen Dobyn’s illuminating book “Best Words, Best Order.” In it, Dobyns speaks of the nuanced work of the last line as a “metaphysical moment,” one that suggests “sympathetic affinities and a sensitivity to those affinities on the part of the poet.” The power of a short lyric can be felt when one is reading and feels something like “lighthouses light up” inside the mind.


haiku – Hayden Carruth

Hey Basho, you there!
I’m Carruth. Isn’t it great,
so distant like this?


Ultimately, what is at stake in the short lyric is what is at stake in any poem, the translating/transcribing of the human voice. In a longer poem, one can create an argument via imagery and metaphor, what’s being said accumulates like a wave to a crest. The short lyric is the echo of that argument, the sound of foam chisping on the shore. What is compelling about Carruth’s distance is not that Basho feels it, but the reader does.

* wavering *
* wavering *

Happy shoring!


* from hands to manos

* manos *
* manos *

This week’s post is a meditation on form via sharing some new publications.

First, the good folks over at Rattle have recently shared the content of their Summer 2014 issue online which includes my own poem “Abandoned Church.” Rattle is unique in that they ask for some insight into the work via the contributor’s bio, which allowed me to share a bit of my thinking behind the form of this and other kin poems:

“These poems come from working at times in a five-line form, which I call ‘hands,’ maybe because each could be written on the palm of a hand. I consider them the poetic, unkempt nephews to Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘palm of the hand’ stories. These pieces are surprising me, pushing me to be concise and spooky, narrative and imagistic within a limited frame.”

Read the poem “Abandoned Church” here.

I’m also happy to announce the release of the new issue of Inflectionist Review which includes my poems “First Night” and “Blue in the Rain” – the latter of which is also in the “hands” form. Check out the issue here.

My two guides into the form have been the short lyrics of Yannis Ritsos as well as my reading and writing in the Japanese tanka form. Here’s some of that Ritsos mojo:

A Door – Yannis Ritsos

The carpentry shop,
the ironmonger,
the grocery store,
the farmer’s rubber boots
on the porch,
the low, cloudy sky,
and, so unexpectedly,
a blue door
fallen flat among the ruins
with the key
still in place.


Working in and out of various forms, I’m always curious if people take note or not. Ultimately, what matters is writing a solid poem worth rereading, which is the ongoing good fight.

Of course, all this talk of “hands” has me thinking about these guys:

* the hands of fate *
* the hands of fate *

Happy fating!


* who we are & Yannis Ritsos

Protection – Yannis Ritsos

The sky bends over us, responsible,
as our poem bends over the sadness of mankind,
as the sensitive, initiated eyelid bends over the eye,
protecting the pupil of the eye from the dust,
the improvised light, the hardly perceptible insects,
so that the eyes may open again forewarned and free,
each time the chance comes to view the miracle of germination
and to herald their smile to another.

* eye see what you mean *
* eye see what you mean *

Something about Yannis Ritsos I keep coming back to.  Perhaps it is the earthiness of what he writes about.  Above, you have a meditation on eyelids as I have never read before.   The tender eyelid as protective.  I mean, that is what it does, some part of me knew this – but this gives it back to me.


Here’s another short dose of who we are.  The lyric below takes me to somewhere lonely through an indirect path – through an impossible image I am given very possible feelings.


Recollection – Yannis Ritsos

A warm aroma had remained on the armpits of her coat.
Her coat on the hanger in the hallway like a drawn curtain.
What was happening now was of another time.  The light altered faces,
all unfamiliar.  And if someone was about to enter the house,
that empty coat would lift its arms slowly, bitterly,
and silently shut the doors once more.


Happy shutting!


* the friday influence features: Adeeba Talukder


The East river is never still upon stones and ships.



Always, the chance of touch.



How thin we are– how everything

makes us flap, snap, fall


crooked branches before night

They are like hands frozen into longing,

hairs tangled beyond separation.



A Lucknow courtesan adorned to madness,

weeping Ghalib.


This week on the Friday Influence I am featuring the work of my good friend and excellent poet: Adeeba Talukder.

What moves me most about this series of short poems is how much they play with chance.  They take on a riddle-like structure to define things in a lyrical and personal manner.  Talukder lives in Brooklyn, so there is the East River as only she can open it up.  She is fluent in both Urdu and the work of the great classical Urdu and Persian poet Mirza Ghalib, and sees the language so tied up in his work that she cannot define it without mentioning him.  (It is also a bittersweet touch to allude to the great love affair of Ghalib’s life).

Reading these poems, I am reminded of other efforts forged in chance and singularity such as Gertrude Stein’s tender buttons and Yannis Ritsos’ monochords.  “tremble” evokes some of Sappho’s fragments, that immediacy and intensity that can only be channeled through lyric poetry.

Read individually the poems stand on their own.  Read in a series the poems play off each other in their focus on movement and fragility.  The line “How thin we are” applies to the leaf but also to the lovers at the end, lovers weeping tied up in the air of language.

Here’s the poet on her work:

God and love constantly elude me, so they have a way of sneaking into all my thoughts and sentences; many of my poems constantly revisit the imagery, language, and rituals that both concepts have traditionally evoked. For me, the two are also intrinsically intertwined; I am a student of classical Urdu ghazal poetry, and years and years of dwelling within its universe have birthed in me an obsession with the idea of physical, human love as a step towards– or even a manifestation of– love for the Divine. I have developed a fondness for the ghazal’s characters and metaphors– the cruel beloved, the mad lover tearing his collar in anguish, the frenzied moth circling the flame, the nightingale singing its songs of love for the rose. Its recurring themes of desire and separation, the slaying of the ego, and absolute obliteration in the path of desire are also among my haunts. My poems are often simply attempts to reconcile that fantastical world with this other one I inhabit.

These words open up Talukder’s work for me not just as a reader but as a poet as well.  In them I see a poet embracing her obsessions, not using them for fodder but rather seeing them as colors in the room she lives in.  That is the way craft works: it is a thing inside you that grows the more you grow.


This week’s post has been a treat.  I have been toying with the idea of opening up the blog for submissions.  My trial run was through solicitation.  I am still working out the process and guidelines but plan to open up the blog to submissions soon.  Should you be interested, feel free to email me at

Here’s another poem by Adeeba Talukder:


What feeble minds have held you between their fingers? Despite your

reshapings and growths and falls Manhattan’s still living between banks.


your tide-fist’s swell

spread calm as water,

as light, light, light.


Nothing moved between the skins of earth and sky. They sank into the

darkness, traced each other’s noses as though it were love.


the soft of dusk

its waist of light


how much of you moon?

how many eyes the night?


Happy chancing!


* the friday influence

The sawdust that fell from your hair, I find in my poem today.

(Monochord #330, Yannis Ritsos)


For today’s Friday Influence, I present the work of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos (1909 – 1990).

The above is from a series entitled “Monochords” that was written in one month while in exile, August 1979.  Reading through them you get a sense of urgency and consideration, an immediacy that brings to mind the best haiku and tanka.

I believe that a poet’s relationship to form changes over time, until, if so fated (meaning it is inevitable in the poet’s growth and engagement with form) a form becomes his or her own.  There is, for example, Allen Ginsberg who takes the standard seventeen syllable English form of haiku and rolls it out all out in one sentence, calling them “American Sentences”.

In his Monochords, I see Ritsos reaching out and taking note of what he sees in life, using the sentence as a sort of pocket for an image or thought.

I plan to share more of my ideas on how forms change shape with the poet and vice versa in the future.

For now, here is another poem from Ritsos that showcases his eye for detail and in which he empties his pockets further for us.



He picks up in his hands things that don’t match – a stone

a broken roof-tile, two burned matches,

the rusty nail from the wall opposite,

a left that came through the window, the drops

dropping from the watered flowerpots, that bit of straw

the wind blew in  your hair yesterday – he takes them

and he builds, in his backyard, approximately a tree.

Poetry is in this “approximately.”  Can you see it?


Happy approximating!