Rita Dove’s Incantation

A few years ago, I heard Rita Dove read at the Berkeley Lunch Poems, when it was still a live event. I waited in line to have her sign her most recent book. The line was long and in front of me was an older man with two shopping bags full of books. Rita cheerfully signed every one. I think if had  been me, I would have said something like, Sorry, there are so many people waiting, pick your favorite three. That’s probably one of the many reasons why I’ll never be in that position. Luckily, Rita Dove graciously carried the day.

Here is a recent poem of hers that expresses another side of her. I especially love how it ends.

Incantation of the First Order

Listen, no one signed up for this lullaby.
No bleeped sheep or rosebuds or twitching stars
will diminish the fear or save you from waking

into the same day you dreamed of leaving—
mockingbird on back order, morning bells
stuck on snooze—so you might as well  

get up and at it, pestilence be damned.
Peril and risk having become relative,
I’ll try to couch this in positive terms:

Never! is the word of last resorts, 
Always! the fanatic’s rallying cry.
To those inclined toward kindness, I say

Come out of your houses drumming. All others,
beware: I have discarded my smile but not my teeth.

Rita Dove

“Incantation of the First Order,” originally published in Poem-a-Day on October 18, 2021, by the Academy of American Poets. © 2021. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Citrus Freeze

This phenomenon, of smudge pots or wind machines trying to keep fragile trees (or grape vines) from freezing, has always made me think how small and ineffectual humans are in the face of the natural world. We do our best to believe we have control, but…  I especially love how the poem ends…with a snap!

Citrus Freeze

To the north, along Orange Blossom Trail
thick breath of sludge fires.
Smoke rises all night, a spilled genie
who loves the freezing trees
but cannot save them.
Snow fine as blown spiders.
The news: nothing.
Large rats breed on the beach
driving smaller ones here.
Today both traps sit sprung.

Forrest Gander
from Rush to the Lake (Cambridge, Alice James Books, 1988).

The Exemplary Sentence

It’s been awhile since I published a prose piece.  This snippet is from Wisława Szymborska’s How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) and first appeared in Lit Hub’s Craft of Writing newsletter. It comes from the advice she gave—anonymously—for many years in “Literary Mailbox,” a regular column in the Polish journal Literary Life, and is translated by the indefatigable Clare Cavanagh, who has brought us most of the wonderful Polish poetry and prose that we have in English.

“The same old complaint about ‘youth.’ This time we’re supposed to forgive the author since he still hasn’t been anywhere, experienced anything worth mentioning, or read everything that he should. Such confessions betray the belief (adolescent, hence a bit simplistic) that external circumstances alone make the writer. That his creative quality derives from the quantity of his life adventures. In fact, the writer develops internally, within his own heart and mind: through an innate (we repeat, innate) propensity for thought, acute sensitivity to minor matters, astonishment at what others see as ordinary. Trips abroad? We sincerely hope you’ll take them, they sometimes come in handy. But before you head off to Capri, we suggest a trip to Lesser Wółka. If you come back with nothing to write about, then no azure grottoes will save you.”

When we were in Krakow a few years ago (sadly we missed Lesser Wółka), there was a museum show called Szymborska’s Desk, which had a facsimile of her writing room with many artifacts. I found it truly charming, and was only sorry I never got to meet the writer herself. Here is her yellow typewriter from that show.

The book of these snippets, How to Start Writing (and When to Stop) is published by New Directions. Hurray for them! I’m going to buy a copy myself.

Eavan Boland

Eavan Boland died over a year ago. For a long time, she was head of the creative writing department at Stanford, and I worked with her to bring several poets to California for readings. She was unfailingly courteous and helpful. And I love this poem of hers–I think she gets it just right:

The Necessity for Irony

On Sundays,
when the rain held off,
after lunch or later,
I would go with my twelve year old
daughter into town,
and put down the time
at junk sales, antique fairs.

There I would
lean over tables,
absorbed by
lace, wooden frames,
glass. My daughter stood
at the other end of the room,
her flame-coloured hair
obvious whenever—
which was not often—

I turned around.
I turned around.
She was gone.
Grown. No longer ready
to come with me, whenever
a dry Sunday
held out its promises
of small histories. Endings.

When I was young
I studied styles: their use
and origin. Which age
was known for which
ornament: and was always drawn
to a lyric speech, a civil tone.
But never thought
I would have the need,
as I do now, for a darker one:

Spirit of irony,
my caustic author
of the past, of memory,—

and of its pain, which returns
hurts, stings—reproach me now,
remind me
that I was in those rooms,
with my child,
with my back turned to her,
searching—oh irony!—
for beautiful things.

Eavan Boland

Lorine Neidecker

Sometimes the simplest poem can charm me, like this one from Sean Singer’s “The Sharpener” this morning:

You are my friend–
you bring me peaches
and the high bush cranberry
.                           you carry
my fishpole

you water my worms
you patch my boots
with your mending kit
.                  nothing in it
but my hand

Lorine Niedecker

I wonder if she is talking to another or to herself?

The full moon

This last week there was one clear night, the full moon peeping between the branches of the oak.  And here’s Borges’ take on the moon, dedicated to his secretary and later wife (from Paris Review):

The Moon

.            to María Kodama

There is so much loneliness in that gold.
The moon of every night is not the moon
That the first Adam saw.
The centuries
Of human wakefulness have left it brimming
With ancient tears. Look at it. It is your mirror.

by Jorge Luis Borges
Issue no. 125 (Winter 1992)—translated from the Spanish by Robert Mezey

 

One more from June Jordan

This poem reminds me a little of Evie Shockley’s “Ode to My Blackness.” But it was written long before “writing black” was common.  You can read this and more in The Essential June Jordan.

What Would I Do White?

What would I do white?
What would I do clearly full
of not exactly beans nor
pearls my nose a manicure
my eyes a picture of your wall?

I would disturb the streets by
passing by so pretty kids
on stolen petty cash would look
at me like foreign
writing in the sky

I would forget my furs on any chair.
I would ignore the doormen at the knob
the social sanskrit of my life
unwilling to disclose my cosmetology,
I would forget.

Over my wine I would acquire
I would inspire big returns to equity
the equity of capital I am
accustomed to accept

like wintertime.

I would do nothing.
That would be enough.

June Jordan

 

 

New voices

The world of poetry is expanding to include new voices and new forms. It can be daunting, but also energizing.  Here is a poem from a poet new to me whose work came to me online. I remember those fox stoles, my mother had one–something you’d never see today, but fascinating to me as a child. I love the descriptions in this poem and the way the rhythm of the poem matches the experience.

The Language of Joy

Black woman joy is like this:
Mama said one day long before I was born
she was walking down the street,
foxes around her neck, their little heads
smiling up at her and out at the world
and she was wearing this suit she had saved up
a month’s paycheck for after it called to her so seductively
from the window of this boutique. And that suit
was wearing her, keeping all its promises
in all the right places. Indigo. Matching gloves.
Suede shoes dippity-do-dahed in blue.
With tassels! Honey gold. And, Lord, a hat
with plume de peacock, a conductor’s baton that bounced
to hip rhythm. She looked so fine she thought
Louis Armstrong might pop up out of those movies
she saw as a child, wipe his forehead and sing
ba da be bop oh do de doe de doe doe.
And he did. Mama did not sing but she was skiddly-doing that day,
and the foxes grinned, and she grinned
and she was the star of her own Hollywood musical
here with Satchmo who had called Ella over and now they were all
singing and dancing like a free people up Dexter Avenue,
and don’t think they didn’t know they were walking in the footsteps
of slaves and over auction sites and past where old Wallace
had held onto segregation like a life raft, but this
was not that day. This day was for foxes and hip rhythm
and musical perfection and folks on the street joining in the celebration
of breath and holiness. And they did too. In color-coordinated ensembles,
they kicked and turned and grinned and shouted like church
or football game, whatever their religious preference. The air
vibrated with music, arms, legs, and years of unrequited
sunshine. Somebody did a flip up Dexter Avenue.
It must have been a Nicholas Brother in a featured performance,
and Mama was Miss Lena-Horne-Dorothy-Dandridge
high-stepping up the real estate, ready for her close-up.
That’s when Mama felt this little tickle. She thought
it might be pent-up joy, until a mouse squirmed out
from underneath that fine collar, over that fabulous fur,
jumped off her shoulder and ran down the street.
Left my mama standing there on Dexter Avenue in her blue
suit and dead foxes. And what did Mama do?
Everybody looking at her, robbed by embarrassment?
She said, “It be like that sometimes,” then she and Satchmo,
Ella, and the whole crew jammed their way home.

Jaquline Allen Trimble

Originally published in Poetry Magazine, July/August, 2021.
Forthcoming in How to Survive the End of the World, NewSouth Books, 2022.

 

New collection of June Jordan’s poems

There’s a new selection of June Jordan’s poetry out, The Essential June Jordan.  Here is a short sample–a poem I love for so many reasons, not least because of the way the complexity of title plays against the simplicity of the poem:

Poem Number Two on Bell’s Theorem, or The New Physicality
of Long Distance Love

There is no chance that we will fall apart
There is no chance
There are no parts.

June Jordan

You could do worse than add this volume to your library!

Hurricane watch

Here on Cape Cod, the hurricane is just a summer storm, mostly passed by. I had fallen into a lovely rhythm of early morning reading and writing, a swim, a meal, repeat. But this morning, my laptop refused to start, and despite the best efforts of Apple support, refused again and again.

On my own for a few days, I was startled to discover how bereft I felt–the laptop has been my workhorse, my tool. I read and write largely on my laptop. I didn’t even bring a notebook. But I gave up, went to the ocean for a long walk by the wonderfully crashing stormy waves, came back, and miraculously, it’s working again.

I can get back to work, and am publishing this wonderful poem by Camille Dungy a day early, in case this respite is temporary.

Trophic Cascade

After the reintroduction of gray wolves
to Yellowstone and, as anticipated, their culling
of deer, trees grew beyond the deer stunt
of the mid century. In their up reach
songbirds nested, who scattered
seed for underbrush, and in that cover
warrened snowshoe hare. Weasel and water shrew
returned, also vole, and came soon hawk
and falcon, bald eagle, kestrel, and with them
hawk shadow, falcon shadow. Eagle shade
and kestrel shade haunted newly-berried
runnels where mule deer no longer rummaged, cautious
as they were, now, of being surprised by wolves. Berries
brought bear, while undergrowth and willows, growing
now right down to the river, brought beavers,
who dam. Muskrats came to the dams, and tadpoles.
Came, too, the night song of the fathers
of tadpoles. With water striders, the dark
gray American dipper bobbed in fresh pools
of the river, and fish stayed, and the bear, who
fished, also culled deer fawns and to their kill scraps
came vulture and coyote, long gone in the region
until now, and their scat scattered seed, and more
trees, brush, and berries grew up along the river
that had run straight and so flooded but thus dammed,
compelled to meander, is less prone to overrun. Don’t
you tell me this is not the same as my story. All this
life born from one hungry animal, this whole,
new landscape, the course of the river changed,
I know this. I reintroduced myself to myself, this time
a mother. After which, nothing was ever the same.

Camille Dungy

From the book, Trophic Cascade, Wesleyan University Press, 2018

 

 

 

Forrest Gander

I reviewed Forrest Gander’s recent book, Twice Alive, for LA Review of Books recently. LARB is one of the few places that prints in-depth reviews, more than just a quick scan.  You can read the review here.

And here is a poem from the book that appeared in the New Yorker. It’s a complex poem that captures the brutal but not hopeless aftermath of the fires in Sonoma:

Post Fire Forest

Shadows of shadows without canopy,
phalanxes of carbonized trunks and
snags, their inner momentum shorted out.
They surround us in early morning
like plutonic pillars, like mute clairvoyants
leading a Sursum Corda, like the excrescence
of some long slaughter. All that moves
is mist lifting, too indistinct to be called
ghostly, from scorched filamental
layers of rain-moistened earth. What
remains of the forest takes place
in the exclamatory mode. Cindered
utterances in a tongue from which
everything trivial has been volatilized,
everything trivial to fire. In a notch,
between near hills stubbled
with black paroxysm, we spot
a familiar sun, liquid glass globed
at the blowpipe’s tip. If this landscape
is dreaming, it must dream itself awake.

You have, everyone notes, a rare talent
for happiness. I wonder how
to value that, walking through wreckage.
On the second day, a black-backed
woodpecker answers your call, but we
search until twilight without finding it.