Poetry pick: Late Wife

I’m sorry it has taken me so long to post the first monthly poetry pick of 2015, but I bring you Late Wife, by Claudia Emerson.

In plain language, with tense and haunting imagery, this book stitches together many losses. There’s the dissolution of a marriage, the distances felt inside it and the gaps it leaves in the time since. There’s the loss of a lover’s first wife, the imprints of death and memory that shape a room, a house, a shared life going forward. And then there’s the loss of Ms. Emerson, her much-too-soon death last year.

I leave you with “Eight Ball.”

Saturday poetry pick: The Great Fires

“The fox pushes softly, blindly through me at night,
between the liver and the stomach. Comes to the heart
and hesitates. Considers and then goes around it.”

begins Jack Gilbert’s poem “Searching for Pittsburgh” in his book The Great Fires. The collection includes poems written from 1982 to 1992, so it covers a lot of territory, much grief, much lovemaking, and his great love for Michiko, his great loss after she died. Heartbreak stalks through the pages.

But the poems I loved the best were those that called upon his early years in Pittsburgh, being a boy, and as a man navigating those memories. Poems like “The Spirit and the Soul“:

“…It was the newness of me,
and the newness after that, and newness again.
It was the important love and the serious lust.
It was Pittsburgh that lasted. The iron and fog
and sooty brick houses. Not Aunt Mince and Pearl,
but the black-and-white winters with their girth
and geological length of cold…”

and “Gift Horses“:

“…Shows him
photographs of the beautiful women in old movies
whose luminous faces sixteen feet tall looked out
at the boy in the dark where he grew his heart.
Brings pictures of what they look like now.
Says how lively they are, and brave despite their age.
Taking away everything. For the Devil is commissioned
to harm, to keelhaul us with loss, with knowledge
of how all things splendid are disfigured by small
and small. Yet he allows us to eat roast goat
on the mountain above Parakia…”

and then there’s that fox in “Searching for Pittsburgh,” who

“Goes deeper, searching for what remains of Pittsburgh
in me. The rusting mills sprawled gigantically
along three rivers. The authority of them.
The gritty alleys where ewe played every evening were
stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky,
as though Christ and the Father were still fashioning
the Earth…”

The fox returns, “watched me build my Pittsburgh again and again…”

I first read this poem in a poem-a-day email. I read it again, loving the way that it weaves and moves, thinking that if I could really understand that movement and what this poem is doing on its different levels, I would be able to write a good poem.

This is the last week of the year’s poetry picks. I hope you’ve had a chance to join me in the pleasure of discovering poets who are new to you (and maybe revisiting some old friends).

For 2015, I’m going to move to a monthly format (the last Saturday of the month). That will give me a chance to read some longer collections (Gerald Stern, Mahmoud Darwish, and others). I’m still up in the air about Facebook, whether I’ll stay there when the new anti-privacy policies kick in on Thursday, but I’ll be here, with poetry picks.

Saturday poetry pick: The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me

book cover

Today’s poetry pick is Maged Zaher’s collection The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me, a book of reflection and observation.

Imagine arriving just after the revolution–exuberance and uncertainty in the aftermath. These poems provide moments, quick windows, a distilled view of the ordinary and what is not. Details and moods are amplified by juxtaposition. The short sections underscore what is fleeting–look closely, or you might miss it. The cover–barbwire blown up to abstraction–makes a metaphor for the unwavering scrutiny of the poems inside.

Some of the poems take place in Cairo, some in Seattle, or in between. For a sample, here is “Airplane poems, Sept 30 – 2011.”

I look forward to reading more of Mr. Zaher’s work.

Saturday poetry pick: The Book of a Hundred Hands

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.”

Saturday poetry pick: Pity the Bathtub Its Forced Embrace of the Human Form

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).