Saturday Poetry Pick: Let’s Not Live on Earth

book cover

Let’s Not Live on Earth, by Sarah Blake. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2018.

Often when entering a book of poems, I start with the table of contents as a way to get a feeling of the book’s arc, what might be repeated, themes returned to. When I began to read Sarah Blake’s collection, I instead went straight from the title, Let’s Not Live on Earth, to the first poem, “Suicide Prevention,” which views death through many lenses, as when the speaker’s young son moves from creating an imaginary friend to announcing that he’s dead:

                                                             “He’s a ghost.
He misses his ghost family.
Something wrong because they’re inside
the wall but he can’t get through.

Then he walks into the wall to show me.

Then a ghost ladybug shows up who can get
through the wall, and he saves everyone.

My son bends down to hug a family
of very small ghosts.”

Later in the poem, the speaker lists different ways of dying and wonders if she should tell her son “how you keep hearing for a few minutes / after you die? How I’d like him to play me / a nice song and repeat the he loves me.” She continues:

“How he better tell me first
if he wants to take his life because
I would understand that.

I’ve understood that for a long time.”

The poem gives a chilling perspective on not living on Earth. I think it’s that acknowledgment of darkness that drew me into the poems, and the poet’s tone–both wry and unflinching. She pulls no punches and yet it’s not all bleak. Consider these lines from the poem “The E-Ray Is a Gun:”

“So now my son carries around a plastic Fisher-Price golf bag and calls it his
e-ray, for evolution ray, and points it at us, KSHH.

My husband, Batman, gets his hand on the e-ray, changes the setting, and
uses it to turn my son into a human. And he cries.

He’s acting, but it’s good, in that it’s sad. So my husband changes him back
and my son dances around the kitchen.”

If there’s a stark recognition of humanity and some discomfort with it, Blake expertly embodies it in her poems twenty-six-poem sequence “Monsters.” The monsters are sea monsters or chimeras, zombies, vampires, werewolves, and the monster under the bed:

“The monster under my bed
doesn’t come out anymore.”
I grew up and he got old.
His teeth fell out.”

In the next poem, the reader is invited to consider the monster as self: “You’re so utterly human / That transformation takes on / Qualities of monsterhood.” Later in the sequence, Blake twists this monster-self relationship:

“You are hiding under the bed
in a monster’s bedroom.
How the tables have turned!
What will you do first?”

I was captivated by the intersection of motherhood, self, and humanity—including the monsters. Remember when I was connecting not living on earth with death in the first poem? Shortly past the halfway point, the book embarks on a long poem called “Starship.” When I say long, I mean fifty pages—a book within a book. Each page consists of two poems, or scenes, that lead the reader on a journey through relationships, time travel, and the stars. Blake’s style in this collection is narrative—a stance I admire because I think it’s hard to do without drifting into prose. And “Starship” is narrative at its epic best, its story line opening questions of desire, abandonment, choice. To avoid spoilers, I won’t say anything about the last line–but if you read the book, let me know and we’ll talk!

Saturday Poetry Pick: Lace

book cover

Lace, by Katrina Roberts. Seattle: Floating Bridge Press, 2019.

When I think of a chapbook, I think of a slim volume. But the poems in Katrina Roberts’s collection Lace are large—generous and wide-ranging. When I think of lace, I think mostly of the spaces, the air inside the shapes. But here, Roberts gives stitching a weight of strength and consequence, threads tightly woven, a density of images like swathes of lace, heavy bolts of it. These poems evoke the threads that hold us together, tether us to each other, tie us to the land. They speak to how life comes together and unravels, the knots that we embroider, the knots we pick apart like scabs.

In the poem “Threads,” she describes the yearning to both be free of wounds and to sustain them: “Index finger nattering a scab’s edge, lifting it to leave the hole gluey like meat,” and later in the same stanza, “As soon as it’s crusted, / it needs to be picked. Scars with scars under ooze.”

In “Ode to Absence,” Roberts evokes another kind of lace in “crackers, nets of meal, oats, and corn / moths have knit to lace, inedible.” There’s a tension between the decay, the waste, and the creation of those webs. Like the ephemeral shrouds of cobwebs, their constant haunting.

In “Dura Mater,” the speaker explains, “I sent the self out like a dog, but she returned unmet, unheard.” That poem is followed by the harrowing “An Ever of Salt,” with its repetition of “meanwhile of misfortune” and the Great Blue Heron,

“his smaller yellow eye the French knot embroidered
in the middle of such smooth gunmetal plumage
he might have been rendered here from silk”

the bird wounded, the bird standing in for a loved one, a kind of dream state while

                                                                                                  “in the meanwhile
a table gets set. The Bed. The bath. The children fed.
Because the meanwhile of misfortune happens again and again.”

and the speaker then clarifies:

                                        “Sometimes all I want is the promise nothing
was lost, all that was can be as it was un-changed.
And the bird, his head, tiny goblet of bone, tiny globe
of shell, of bone that holds the far-off-thought-he’s-thinking-
even-in-this-invisible-minute; the minute flicker of
cadmium eye, the sable gash above that twitch. And the way
accident rose up to seize and swallow us in a rush, before
the slow-motion unfolding of wings, the whoosh up and rowing
down too slow to be happening yet already happened, done,”

The packed specificity, the detailed images, and the long, taut lines require and command the reader’s attention. And Roberts’s gaze moves from the minute to the geologic. In “Palouse Falls,” she begins:

“I saw once the shoulder of a man long petrified—bone
          to basalt—saw where he’d reclined alone against sky to become
                    an undulant line called horizon, inscribing within a word a world.”

Later in the poem, she asks “What keeps me from stepping off?” and then, “How often it’s like that, right?–so little / warning with the cataclysmic.”

The man seen in the landscape, the colossal violence and upheaval necessary to create such places, such moments even in

                                                                                         “the pieced quilt of an heir-
loomed life, the managed trajectory of health, a marriage, however
shiny or filled with daily drudgery or grief it might be, suddenly giving
way, the bottom simply falling out. “

Lace is a book of reflections, of solace in a natural world that is sometimes lush and sometimes harsh, jagged, scarred, and often beautiful, as the poem ends with the speaker describing the water as “simply giving in / to delicious gravity, to make for me the most delicate lace veil.”

Saturday Poetry Pick: Little Million Doors

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Little Million Doors: An Elegy, by Chad Sweeney. New York: Nightboat Books, 2019.

It’s the first Saturday Poetry Pick of the year, and I’ve got stacks of books that I’m eager to read, eager to share with you. For even more book recommendations, head over to Better View of the Moon, where Karen Craigo is featuring a book a day.

Starting with the title, Little Million Doors, its syntactical inversion, we know we are entering unsettling territory.

The speaker comes to us from after-death, a liminal space between realms of being, trying to understand what has happened, where he is, even while transforming to the what-is-next. In one poem, Sweeney lays this plain:

And the road was all
Of bones

And all and only I
Was on it

Walking to where at noon forever

A voice
Far and thinly

Filling up
The canons the boxes

Of its meanings
I say was

What I mean is
Will be

The lines in Sweeney’s poems pair the formalism of an initial capital letter with a lack of punctuation, Sometimes breaking words for emphasis:

The orchards sub

Tracting apples and waves

In these lines, “Tract” is contributing a plot of land even while completing “subtracting.” For another example:

To a glass chair in the river I

Magine a temple
Surrounded by itself

This split emphasizes both the experience of the speaker and the mage or magic in “imagine.”

I found myself in a world where the poems enact the interim space they describe, endings slipping into beginnings. Each line becomes a journey in comprehension, and often a phrase might serve well as the end of one thought and the beginning of another:

My fists the bees
Like a mask I’m shouting

But what I hear
For the dead I hear waves

Against the sun roaring nothing

Is what I thought

Each line changes the way I perceive the previous line. The hidden caesuras and stops disappear and reappear, and yet Sweeney is artfully teaching me how to read the book, and these shifts become natural.

In this mythic journey, Language is both honored and questioned, as in “Here / Language opens at the wound.” Words become malleable, as in “I begged this / Air to / Hundred me,” and transform: “killeachother,” “crowlight,” and “I was quickling.”

I’m including examples, but it seems unfair to pull out a few lines here and there, because everything is connected, both the lines to each other and the images across the poems.

Reading this book, I felt two journeys—the speaker’s and the survivor’s, the long trek to reckon with the grief of losing someone you love—that grief its own between space that you must carry through any number of doors, into any number of landscapes, still finding your way. In the pages of Little Million Doors, the strangeness becomes a kind of comfort.

Rye diary: The final days

As a diarist, I would never make it. Hat’s off to you, Mr. Pepys.

This post has been a long time coming. Earlier, I picked all the rye that looked ripe.

rye seed heads harvested

I set it in the shed, the way I should set my poems in a drawer. A few weeks later, I rolled out the seeds, and over the next few days tried to clean all the bristles out. I haven’t cooked the rye yet, because I can’t tell whether I got the husk off. Ah, novices.

I still had the stiff stalks and a vigorous crop of weeds growing up between them.

dead rye stalks

And I still wanted to plant a new crop of winter rye—one that, this time, I would dig under in spring.

The problem? Yellow jackets. Early on in the summer, I noticed a constant activity of flying, stinging insects, and I realized that yellow jackets had an underground nest at the edge of the rye patch. One website said that yellow jackets are ferocious and will kill you and should be exterminated immediately. Another website said that if you could leave them alone, they would leave you alone. But how big is that nest, and is it under my rye patch? Digging no longer seemed like a good idea.

Finally, with a pair of grass clippers, I cut down the stalks. Along the way, I pulled some verbena–seeds from a plant pulled years ago, seeds that had stayed dormant during the years of the rampant roses and now, with the ground cleared, are cropping up everywhere. I tried to avoid the random parsley, the come-back sage, and second-generation strawberries. And when I pulled one feathery plant, thinking it might be angelica, I found a tiny carrot!

carrot on the table

Then I gently, timidly, raked the soil, spread some more seeds, raked again to get them under a little dirt, and covered the patch with the old straw.

Now, while the rest of the garden goes to shambles, the rye patch revives.

new rye coming up

All the while, I’ve been thinking about those yellow jackets, the verbena, the carrot, and writing. I want those stinging neighbors to stay underground—but in writing, I want to excavate the whirr and barbs. It’s also scary. I’m still learning how to be brave. In writing, I want the dormant stories and feelings to surface like that verbena. And yes, I’m hoping to renew and grow greenly, hoping to pull up a carrot.

Looping and stretching

Earlier this month, during my final residency of graduate school at the Rainier Writing Workshop, I presented my critical paper on how time works in poetry—how, by changing our perceptions, sound and image in poetry create a space where we can step outside of time. Because I’m drawn to music, I started out with sound and then repetition—including refrain and anaphora. While reading poems for this paper, I came across looping and stretching. Someone asked where I found those terms. My answer? I made them up, as a way to talk about these specific moves.

Looping

Looping is where a line or a sentence starts with one actor or image and leads to another. Line (or sentence) two starts with the second actor or image and leads to a third. My favorite example of this is Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s poem The Possibilities, which appears in her book In the Badlands of Desire. The poem begins:

After a wife’s death a man may talk
to his horse with a great tenderness
as if, just this morning, he had tried on
her pink slipper. And if he has no horse
he may crack his window a little
wider when it lightly rains to confirm
the roofs and trees are made
of paper. If there is no rain
he may make himself a meal at midnight,
sweet artichokes and Danish cheese,
a glass of red wine. If there is
no red, then white. . . .

See how she starts with the man talking to his horse, and the next sentence starts with the horse (or no horse), and moves to the window and rain? The third sentence starts with rain (or no rain) and moves to, finally wine. The fifth stanza switches from red to white wine. The use of “if,” combined with negation (no horse, no rain, no red), add instability, while the repetition of “may” sets up a pattern (“may talk,” “may crack,” “may make,”), which Goldberg breaks in the fifth sentence. Throughout the poem, she continues to return to the “may”/”there is no” pattern and then break it. I find this kind of movement deeply pleasurable. Two other examples of looping are Goldberg’s poem “Black Fish Blues”* (In the Badlands of Desire) and Jay Hopler’s poem “Winter Night Full of Stars”* (The Abridged History of Rainfall).

Try it for yourself! Here’s one way: Start with “If a” or “If you” and write a conjecture, then continue looping and see where it takes you. I tried using looping when I was struggling with how to progress through one poem. While my looping was not as tight, the patterns not as visible as Goldberg’s, the effort did help me to pull the poem together.

Stretching

Looping plays with pattern making and breaking. Stretching breaks and extends outside the image-rhythm of the poem. My favorite example of this, so far, is in lines 15-19 of James Wright’s poem “To the Adriatic Wind, Becalmed,”* from his collection This Journey.

Already the golden horses of San Marco
Have stepped carefully down in the darkness,
Placed their frail ankles one after another
Over the damp cobbles, whickering lightly,
And gone. . . .

The image could easily end with “down in the darkness,” but Wright keeps stretching it, leading our eye to the “frail ankles,” their movement “one after another,” bringing our eye all the way to the “damp cobbles.” He keeps stretching the image, adding a sonic experience with “whickering lightly,” and he ends the image with the horses’ departure. The image extends, keeping our attention, expanding our experience, until we’re left alone in the empty street. It’s a kind of camera work, but as this example shows us, it can also be multisensory. Stretching an image also disrupts the pacing of a poem (or prose), and that causes a disruption in time.

What images can you stretch? And which images want to carry the attention, to hold the heightened focus, of that disruption?

*I was unable to find these poems published online.