book coverI first learned of Cole Swensen’s The Book of a Hundred Hands when we looked at a few of the poems in a poetry class taught by Sarah Vap. Our exercise: To write a poem that used the word “hand” as many times as possible.*

But this book is not at all like that. Here, in 100 poems, we find a marvel of investigation and invention, close attention spiraling out in widening contexts  has been a delight–a privilege to share in such close attention and widening contexts (Positions of the Hand, Professions of the Hand, American Sign Language, Possible Paintings of Hands). Such range!

What surprised me most was the way images of glass weave through the book–perhaps a precursor to her book The Glass Age.

I want to share one of my favorites, but I offer it with an apology: two of the lines will not fit, so that is why they look odd here.

The Hand as Window

in which the panes infinitesimal. By the thousands, the armies of the ancient world
got older. A sweeping sensation mistaken for wind. You opened the window.
You thought that would do.
This is not so different from certain congenital conditions in which

You open the window. There is more you can see through. For instance, if the body
is 98% water and the window looks out on an ocean
is the hand in all its facets
a latch.

 

*That exercise became the second section of my poem “Signatures.”

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tree reflection on wet parking lotRecently, Bethany Reid posted this quote:

“I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances…”-John Steinbeck

I was grateful for the reminder that I’m not the only one.

This past year I’ve felt, every time I approach the page, that I don’t know what I’m doing, that I have forgotten how to write a poem. The page doesn’t have to be blank–even if I am starting with a free write from a few days ago, I don’t know what to do. It’s unnerving.

I tell myself this could be a good thing, that I’m looking for new directions for my poems, for the way I write. Wouldn’t that be great?

Then I move a word here, change a word there, break a few lines, break a few stanzas, shift things around, delete, rewrite, and sometimes, miraculously, I am able to create–something, at least, but is it something new?

Last week, my sister-in-law tagged me for a Facebook 5-day black-and-white photo challenge (I later learned that my sister put her up to it).

Panic! I am not a visual person. I am not a photographer. I often feel that taking pictures puts a scrim between me and the experience similar to the way thinking “can I turn this into a poem” puts a layer between the moment and me. Plus, my photos tend to turn out blurry and crooked.

But last week, finding the picture became the experience. Searching for it each day got me out of my head, because as I walked along the creek I watched for high contrast, or even for shapes that might tell a story. As I looked for a new way to show the landscape around me, the landscape became images–the same and yet separated from the total experience. Finally, Friday gave me the photo I wanted. Not pretty, but instead a different way to see something.

Now, how do I slow down and attend to that focus, that investigation in my writing?

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book coverLast month, Matthea Harvey came to the Seattle Arts and Lectures Poetry series at Chihuly Gardens and Glass and captivated us with a multimedia performance–slides and poetry, layers of art, the visual and verbal interacting, miniatures and ideas so huge I wondered how they fit on a page.

But I am reading a book a week, so I decided to start with her (slightly shorter) first collection, Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form. Oh, lovely.

Right away, the title sets you up for a shift in perspective. What are we really looking at here? What are we seeing? What startles and aches, as in “Nude on a Horsehair Sofa by the Sea,” which begins

“I don’t know what to do with his body.
It looks smooth–& heavy too–
from the way the sofa’s mahogany claws
sink into the sand.”

or in “This Holds Water,” which is one seamless scene beginning with

“Those who have no visitors visit the outside weather permitting
them to sit in a row on deckchairs all wearing the same lipstick
Lilac Luxury age and an inattentive nurse conspiring to lend them
matching complexions my husband worked on the locks says
the woman farthest from the door the other women nod”

I want to say Empathetic. I want to say Fatalistic, as the people who live at the glacier in “Paint Your Steps Blue”:

“It is spring & people are out repainting their front steps
Glacier blue because this village is closer to the glacier than
The volcano emits a tiny rumble & drools lava once every few
Years go by & its followers grow fat with having nothing to
Fear here is of the icy–&-slowly-approaching variety”

And see what she’s doing? A line might end, in thought, with the first word of the next line, which also serves as the first word of that next line, so there’s a constant unsettling, a kind of knitting back and forth, a reminder to expect the unexpected.

Art shifts through the book in ekphrastic poems, and clarity, transparency speak to what is fragile, what shatters or is saved carefully against any odds. At the end, what is saved is our seeing.

For complete poems, see “One Filament Against the Firmament” and visit Ms. Harvey’s website (“The Gem Is on Page Sixty-Four” is in the book).

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9781936657155-Perfect.inddThis week’s poetry pick is Carol Levin’s Confident Music Would Fly Us to Paradise from MoonPath Press, a pageant of poems and memories–with an energizing abundance of movement, “trajectories / of curvilinear ribbons, / movements of / muscles quivering when / I think with my brain, / bones, organs and flesh,” “move like platens / of continents slipping side to side”.

The poems themselves move from childhood to first love to second, long love.

They move from the dressing room to the wings to the stage, remain after everyone else has left the theater.

They play with language, work sound the way the singers work their ranges, their virtuosity, as in “chorus a color wheel / of parasols in pastels” and

“Note by note an oboe streams
breath on inspiration into
lobes of lung in minor keys.
One dissenting voice,
pulse of Poulanc’s orchestra,
its rests and its themes
float like a ribbon
in and out of ears

notwithstanding ahead
a dozen beheadings.”

Through all of this threads the theme of silence–the tension between speaking and swallowing your words, saying nothing while you are shouting inside, and then those moments when you find your voice.

The poems about performing–and preparing to perform–offer the reader the opportunity to stand in the wings, on the stage, to experience those thrills (and some of the politics).

Reading this book was also like visiting my own life, as both Carol and I are married to woodworkers, I once wore opera costumes for a performance, and I’ve studied with Mark Morris, whose work Carol writes about brilliantly in one of my favorite poems from the collection: Mark Morris: Paul Hindemith, Kammermusik No. 3.

Brava!

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Louise Glück’s book Faithful and Virtuous Night just won the National Book Award–and you can read many reviews more finely tuned and insightful than what you’ll find here. But it’s always a pleasure to have a new book by a favorite poet, and so I’ve been looking forward to Glück’s collection.

I loved that the title is a pun–and at the same time, it can be a somber look back from life’s dusk too its lighter days, soft or under a harsh glare.

The speakers in Glück’s poems are philosophical, bold forays into abstraction, a tension between the narrative and the lyric, punctuated by her prose pieces. Themes recur–the light through blinds, the trains. People recur, relationships, and relationships with the past.

I appreciate the shifting identities–sometimes, the speaker might be Glück herself and the poem might be read as autobiographical, as memoir. Or it’s a woman–some other woman. Or we aren’t sure–a helpful reminder that poetry is not by default autobiography or documentary.

For other poems, Glück creates a mask–a man, a painter, the history and anxieties of his childhood, a story that threads through the poems in the book. Clearly a different persona, and yet the poems underscore how much we as humans, as creative people struggle, how we feel thwarted and yet somehow keep walking toward that faithful night.

To get you started (although it appears toward the end of the book): A Summer Garden–the text and a recording.

Enjoy!

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