This weekend, I went to a reading and conversation with Brenda Hillman and Bob Hass, celebrating Brenda’s new book, In a Few Minutes Before Later. Most of the poems are too long and visually complex to include here, but she read this short gem that I love. How smartly this captures the strangeness of the period of quarantine:
The Child, Finishing
Fourth Grade Online,
. when his mother asked,
. “how was that?”
. said, “odd.”
For several months I had been reading Ben Dolnick’s posts on literature, which I enjoyed greatly, before discovering his fiction. The Ghost Notebooks, a perfect read for this season, is what I’d call a literary thriller. Here are two excellent sentences from that book. As I was listening to it as an audio book, they were so good I had to stop driving to write them down:
“But morning always comes no matter what sort of a night you’ve had. This is an under appreciated fact.”
It’s that last observation that drives this home (not sure if there should be a hyphen there). And,
“So this is how homelessness begins. Not with a momentous decision but with a gradual surrendering. A rest becomes a nap becomes a night.”
I love the way that last sentence has an almost nursery rhyme inevitability. Sadly, he’s stopped his posts for now, but hopefully that will lead to more of his fiction.
When I think of Coleridge, I immediately think of Xanadu, of the famous interruption of the poem by the “person from Porlock,” which seems to me to stand for every mundane thing that keeps one from writing. But the Writer’s Almanac featured this short poem I’d never seen before, and think is quite wonderful.
What if you slept…
What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?
Very modern, don’t you think, for something written more than 150 years ago?
Dorianne is a poet who rarely disappoints–simple but profound.
On the street outside the window
someone is talking to someone else,
a baffling song, no words, only the music
of voices—low contralto of questions,
laughter’s plucked strings—voices in darkness
below stars where someone straddles a bike
up on the balls of his feet, and someone else
stands firm on a curb, her arms crossed, two
dogs nearby listening to the human duet,
stars falling through a summer night
a sudden car passing, rap song thumping,
but the voices, unhurried, return, obligatos afloat
on the humid air, tiny votives wavering
as porch lights go out—not wanting it to stop—
and Mars rising over the flower shop, up
through the telephone wires.
by Dorianne Laux
I love the way Merwin can write in a way that seems simple and straightforward, but takes you somewhere else. There’s something magical about his work. Here’s one example:
Looking for Mushrooms at Sunrise
When it is not yet day
I am walking on centuries of dead chestnut leaves
In a place without grief
Though the oriole
Out of another life warns me
That I am awake
In the dark while the rain fell
The gold chanterelles pushed through a sleep that was not mine
So that I came up the mountain to find them
Where they appear it seems I have been before
I recognize their haunts as though remembering
Where else am I walking even now
Looking for me
For me, writing in form in poetry is a way to may things happen that wouldn’t otherwise. This form, the gigans, was created by Ruth Ellen Kocher, named after her favorite fictional monster. You can read about form and a little about her here. The basic rules are a poem made of couplet, tercet, couplet, couplet, couplet, tercet, couplet, in which the first line repeats as line 11 and the sixth line repeats as line 12. This one is my favorite of those of hers I’ve read, published in From the Fishouse:
the gigans: v.
i will not write you an elegy
big-mouthed woman whose breasts
hugged the microphone stand like some breadfruit dream
of nippled clouds, woman whose arms winged softly
into her armpits in a billowing flourish of skin’s bounty,
thighs and ass enveloping the world
with their musked satin, whose teeth
tunneled through the closets of angels
revealing their gilded garments,
whose eyes blinked back the salty spray of sea.
i will not write you an elegy,
though your voice encompassed the world
in a raspy under-song’s embrace, a diamond glare
of c-notes crowning you each time you walked on stage.
listen to the cardinal cutting a racket through my neighbor’s pine.
hear his salutation, his winged confirmation of music un-stilled.
Hasn’t everyone had refrigerator problems–the ice maker, the filtered water, or too much frost, or it’s just not working? Here’s a sweet take on replacing one from The Writer’s Almanac.
In a Dream of Chivalry
My father is helping the Ledoux sisters
move their old refrigerator
into the basement when they buy the new one.
The dolly hasn’t been touched for years,
but it still has grease in the wheel bearings
and makes a mollifying squeak
as he bumps across the threshold
from the kitchen to the parlor.
He moves delicately to keep the balance,
avoiding the soft places in the floor,
and as he moves, those Ledouxs tsk
and fuss about what to fix for supper.
He thinks now on hot afternoons
as they cool off in the basement
they won’t have to climb the stairs
to freshen two glasses with iced tea.
He is happy they have patched things up
after decades of not speaking.
Nina Totenberg is talking on public radio.
Pea their green parakeet is singing.
At the stairs he loosens the straps,
takes the refrigerator off the dolly,
lays it on a quilt and edges it slowly.
It is a kind day, breezy and mildly warm.
My father is not jousting or scaling a battlement.
He is watching the Ledoux sisters
show off their new refrigerator, its four adjustable
trays, chill drawer, and ice-maker—
and sees himself handsome, a knight, a sir.
Under his overalls’ armor, his tie is still knotted.
A Sunday. How clean things are.
When Belle touches the button
on the little spigot on the door
clear water pours into a silver cup.
Today, I am posting a poem form Poem-A-Day that I saved awhile ago, by Xan Phillips. But it also reminds me of a wonderful short poem by Stephen Crane, so I’m including them both.
I Never Felt Comfortable in My Own Skin So I Made a New One
I was on a walk when I was struck by the precarity of the gender that wore me,
which moved my matter, wrote books, and fell in love. as a child, I scoured
the forest for brittle cicada skins abandoned on trees. husks present differently now
a pair of nylons caught in the thicket, a beak surviving its decomposing bird,
a mural of George Floyd with a purple cock spray-painted on his beryl cheek.
among these discreet mutilations, I pull a line of thought through flesh
where a misled margin slept. I was uninhabitable before I snared a man
for his hide. I was not unlike the skin of a drum thriving under a stamina
that made music of me before I split. you wouldn’t recognize me now
if you saw me in the trees, played out, scattered to the undergrowth. I took a life
and returned it to scale and membrane. I foraged a life coated in plastic
and mud from the highway overpass. it reeked of wheatpiss and it was mine.
Copyright © 2022 by Xan Phillips. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on July 14, 2022, by the Academy of American Poets.
And this one, by Stephen Crane, perhaps 100 years before Xan Pillips:
In the Desert
In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”
It seems to me Xan must have read this, but I haven’t found a way to contact them to ask.
I get The Writer’s Almanac from Garrison Keeler daily, and rarely read anything but the poem. But today there was this lovely photo of Agatha Christie, whose work has given me a lot of pleasure. She was born in 1890. From the detailed article about her, I selected this to share with you:
She set her first novel, Snow Upon the Desert, in Cairo and used the pen name “Monosyllaba.” The book was rejected by numerous publishers. She tried again with a book called The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which featured an extravagantly mustached Belgian detective named Hercule Poirot. The book was a hit, and Christie was off and running. Hercule Poirot would be featured in more than 33 of Christie’s novels, though she admitted she found Poirot “insufferable and an egocentric creep.” She actually killed off Poirot in a novel titled Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, in the early 1940s, and had it stored in a bank vault to safeguard it from Nazi destruction during World War II. When the book was published in 1975, the New York Times ran Hercule Poirot’s obituary on the front page.
I spent several weeks on Cape Cod with a rotating cast of friends and relatives, an ideal vacation Because the surf is still pounding in my head, I thought I’d start the fall offerings with a poem of my own for a change, one that captures some of that experience.
The Afternoon Before the Day of Atonement
I thought I would see seals asleep on the rocks,
but the cormorant was the real show,
wrestling a twisted length of eel,
persistently untwisting with its beak
to swallow it whole.
Then, as I watched, uncertain whether
I’d seen eel or kelp straighten and slide
down the long bird throat, it speared
its beak into the surf and did it again:
unmistakably eel, writhing
for its life, no match for the skilled,
And the whole time, and afterward,
waves rake the shore,
and I wonder how to ask forgiveness
for being myself: merciless
like the cormorant, frantic
like the eel, thoughtless
like both, though I am designed to think,
a mindful tool, whose eyes engage the ocean
to sense the curve and crash of the infinite.
I take off my shoes and run along the lace
of waves, border between two worlds
that is never fixed,
run as the tide drives landward
and the land lifts and resettles
a little with each pulse,
crystal and brine, wrack and sand fleas,
run because I can, because my heart drives
salt blood through its intricate networks,
because I am alive
though many I’ve loved are gone,
because I am here on this glittering September afternoon
legs pumping, heart pumping, mind wrestling
with this slippery existence.
I used to wonder how the German citizens could have let the Holocaust happen, but have since experienced the helplessness that government actions makes me feel. I think this piece by James Tate is a perfect summary of the feeling of vague guilt and helplessness in the face of the State.
A friend of mine, Claude Larkin, was taken into custody
yesterday and was being held on suspicion, suspicion of what
I don’t know. Claude was probably the most upright citizen
I knew. A reporter I know called me. “I’m just concerned,” she
said, “because I’ve never seen the police be so secretive. They wouldn’t
tell me what he’s being charged with. And when I asked them when
I might be able to see him, they told me he has already been
transported to federal facilities,” Patricia said. “Federal?”
I said. “That sounds scary. Jesus, you know Claude, they don’t come
any straighter than him. It must be some kind of mistake.” “Well,
yes, it certainly seems that way, but it is also my experience that
you don’t really know anybody. I mean, you know one side of them,
but there’s also another hidden side. Some cases of this are more
dramatic than others,” she said. “Well, in theory I’m sure you’re
right, but I’ve known Claude for a very long time and as much
as it might delight me to find out he has a hidden side, I’m afraid he
just doesn’t,” I said. She said she would get back to me if she
learned anything. As the weeks passed by I became more and more
obsessed with the fate of Claude Larkin, but to my shame I did Continue reading “The Big State”