Poems

Poems to read

I confess that while I’m spending a lot less time playing computer solitaire, I’m spending a lot more time (too much) reading news headlines. And I’ve been writing a poem a day (or a draft of a poem), starting on January 20. I’m still at it, and yesterday was day 50. What? Only halfway through? It wasn’t my best effort–but driving out of the parking lot after work I got the line “Billy Collins says it’s like / The Yellow Rose of Texas” and I went with it.

Earlier in the week, this poem was gifted to me–yes, at 2:30 in the morning.

Waking at 2:30 a.m. I Think of Her

Say what you want, pat platitudes
about a better business climate,
fat cats padding pockets.
Tick. Tick. Feel
the pendulum swing,
tick, take it back
to trust lost at Love Canal,
back to the Cuyahoga burning,
moth wings mutating,
matching soot-darkened bark.
Tick. Steamroller in reverse.
The plants are factories—
what will grow from that?

The catch of the day floats,
silver bellies slack on the surface,
dead eyes skyward.
Tock. I wake in this night
and think of Erin Brokovich,
the movie and the real one
sleuthing stacks of evidence,
the real water a poison then
long before a spark struck in Flint.
Tick. Tock. Tell us
to punch a clock. Say what you want
about the state of the state,
but don’t drink the water,
don’t drink the rain.

 

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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.

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coat hanger with red circle and slashAnd not in a good way.

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?

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book cover

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

of ?hesitation.”

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”:

“the most

vulnerable door
of what makes

the holiest of
things.”

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An American E.R.

That was the first title that I wrote for this poem, submitted yesterday to Rattle’s Poet’s Respond.

In this NPR story, Zeke Emanuel, one architect of the ACA, talks about Donald Trump reconciling his pre-election promises to provide health coverage to all Americans and his post-election agenda. When Emanuel said “threading that needle,” I thought about how the way we care for others represents the essence of our compassion and equality—our humanity. In that moment, the current threat to health care served as a symbol for all the other risks.

Threading the Needle

After sewing up the election,
the seven thousand cuts begin.
A stitch in time saves nine,
but new wounds appear on the hour,
sharp knives in the cabinet
whetting their appetites.
In the body’s lobby, scarlet
fountains burble and spew, spray
the stains we can’t scrub out—
no spatters for Park Avenue suits,
just the holes growing wider,
just enough tiny sutures
to keep the patient coming back.
The needle makes a blunt instrument.
The eye sees what it wants to see,
not owning what the hands know.

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