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.


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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.


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book coverYears ago, I had the honor of participating in a Crab Creek Review/A River & Sound Review reading with Madeleine DeFrees–a wild and exhilarating night. But it was a delight to sit down this week quietly with her book Spectral Waves, from Copper Canyon Press, and savor her words and images, and the way she weaves themes throughout the collection.

These poems bring you along easily, like a spider in its glistening web, and then they stay with you–you’re caught in the most delicious way. In many, the tone and rhythm are familiar, a kind of comfort. Often meditative, and sometimes a little sassy. For whatever reason, I felt like I was back in Nelson Bentley’s classroom in the 1980s.

At the same time, these poems ask hard questions that faith must ask, investigate, dig deep into the unseen and what is seen–sometimes with harrowing clarity, a tension especially in the poems about vision, about losing eyesight. So much of this book is about seeing.

I loved the ekphrastic poems–the “Poetry of…” poems that open the sections and fold in the words of others, and the villanelles that speak to paintings by Georges de la Tour. Then, there’s “A Crown of Sonnets for ‘The King'”–about Elvis!

But the poem that stayed with me the most, as I set the book down and did the laundry, made dinner, was “After a tearful morning.”


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I used to write about deliberate practice, which continues to fascinate me. But right now, I’m having a hard time just practicing–at all. Writing–at all. Recently, Bethany Reid posted about writing, starting writing, writing for 15 minutes, or even 5, setting your goals low instead of lofty so you could start.

This aligned nicely with a Copyblogger post about micro-goals. Feel overwhelmed? Set your goals lower–small enough that you can actually do them.

Last week, my goal was to do three 15-minutes free writes a day. On my best day, I did two. On my worst day, zero. It is hard to go lower than zero. I was late, I was tired, it was dark, the rain was too loud on the roof of my car. Excuses. Or my goals weren’t low enough.

I believe in muscle memory and the power of habit. I believe in showing up to write. And I remind myself that a lot of that initial writing, most of it, nearly all of it might be dreck, and that’s okay. That dreck is getting me headed in the right direction, even if I can’t see it yet.

Now it’s time to set new goals for a new week.

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