Category Archives: Poetry

Why Must I be Preyed Upon?

Pain, and grief and heartsickness can be so lonely and isolating. The rollercoaster of emotions settle down, but there are still days when the pain, the memories of what has been lost feels like a harsh punch in the chest. Who can I talk to? Who can I call? To whom can I describe this almost unbearable sensation? It’s nothing new. It’s more of the same. It makes me weary and I feel like a broken record repeating these tiresome things to those in my inner circle. I’m sick of myself, I think, so how can they not be sick of me too?

Writing and reading poetry are what I end up retreating into when the loneliness and isolation set in. I like to think that all of the books of poetry I have voraciously consumed in the last few years are paying off in the form of solace. I share here two recent favorites that have helped me in the hopes that they might be comforting to anyone suffering in any way—there seems to be an abundance of pain everywhere one looks nowadays.

Cuban poet Dulce Maria Loynaz’s collection Absolute Solitude, beautifully translated by James O’Connor and published by Archipelago Books, is full of memorable lines that are worthy of writing in my notebooks and revisiting for those tough days. Here she envisions grief as a wolf to which she falls prey:

There was a lull in the pain. I fled from it as if I were fleeing a wolf suddenly taken with sleep. But when it wakes, it will pick up my scent and follow my trail. I know this. And it doesn’t matter where I hide, it will know how to find me, and when it does, it will pounce on a body too weary to resist it. Why must I be the preyed upon? Why does its mouth water every time it spots me? I have no blood to slake its savage thirst and I carry nothing in my saddlebags but the echoes of dreams grown cold. Where did I lose my way? I can’t remember. What flowers did I step on pretending I didn’t see them? Before me the great jungle grows dense.

And from Kathryn Smith’s Collection Self-Portrait with Cephalopod published by Milkweed Editions a poem that envisions the possibility of being whole again after tragedy. “A Permeable Membrane in the Mutable Cosmos”:

Tell me again of the lepers who learn to shed their disastrous skin by eating the meat of vipers: something transmutable in the flesh. The ancients spent lifetimes considering the resurrection of irretrievable parts: wolf-devoured flank, eyes of martyrs pecked clean in the village square, Tell me again about the new heaven and the new earth, when the bear returns an unblemished arm to its faithful socket, when mountains open their mouths to receive conduits and I-beams and engagement diamonds and the fish ladders the rivers will give up with their dams when the earth is made new. Tell me the formula for feeling whole again after tragedy. The equation for how much time I needed after saying no before I’d tell you yes. Tell me I’ll never be alone, even when I want to be alone.

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Grief as a Test: The Collected Poems of Louise Glück

Achilles and Patroclus. By Philippe Auguste Hennequin. 1784-1789.

Grief, I have learned, any type of grief, is a test—albeit a cruel, harsh, and unfair one—of the people around us, those whom we lean on and consider our support system.  Grief strips away any pretensions, facades, masks, and posturing and challenges all types of relationships in a way that no other human emotion can. People deal with a grieving loved one in with such a vast range of emotions and reactions—some rise to the occasion to offer support, love, kindness and others back away, withdraw, remain silent.  

I’m not making any kind of a judgment here. People are who they are. There is no changing that—for a variety of reasons some are wired to avoid any type of emotions whatsoever, especially the difficult ones.  But on the other end of the spectrum there are those who have a special presence, know just the right things to say, and show unconditional love and kindness.  I keep thinking about grief-as-test in the last few weeks as I’ve made my way through Louise Glück’s Poems 1962-2012; her insights on loss, grief, pain, heartache, and the everyday difficulties that life throws at us have struck a cord with me.    Glück writes about growing up and watching her mother grieve over a lost child and the effects it had on  Glück and her sister. Grief as a test of the family, especially the surviving children:

It was something I was good at: sitting still, not moving.

I did it to be good, to please my mother, to distract her from the child that died.

I wanted to be child enough, I’m still the same,

like a toy that can stop and go, but not change direction.

Glück also processes through her poems the death of her father with whom she had a difficult relationship. She writes: “I thought that pain meant I was not loved/it meant I loved.” And her struggles with grief suffered in various romantic relationships, including marriage, are raw, honest and astute. “Seated Figure” has particularly been on my mind, I’ve thought about this poem every day for weeks:

It was as though you were a man in a wheelchair,

your legs cut off at the knee.

But I wanted you to walk. I wanted us to walk like lovers,

arm in arm in the summer evening,

and believed so powerfully in that projection

that I had to speak, I had to press you to stand.

Why did you let me speak?

I took your silence as I took the anguish in your face,

as part of the effort to move—

It seemed I stood forever,

holding out my hand.

And all that time, you could no more heal yourself 

than I could accept what I saw.

Although it’s not specifically about grief, I do see it through that lens. Glück wants this man to stand and be in a relationship with her; oftentimes because of grief, pain, heartache we ask someone to stand for us—for support, kindness, patience, love, understanding—and are faced with silence. As  Glück says we believe so powerfully in the projection we have of a person that we refuse to accept the reality of who they are and what they are capable of giving us.

Finally, I need to mention Glück’s use of Greek mythology as examples of grief-as-test. She has a series of poems written from the perspective of Penelope, Telemachus, and Circe and how they deal with the grief caused by Odysseus’s absence. Her best poem involves one of the most heart-wrenching examples of grief in ancient literature, Achilles’s reaction to the death of his best friend and fellow warrior, Patroclus:

In the story of Patroclus no one survives,

not even Achilles who was nearly a god.

Patroclus resembles him, they wore the same armor.

Always in these friendships one serves the other,

one is less than the other: the hierarchy is always apparent,

though the legends cannot be trusted— their source is the survivor,

the one who has been abandoned.

What were the Greek ships on fire compared to this loss?

In his tent, Achilles grieved with his whole being

and the gods saw he was already dead,

a victim of the part that loved, the part that was mortal.

Achilles’s grief tests his mortality, his emotions, his fellow soldiers, and an entire Trojan army. The end of the Iliad and Greek’s return home show us the various ways that men on both sides handle that test, for good and bad.

Grief has certainly cast in a new light every relationship that I have now or will have in the future. 

Grief as a test.

Of myself.

Of those around me.

Who stands up and who is incapable of standing up?

I’ve even learned that sometimes I’m the one who needs to stand up.

And maybe even walk away…

 

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This Rock is Trash!: Feed by Tommy Pico

Timmy Pico is a queer, native American poet, living in New York City, trying to navigate the dating scene while constantly being on the road for his profession. His long poem, Feed, reads just like that—a feed of his character’s mind which he calls “Teebs” and all of the personal thoughts that occupy it: “I am 34/ I live in the busiest city in America./ I am about to eat an orange./ Every feed owes itself to death. Poetry is feed/ to the horses within me.”

Pieces of short verse are alternated with prose, dialogue, letters, short recipes, news headlines and lists, all of which showcase Pico’s clever, astute, surprising and hilarious writing. He brings up many melancholy topics–lost love, his heritage, the American president, climate change and his loneliness–but he manages to take each of these things in stride and press forward with his uncanny ability to find humor in nearly every situation.

As a sort of loose organization of the poem, Pico provides a soundtrack to his thoughts; Track 1 is a the song”XO” by Beyonce and Track 19 is “Up the Ladder to the Roof” by the Supremes. He reflects briefly on the lyrics from each track and his subsequent thoughts are launched from there until he “starts” the next track. A clever and subtle way to keep some semblance of form to his meandering thought-feed. Track 12 is my favorite in the playlist:

Track 12: “Shout” by Tears for Fears. First of all, best band name in
America. Second, how cathartic am I right? Really, just let it all out.
What else can ou do in an intractable situation but to shout? Focus
on that full throaty wail where Roland Orzabal reveals the he’s just
waiting for the lover to open up for the destruction his love will no
doubt wreak.

Teebs is not afraid to be brutally honest about his sexual desires, his sometimes awkward dates, and the reasons why he moves on from a relationship (In one instance he finds out that his lover’s favorite book is Atlas Shrugged) But the love interest that is brought up most is a man named Leo, whom we meet in the opening verses of the poem. Leo and Teebs share some nice memories together, but Teebs doesn’t wallow in or become awash with sorrow when they mutually decide to go their separate ways. His relationship with Leo forms a part of the larger patterns in his life—his loneliness, his struggles with dating, and his itinerant lifestyle as a traveling poet. He deftly moves from the very personal—the story of his first meeting with Leo—to more universal, even philosophical, thoughts on love and loneliness:

Ok so in Plato’s Symposium
the philosopher Aristophanes makes
this speech at some white
robe
sweaty ball
table line dinner
about the origin of love.

That at one point
there were three sexes:
the children of the sun (two men)
the children of the earth (two women)
and the children of the moon (man and woman)
attached at the back

Now before you get all
sapiosexual
on me, I don’t know this from Plato

I know this from Hedwig and the Angry Inch

N E WAYS, so yeah at one point
the three sexes were whole
round balls
adherent to each
other attached at the back and spinning

in their own orbit.

The problem
was people

GUNMAN FIRST INTO OKLAHOMA CITY RESTAURANT

were too content in self-possession

there was no ambition no thrill of the chase
no colonalism. So the gods split
the people down the back
and ever since we’ve been looking
for our other
half

Lonely as a kind of math.

Notice the news headline in bold which Pico slips into key parts of the poem. Even though Feed was written and published in 2019, the topics he chooses are still highly sensitive and relevant in the age of Covid, corrupt government and Black Lives Matter.

The poet’s loneliness stems not only from his never ending quest for a fulfilling relationship but also from his heritage as a Native American. He oftentimes talks about the sad and tragic abuse of his tribe, the Kumeyaay Indians, throughout American history. Not surprisingly, cooking and eating with his friends and boyfriends is a common occurrence in Feed, and his lack of a culinary archive in his heritage is a sad and poignant commentary on the history of his tribe. Oftentimes he speaks directly to his readers in missives:

Dear reader,

A roux, I’ve learned tonight in this mid city dinner party apartment
tucked somewhat safely away from asthmatic LA freeways, is the
mixture of butter and flour used to swell sauces and soups and Paul’s
baked sage mac n cheese that I’m whisking alive like an al dente
Evanescence cheese-rock bop. Whistle while you whisk away the rage
scrunched in yr boulders. I says to them around the table I says—

I don’t have a food history.

If the dish is, “subjugate an indigenous population,” here’s an
ingredient of the roux: alienate us from our traditional ways of
gathering and cooking food.

Kumeyaays moved around what ed be called San Diego County with
the seasons. The mountains, the valleys, the coast. Not much arable
land or big game so we followed the food wherever it would go.

Then the missions. Then isolated reservations on stone mountains
where not even a goat could live. Then the starvation. Then the
Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations. Whatever the
military would throw away came canned in the backs of trucks. The
commodities. The powered mil, worms in the oatmeal, corn syrupy
canned peaches. Food stripped of its nutrients. Then came the sugar
blood. the sickness. The glucose meter goes up and up and up.

I says to them around the table I says, I don’t have food stories. With
you, I say, I’m cooking new ones.

This passage is an excellent example of how Pico mixes the melancholy with the hopeful. And he throws in one of his signature witty phrases “I says to them” for just the slightest touch of humor. A constant friends that appears several times throughout the poem is a woman he calls Wilkes with whom he has an ongoing series of conversations about the galaxies:

Me: It’s like, against the infinity of space and all those stars and all
those worlds out there, the probability of extraterrestrial civilizations
other than us is extremely high. But where are they? Even if
interstellar travel is really slow, our sun is relatively young compared to
the age of the universe as a whole. They’d have had millions of years
to get here.
Wilkes: I think it’s paternalistic to assume we’d be demonstrably visited
in our lifetimes. History basicall just started recording itself. They
could have come a million years ago and been like, this rock is trash!

I stayed up yesterday past 2 a.m. reading Feed because I just could not put it down. His topics are timely but, despite the many hardships and obstacles in his life, Pico also has a sense of humor and an optimism that I found I really needed right now.

Feed is one book in a tetralogy of poems that Pico has written and published with Tin House Books and I am eagerly looking forward to reading all four titles.

Finally as an added bonus I made a playlist on Spotify with all of the songs on Teebs’s soundtrack from Feed.

https://open.spotify.com/playlist/1v75Eq6lFcrPWGRnQOdNQd?si=2G0FRLj5RPeefja7mCxcVA

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Subsumed to Materials of My Art: Summer Snow by Robert Hass

In Summer 2020 edition of The Paris Review, Jesse Nathan ends his interview with poet and author Robert Hass with a couple of unique questions and responses:

INTERVIEWER:

In many of the questions that I’ve asked you, even personal questions, you’ve often responded with literary examples before delving into your own experience. I’m curious why you think that is.

HASS:

I don’t know. It must be the way my mind works. What would be an example?

INTERVIEWER:

When we began this interview, I think I asked what the first thing you’d done that morning was. You said that you had peed. And then you were talking about Issa’s haiku on peeing in the snow and Bloom in Ulysses flipping through a magazine while moving his bowels.

HASS:

There are a couple of possibilities. One is deflection from the personal. Either because you want to keep the private private, or just because it seems narcissistic. I mean, who cares what I do when I first get up in the morning? So I tend to leap toward what brings it to life, what brings a subject to life, which would be all the literary stuff that’s in my head. That would be one explanation. Then, there’s another haiku by Issa that comes to mind—

The man pulling radishes
pointed my way
with a radish.

He’s talking about daikons, those long Japanese radishes. And what I love about the poem as a poem is that Issa has imagined himself stopping to ask for directions, and it’s only after that, as he’s on his way again, that he’s having the thought, the amusing thought, that this guy is so much of his element that he was using his radish to point directions. My impulse is definitely to point with the radish. I have to say, I’m subsumed to materials of my art.

 

It’s not surprising that Robert Hass can seamlessly move from the topic of his morning pee to the haiku of Issa.  In his latest collection of poems, published in February of 2020 by Ecco, Hass is fond of putting seemingly disparate things together, including the title itself, Summer Snow.   Among the pages of this rather lengthy—for him—collection we still find his usual inspirations from earlier collections which include his surroundings in California, his left-leaning politics, his sense of humor and his friends and family.  But sitting next to ordinary topics in the same long poems are his friendships with literary giants like Eugenio Montale, Milosz, and Lyn Hejinian.  Because he gives himself plenty of space with long prose poems to work out the details of unrelated subjects,  he is successful in making these topics fit together perfectly.  For example, it’s not Montale’s brilliant poetry that Hass remembers in a poem, but a mundane, and odd,  conversation about the word “moose”:

Eugenio Montale asked me if there was an American word
For sprezzatura, particularly with respect to poetry.
In rispetto di poesia, he said. And I said, Yes, in American
We call it “moose” and mentioned several poets,
Frank O’Hara among them, who were quite famous,
As fame goes in our sort of work, for their moose.
He wondered if there was an American expression
To convey the general concept of “Eugenio Monale.”
And I said, Yes, we call it “George Seferis.” I also observed—
I was showing off, but how often do you get to talk
To Eugenio Montale—that, in my view, the prose of Seferis,
Especially his diaries from the last years of the war
And the slow wakening to that devastation after,
Was even greater than his poems, though his poems
At their best gave off pure light like the light that flares
From the white walls on the cliffs above the harbor in Skios
Which can make the eyes ache…

Sometimes it is easy to forget we are reading a poem because of the story-like beginning, but then Hass veers into another topic—in this instance a different poet, George Seferis—and then another topic, the dazzling light of Skios. And at the end he ties his piece together by bringing us back to Montale who asks another question about Americans worshipping the Virgin Mary.

One of my favorite poems in the collection has his usual range of divergent topics, but throughout the entire he stays with deeply personal topics from his own life. These personal reflection poems are just as profound, if not more so, than the ones who feature famous authors. He begins with a scribbling he sees on a classroom blackboard, transitions to a friend whose husband has died of cancer, and ends with a final meditation on the words from the blackboard. We also see another example of the pattern of three distinct parts to each of his longer poems. “A Person Should” begins:

The novel is a mirror in the roadway, I saw scrawled
on a blackboard in an empty classroom at a small college
in the Middle West, A Friday in the all, day’s end,
the swift dark descending, the students gone to their parties,
the long blackboards given over to the melancholy
of chalk dust. Underneath the Stendhal in another hand
someone had written very firmly: Poetry is sheet lightning
in a summer field. Which I took to mean that a person should
be able to name their psychic condition or make a figure of it
or see it illuminated out there somewhere in the gravid air.
I quoted the lines once to a friend whose husband was ill
with pancreatic cancer, not apropos of what she was enduring,
but because she’d asked me what I was thinking about.

I finished this collection last week and since then I keep thinking about why I have enjoyed Robert Hass’s poetry so much. The combination of his narrative, long form poems, his personal stories and their accessibility are obvious reasons. But the truly brilliant quality of his poems, I decided after reading his PR interview, lies in his transitions which make the poems and where he takes us within them unexpected. I think we are following along with his thoughts which are subsumed by personal stories, poetry and literature.

 

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Survival Is A Style: Poems by Christian Wiman

In the June issue of Poetry Magazine Christian Wiman writes a lovely, thoughtful essay on the poems of William Bronk. Included is a poignant reflection on these lines from Bronk’s collection entitled Life Supports:

I thought you were an anchor in the drift of the world;
but no: there isn’t an anchor anywhere.
There isn’t an anchor in the drift of the word. Oh no.
I thought you were. Oh no. The drift of the world.
The World

This may be the saddest poem I know. As with other Bronk poems it sent me reeling through my own life grasping after my own anchors: my wife and my work, my God. Oh no.

And yet this minor poem brings me major peace. Why? Because it is beautiful, and beauty triggers an instinct for an order beyond the one it enacts.

I’ve spend the week reading Wiman’s latest collection of poems, Survival is a Style, and I shared on Twitter that it is the best one I have read so far this year. Throughout these pieces Wiman contemplates those very anchors that keep him sane and whole. Wiman grew up in a rural part of Texas under the influence of a strict, Christian family. His father died recently of a drug overdose, he has dealt with a crisis of faith, and he is always battling a form of blood cancer that, while not curable, at least is dormant for the moment. One of the most touching poems in the collection is entitled “All You Shining Stars” and describes a simple, spontanous day out with his family—his wife and three children, who are clearly his most important “anchors:

Three kinds of hair in the brush one love
has left on the kitchen counter.
Four kinds of cries when it occurs as one
to blow off school and go to the mountains.
And later, over the river, when the upturned duck
never turns over, five kinds of silence.

Always our elsewheres are also here,
like tributaries so intuitive they seem
almost incidentally literal, tiny trickles
in wildernesses too immense to enter,
the cold clefts and the drastic drops,
cliffs of unthinkable ice.

Three kinds of sleep in the hum home
down the dark valley back to New Haven.
Four kinds of dreams behind the headlights,
the world springing into being ten feet at a time.
Five kinds of time when one love wakes up
and wonders where we are, and one wonder
wakes up another, and another, and another.

A lot has been said about Wiman’s use of alliteration, and in this particular poem lines like “the cold clefts and the drastic drops,” as well as his use of numbers lends to the musicality of his verse. There is a sadness mixed with a type of gratitude for moments like these with his family. Similarly in the poem entitled “Baloney” a simple moment at a summer party with friends is captured eloquently:

Poolside, Belgian beer, the lightly ironized light
and splashy laughter of our perfect suburban summer
when from the water, from a child, comes something like
“Look alive, butt crack!”
“It was either that,” Matt says, “or a whippoorwill.”

Over shrimp and coconut rice that Annie made
I recall my dear donnish friend John
who asked that I please not “entertain company” in his bed.
And Samir, who also survived those years on beans, vagabondage,
and long letters that glittered with hopes and Helens,
wondered if I replied, “Will self-pleasure be ok?”

These verses are also an excellent example of Wiman’s charming and sharp sense of humor. The underlying sadness, in the form of nostalgia, still lingers in these lines but friends and his wife are his anchors here.

The longest poem in the collection entitled “The Parable of Perfect Silence” which is featured in Part III, brings together all of Wiman’s thoughts on family, faith, illness, sadness and hope. This poem reminds me of Robert Hass who also likes to tell personal stories in his longer form poems.

Today I woke and believed in nothing.
A grief at once intimate and unfelt,
like the death of a good friend’s dog.

Tired of the mind tracing back in the past for rescue
I praise the day.
I don’t mean merely some mythical, isolate instant
like the mindless mindfulness specialist
who at the terminal cancer convention
(not that it was called that)
exhorted the new year’s crop of slaughters
(ditto)
to “taste” the day, this one unreplicable instant of being alive.
(The chicken glistened.)
Nor do I mean a day devoid of past and future
as craved that great craze of minds and times Fernando Pessoa,
who wanted not “the present” but reality itself,
things in their thingness rather than the time that measures them.
Time is the table at which I sit and the words I type.
In the red-checked shirt my father’s mother used to wear
when she was gardening and which I kept
because it held her smell (though it does no longer)
there is still plenty of time.

And with Wiman and Hass we are never quite sure where the poet is going—there is always a twist, a surprise, something very unexpected thrown at us: words like “unreplicable” and phrases like “The chicken glistened.” And finally, the plot, if one can call it that in a poem, as Wiman moves in between topics or stories involving his grandmother, his father trying to catch a rat, his diagnosis of cancer and a myriad of other snapshots of memory.

As I was lingering over his collection all week, it occurred to me why it struck such a cord and Alex Caldiero’s poem came to mind: “Poetry is wanted here.” I began to think about my own anchors that have gotten me through the past few months and, just when we thought things couldn’t possibly get worse, the last week. I’ve never been so exhausted in my life—physically, mentally,emotionally. But I have wonderful anchors—my family, friends, fellow readers, students, colleagues, my cats, and poetry, lots and lots of poetry—whose love and support and wisdom and kindness keep me going for another day.

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