I confess that these days I’ve been thinking about Christian Wiman’s poem “We Lived,” especially the stanza
to be mean
because that’s how I’ve been feeling—angry and afraid. In between phone calls to congressional offices I was writing snarky prose poems—with a jackal, a badger, a wolverine. It was therapeutic, cathartic—but it was all on the negative side of the equation.
Anger, as a kind of energy, has its place. It can do good things. But I’ve also been thinking about something Chad Sweeney said during a class at LiTFUSE—that just the act of working on a poem puts good energy into the world.
Walking along the creek near where I work, I realized that while I was putting good energy into the world while I was also whittling it away.
I had read Jamaica Baldwin’s fierce, powerful poem “Call Me By My Name.” To me, this poem is anger in a good way.
I had read about Kaveh Akbar tweeting poems by poets who come from the seven countries listed in the ban. To me, that is putting positive energy into the world.
I was thinking about another kind of mean, the arithmetic mean, where it’s between the extreme.
For now, I’ve abandoned those prose poems, and I’m trying to balance the bad with the good. This isn’t to say that it’s going to be all sweetness and light. It isn’t. Just an absence of snark.
And last night, I had the pleasure of hearing Ross Gay read poems and essayettes (or delights!) and talk about joy as a practice and poetry as an act of radical joy, or was it a radical act of joy? I’ll take either and both.
Last week I said that I wasn’t going to feature a book each week, but over at Better View of the Moon, Karen Craigo is writing thoughtfully about a book every day, so I figure I ought to be able to share one brief poetry pick.
I have been haunted by and wanting to read Jay Deshpande’s Love the Stranger ever since I encountered his gorgeous and devastating poem “Bewilderment” on Poetry Daily. No spoiler alerts here; you’ll have to read the poem.
What stays with me from the book as a whole are the images and the way that push against the expected without pushing me away, the way they thread through the poems and through the book.
For example, in “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” we first encounter “At evening, chin back and the neck / like a skyscraper, we give up smoke–a colony / of ghost-howl.” Then we come to “with desire / propped like a water tower in the corner” and “It seems I am always running ahead of my needing, / looking out from a higher window of the body”, the poem having already moved from a rooftop with a lover into a field with a brother (“I am beginning to see how I am that field”) and moving from “I am resting my head against the part of myself / I am willing to put down” to “Tonight I will sleep like a just man, / a good man, a man who has hurt others / in order to lay his head down.”
“Prairie Song with Jack Palance” begins “Enough times now I’ve dropped the blade of love” and pulls that energy through the “thumb scrambling moon”, “the holstered butt of midnight. / Little rivulets through red clay forming / a continent of blood” and “this cliff of squint.”
And the other image that most persistently stuck in my head comes from “Reports of the Dream You’re Not Likely to Recover From”: “the braided violets only seen in sleep.”
The book’s repeated references to knives and villages give it a prophetic, ritual, out-of-time feeling, as does the sequence of Chet Baker poems in the middle, while Deshpande’s poems about his brother open into a tender intimacy.
I leave you with the last four lines of “Amor Fati”:
I know what song brings every one of us
here, it goes: refrain, refrain, refrain.
But we will never have enough
of being wrong about the other, not once.
Tags: Saturday poetry pick
When I was younger, I had a pin, a coat hanger with a red slash through it.
The possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act is bad enough, but Speaker Paul Ryan’s strategy to defund Planned Parenthood took me back to those not-good-old days.
And then I thought about the women in Aristophanes’ play—not a ploy I would usually recommend, but I it made me think again about power and how we use it. Being a poet, I wrote.
Consider All the Consequences
Dear Rep Ryan, when you speak
from your arctic heart you do not
talk for me, your plan to ice pick apart
our care, start your war on women,
war on the poor, defund and leave
undone the work begun, skate back
to the past’s shadow alleys, option
often a dead end. I love kids, but keep
your laws off their bodies or we could go
all Lysistrata on you, seize
the day and freeze you out, not
an empty threat, it’s sensible—
sex makes babies and abstinence
will not grow the heart fonder
(ponder men of America marching
to your door) and if you slash
the right to choose before or after,
I can send you my wire hangers.
It gets more complicated—in a good way—because two Republican senators, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, as of Thursday had not committed to supporting the bill if it included that provision, which could be great news for people who don’t want a repeal (or who don’t want a repeal without a replacement already in place).
I’m taking no chances, though, and I’m going to send my wire hangers to Speaker Ryan and cabinet nominee Price. Are you in?
It’s been a while since I posted a Saturday poetry pick, but Matthew Nienow’s collection House of Water sings in a way I want to share.
Immediately I was struck and stunned by the music, as in “Ode to the Belt Sander & This Cocobolo Sapwood”:
“The belt kicks on with a whir & the whir
licks the end grain of the offcut with a hint
and the poem later continues
“A single knot blinks
out of the small block and becomes
the eye of a hummingbird, its beak
bending around the edge of the wood,”
Or in “Ode to the Gain”:
“There’s the paring chisel’s purpose
in the steamed cedar strake, its long warp
laid strong against the bench,
whose pocked surface is the book
of what has already been made,
or marred in learning’s wake —”
There are the kicks and licks, hint and hesitation, blinks and block and beak bending, and steamed cedar strake, long warp laid strong. The sounds fill my mouth, the stresses slow me down, and yet there is a lot of movement happening—the steady methodical movement of work.
If the odes have some of the most lyrical moments, their reflection appears in other poems, especially “From the Middle of It”—a long meditation that reckons with the small moments, their gifts we’re losing all the time.
This is a book of wood and water and family and hammers. And because my husband is also a woodworker, it gave me more glimpses into his world–not just the stories of it, but the experience, as in “End Grain”:
of what makes
the holiest of