Homie is where the heartie is

Months ago, I was planning to write this post. But everything changed when the Covid nation attacked!

One of the wonderful things about poetry is that it invites you (and in some cases requires you) to view the world through someone else’s eyes, to embody a lifetime of accreted experiences. And it’s even more sublime when that perspective is one you might never enter on your own. 

That’s partly why I loved reading Homie, by Danez Smith. The brief bio on the back jacket says that Smith is “a Black, Queer, Poz writer.” I have never experienced life though any one of these lenses, let alone all three. In fact, I am old enough to remember when being HIV positive was a death sentence. Nowadays, it’s just one of many defining characteristics. That still leaves me flabbergasted.

I went to see Smith at the California African American museum in LA, back when public gatherings were not anathema. I had read the name, but was unfamiliar with the poetry. In fact, one of my goals for the evening was to learn how to pronounce Danez (two syllables, accent on the second). Smith read along with Fatimah Asghar, as I recall. They had a close rapport.

And more importantly, they knew how to work a (poetry) crowd. Sure, there was the banter, the humor. But more specifically, there was a sense of inclusion, of intimacy, as though everyone in the audience was a close, personal friend of the poets.

As for the work itself, it was performative, and not surprisingly rooted in identity politics. But it often leapt far beyond that. So I was eager to see how the work would translate to the printed page (which is in itself extraordinary—usually, it’s the other way around).

I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot more to this poetry than meets the ear—and that’s saying a lot. Though very much a performance poet, Smith writes with structure, if not outright form. And interestingly, some poems are “concrete” in that they need to be seen on the page to be fully appreciated. That includes poems that I first heard at the live event: “jumped.” “saw a video….” “rose.” “dogs!” “for Andrew.”

As for general tone, the first word that comes to mind is “ebullient.” Maybe that comes from being HIV poz, feeling that you’re living on borrowed time—much the way the ancient Greeks espoused Epicureanism as a counterpoint to fatalism. Or in other words, we all sit beneath the sword of Damocles, but some can see the cord actively fraying. Or perhaps it’s a lust for life that makes one more susceptible to HIV? The second word that comes to mind is “attitude.” These poems are often suffused with the defiant (dismissive?) posture of one who has almost convinced himself he has nothing to prove to the world, and no patience for those who are not quite on-board.

As for style, the book is nouveau Confessional—just about every poem is written in the first person, and there’s no mistaking that the poet is the speaker, but without the grandiose self-recriminations. Sometimes, though, it’s a bit too personal, as in “trees,” with its long litany of names, all of whom presumably have some connection to the writer but no meaning for the reader.

homie book coverOne wonders whether Smith appreciates his debt to Ginsburg, another unabashedly gay man (at a time when such openness was still shocking) writing effusive, unfettered verse. Smith draws upon Whitman’s self-celebration, of course (even the day-glow color of the book screams “Look at me! I’m electric!”), but seems more aligned with Ginsberg’s edgy and polemical stance.

Oddly, Smith owes another debt—to Tennyson, for much of this book was written “in memorium,” prompted by the suicide of a close friend (perhaps the homie/nig of the title?) I’m guessing this is the heart of “for Andrew,” a poem in several parts that seem to have arisen independently. The genius (yes, I said it) of this poem lies in the fact that many lines are crossed out, using that Microsoft Word format that, until now, never seemed to serve any useful purpose. They are not quite palimpsest, because the words are plainly visible, not quite early draft, because they survive into the final version, not quite erasure, because they are still clearly legible. You can’t help read them, but then question how you are supposed to consider them with regard to the lines that have not been canceled out. In the context of elegy, they suggest a persistence of a life that may be gone, but can never be unwritten. So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I hope I have praised this book enough to allow a final niggle. According to the foreword, the title is actually “My Nig,” but Smith explains, “I don’t want non-black people to say ‘my nig’ out loud.” That seems to me a bit of a cop-out, and a missed opportunity, because what could be more subversive and instructive than to force liberal-minded white people (these are poetry fans, after all) to say “my nig?” Unless, as with “for Andrew,” a goal is to emphasize by apparent retraction?

Regardless of the moniker you choose, you’ll find this book rewards your close attention.

So far, so good

A friend recently dropped off a small trove of poetry books—names that I recognized, for the most part, though I was not necessarily familiar with the work. One book really stood out for me: Robert Cording’s Only So Far.

Like Logan, Cording apparently divides his time between Florida and colder climes (at least during the writing of this book). But while he shares Logan’s stylistic reserve, his references are not so esoteric, and will probably be familiar to anyone with a Catholic upbringing. Cording’s work is plain-spun and meditative, and frequently elegiac. Indeed, the elegy seems to be his default setting, which might just be a function of age—these are mature poems, and what they lack in youthful energy, they more than make up for in grace and wisdom.

Great examples include “Belated Elegy, January 1, 2011,” and “Elegy for an Idea” (inspired by Philippe Petit, who also made an appearance  in my first book). There’s also “Last Day,” “Words,” and “Fall Cleaning, Windows Mostly,” which is a curiously moving elegy for a mouse. But of course, the elegy to his father, “Still Listening,” sets the standard. It’s written as a sequence detailing the period just before and after his father’s death. The first part, in particular, shows remarkable formal flourish; it portrays the family gathered with the ailing father in hospice, improvising a “Jumble” (like the sort typically found in the funny pages of the newspaper) to pass the time and keep his flagging spirits up. It’s written as a series of couplets, and the last words of the couplets are themselves word jumbles: read and dear, life and file, lamp and palm, etc.

Anything can be a form, but the form should arise from and reinforce the content. In this case, the form is a foil to the father’s mental state, as he struggles to make sense of his impending exit from the world, no longer able to solve even simple mental puzzles. And at the end of it, life remains a puzzle that he has never quite managed to solve. We also see him, in other poems in the book, buried behind his morning newspaper—and the fact that he has here set it down becomes emblematic of his letting go of life, of relinquishing the daily facts of the world, of surrendering his authority.

The final part of the sequence recounts the poet fiddling with his father’s hearing aids, which have been kept like relics in a drawer. It is an odd bridge to his dead father, one that brings him close but ultimately can not bring him back:

I fit one into my ear
as if, my own hearing amplified,
I might pick up something he is
still saying, but all I get is that loud hum
and screech….

The title, “Still Listening,” takes on added resonance, as it carries two very different connotations, based on which preposition follows. Listening “to” implies an active engagement, an understanding, a communication. Listening “for” implies an anticipation, an unmet expectation, a lonely silence. This distinction gains even greater significance with regard to a line halfway through the poem, “God is still speaking, but we’re not listening.” Is Cording expectantly (but fruitlessly) listening for God to speak? Or is he still listening to God as he speaks, with uncertain comprehension? Is the voice of God any more audible than the voice of his dead father?

It should be noted that the phrase “I am still listening” also appears in the elegy, “Words,” so there’s something in the phrase or act that carries some deep meaning for the poet.

Cording is an astute observer of both the natural world and human nature. We find a lot of ocean sunsets, local flora and fauna (manatees, pelicans, alligators), and walks in the wild. In fact, many of the poems exhibit a meditative, melancholy state that was apparently induced by a solitary walk. But there’s also the grit of what I think describes a childhood and coming of age in New Jersey: the conveyor belts of “Evolution,” the dilapidated porno theaters in “A Beginning,” the sky “tinged with green” in “1964.” Even the father listening to Sinatra in “Still Listening” conjures images of Hoboken or a similar town.

I’ll end with a quick look at the poems that bookend the collection. “Kafka’s Fence,” which occurs just before the first of four numbered sections of the book, can be viewed as the apologia. The tone of quiet frustration and complaint reaches its peak in the line, “Haven’t we / always known we’d reach and end we couldn’t complete?” It’s a take on the ars longa vita brevis theme, except in this case, it’s lamenting the fact that life is often too short to create a lasting work of art–or anything, for that matter. That stands in stark contrast to the final poem, “No-Name Pond,” which concedes, by its title, that even enduring works of nature are ultimately anonymous, much like great artists over time. Nevertheless, it concludes,

Maybe all these cairns are just a way of saying
it was good to be here […] Good to bring
a few stones together, and come to know,
so casually as I paddle off
that, most likely, I’ll never be back.

Those final lines may be deceptively simple, perhaps underwhelming, but they hold an acceptance, a resignation, that the poet has been driving toward throughout the course of the entire book. It is a quiet ending to what is often a quiet book, more elegiac than nostalgic, from a poet less intent on making himself heard than on listening to what the universe might have to say.

The horse(neck) whisperer

It wasn’t that long ago that the great debate in poetry was between the proponents of formal and free verse (the cooked and the raw, as it came to be known). While there were, of course, extremists on both sides, most of us felt that great writing could be found in either camp. Unfortunately, the debate also was framed as a struggle between the patrician, white men (you can’t say straight white men because so many were not straight) and the demotic multicultural masses. I say “unfortunately” because it unfairly tarnished a whole school of writers, most of whom were anything but provincial and reactionary in their worldview.

Some of them, however, were definitely not writing for the popcorn-munching crowds, but pursued an aesthetic that rewards a discerning palate and a contemplative atmosphere. William Logan is just such a poet. I’ve recently been reading The Whispering Gallery, a book that unabashedly seeks to realize the full potential of poetic form and language. This poetry is not just cooked, it is haute cuisine.

Logan’s poetry can be both lush and pointed at the same time. I am awed by his ability to craft the perfect phrase or select the perfect word (I’m sure he would prefer “le mot juste”), describing scenes and actions in ways that are at once surprising and obvious. Among my favorites: “Sand crabs scrabbled from our tightened palms” (from “Horseneck Beach Odalisque”) and “In an hour, the bats would batter through darkness” (from “In the Swamp”). Those verbs—scrabble and batter—not only conjure the action, but evoke the sensation in a visceral way. I can practically feel the little critters burrowing through my fingers trying to get back into the wet sand. And it’s wonderful how the name of the actor is framed in the name for the action—crab and bat. Imagine how different those lines would read if he’d instead said “scrambled” and “blustered.” Logan, at his best, embodies Pope’s admonition about sound and sense.

Though not, in any sense, a Nature Poet, Logan is an astute observer of the natural world. He apparently makes his home, at least part of the time, in Florida, and the local denizens—manatee, alligator, anhinga, coral snake, etc.—all make an appearance. Still, he saves his most piercing gaze for his most intimate associates—his parents, or grandparents, his wife and lover. These are often viewed with a nostalgic exasperation, or tragic poignancy.

Logan can render some rapturous descriptions, but sometimes, he’s most moving when he’s most pared down. Consider these lines from “After Easter”:

I saw the faintest passion in your eyes.
The doctors found new cancer in your blood.

Even here, though, it might be noted, he does not abandon the formal structure—the iambic pentameter that frequently supports his poems. A poet like Logan needs to keep his mooring.

I know that Logan has a reputation for being “difficult,” but I really don’t find that to be true. I suppose that’s because I am familiar with many of the references, even those that border on the obscure. For example, I have fond memories of Ostia Antica, the subject of one poem, and have always been a great admirer of LaRochefoucauld—not a name you encounter everyday.

That being said, there is a long sequence in the middle of the book entitled “Penitence.” Although the components are all intriguing in their own right, I can’t quite figure out what ties them all together. Sure, they all share a common structure—sort of an extended sonnet—but there must be more that I’m just not getting. Penitence implies an introspective examination of past sins, mixed with a genuine remorse, hopefully leading to redemption. There are 24 sections, which naturally invokes the 24 hours in a day. Is it, then, a book of hours? A day in thew life, in the mode of Joyce? The references are all over the map—from Coleridge to Garbo to Pol Pot to Austen to Fermat to Shackleton….

Well, this is definitely poetry for the well-read and well-traveled (which perhaps amounts to well-heeled?) References to the classics are sprinkled liberally throughout, with Dante’s Inferno well represented, and Shakespeare of course, along with the Greeks and Romans. Biblical references also abound. And yet, you’ll also find an occasional dab of the pedestrian, a spattering of brand names reminiscent of Lowell (e.g., “immortal as Saran Wrap” in “Adultery,” or “a foamy SOS-pad blue” in “Under the Palms”). Poetic language knows no bounds.

Logan’s is ultimately a grim vision—a philosophy pulled in two directions. On the one hand, an epicurean sense: enjoy the pleasures of life while you may, because they and you will soon enough be gone; and on the other, a nihilism: don’t bother trying to enjoy yourself, for even the stately pleasures are always tinged with the specter of death. The first poem in the collection, “The Rotting Stars,” ends with the line, “I could see everything that was to come,” a sentiment laden with foreboding and inevitability, as nothing good can be expected. The final poem, “The Old Burying Ground,” includes the stanza,

the mourners each spring resurrected
to words no longer said
but memory of the dead will never
resurrect the dead.

A devastating admission for a poet, who uses words, in part, to keep the past from disappearing entirely.

I mentioned that Logan is a keen observer, and the notion of “the gaze” recurs throughout the book—sometimes introspectively, as in a mirror, but often more ominously, as in the “odalisque,” a trope that appears more than once. The odalisque, in European art, typically depicts a recumbent, half (or wholly) nude woman of the seraglio. Deeply steeped in the orientalist tradition, it places the observer in the position of the sultan, with ultimate power over the observed. In a sense, every memory is an odalisque, enticing the rememberer, who chooses what to see and what to ignore, positioning everything to his satisfaction—perhaps a little petulantly, imperiously. My favorite poem in the collection, “Horseneck Beach Odalisque” (already mentioned) encapsulates all of this, particularly in its description of the sand castles we all have built at some time:

Our castles rose, dark and raggedly Gothic.
The dribbled turrets capped a moated wall,
and then the Muslim tide came roiling in
and took the holy cities one by one.
By August, we were Moor-wasps,
each boy a white-toweled sultan of the waves.

Logan is clearly writing for an audience that shares his desultory interests, his erudition, and maybe even his particular life trajectory. If you don’t get the references, you might feel a bit left out—like being at a party where everyone but you shares the same inside joke. But if you can get beyond that, the work is truly engaging and rewarding.

The horizon has been defeated

Much has happened since my last missive. I lost a job, found a better job, and moved into a new house. As I was unpacking my books, I grabbed one to write about, but after carrying it around for a few weeks, I realized I really couldn’t recommend it. I was reluctant to admit it, because I have met the poet, and we had a wonderful conversation. But I would much rather focus on books you should read, books that have impressed and influenced me. So I chose another one–this time by Andrew Hudgins, and greatly enjoyed rereading it. But I have already discussed the work of Hudgins in these pages, and much though he deserves all the attention I could give him, there are still many worthy poets who have not been mentioned here. Which brings me at last to the real subject of today’s column: Rhina Espaillat. Anyone who shares my poetic sensibilities will probably already know her work. She is strongly associated with the modern formalist tradition, and is proof that formalist poets are more diverse than many would believe.

Espaillat hails from the Dominican Republic, one of the Spanish-speaking nations in the Caribbean chain of islands that includes Cuba and Puerto Rico. Though she emigrated as a child, Spanish is her first language. Many of the poems in Where Horizons Go deal directly with the difficulties, ambiguities, and opportunities of straddling two languages and hence two cultures. “Bilingual/Bilingüe” is an obvious place to start. The poem describes both the thrill and shame of learning English as a second, soon to be dominant, language. Thrill, of course, because the new language is associated with a new world and new life; I don’t know much about the Dominican Republic in the late ‘30s, but I’d bet it was a far cry from the perpetual frenzy of New York. Still, that part is largely assumed; the shame is more directly portrayed. Learning—and learning to love—English was something of a betrayal of her father, who would never master the language as well as she. As such, she is essentially leaving him behind, and postulates his own dual emotions—the one that recognizes the need for his daughter to navigate the English-speaking world, and the one that fears the English-speaking part of her identity will always remain inaccessible to him, and that she would “lock the alien part… with a key he could not claim.” Interestingly, Spanish words are initially encased in parentheses, literally cordoning them off from the surrounding English, but by the last couplet, the parentheses disappear: “he stood outside mis versos.” In that simple device, Espaillat cleverly marries the two languages and reaches the synthesis of the two conflicting positions.

Of course, the conflict between English and Spanish is especially complicated, given the connections to colonialism and imperialism. Though we typically think in terms of American/English imperialism with regard to Latin America (Monroe doctrine, anyone?), Espaillat is acutely aware that Spanish was also the language of invasion. Columbus never actually reached the mainland U.S.–he first set foot upon Hispaniola, the island now occupied by the Dominican Republic (and Haiti). Espaillat addresses Columbus directly in “Six of One,” but although she describes, bemusedly, his many errors and ultimate neglect, she can not quite condemn him outright. “Should you regret the trip? Well, that depends.”

The imperial and colonial legacy is also examined to wonderful effect in “Bra,” a poem that I love even more because it is one that I could never have written. In it, Espaillat works through the quandary of finding the perfect bra that happens to be made in Honduras. Here, she must weigh her needs and desires against her principles and ideals. Was the bra made in a sweat shop, using child labor? How do these practices undercut living conditions in the United States? Is it ethical to purchase such items? On the other hand, how would the Hondurans survive without the wages, however paltry, that they earn? A further complication stems from the connection she feels, knowing that the seamstress “speaks that language that I dream in,” i.e., Spanish.  I love the way Espaillat condenses the split personality of the American consumer: we want cheap stuff, but we don’t want to support the practices that result in cheap stuff. Or as Groucho might’ve put it, “I’d never buy anything that I could afford.”

The poems in this book are, as I mentioned, generally formal. But while they are by no account elitist (as I hope I’ve shown), they do exhibit much of the precision and delicacy that is often used to discredit formal verse. Espaillat acknowledges as much in several poems. For example, “For Evan, Who Says I Am Too Tidy,” is on the surface a defense of ordinary neatness and organization; but it is also a defense of Espaillat’s poetic sensibility. “Tidy’s been blamed for everything we suffer,” and “tidy seldom goes where genius goes.” Ultimately, though, she embraces the label, noting that a solid consistency, and the commonplace tasks that consume our daily lives, is what connects us all. As with most formalists, Espaillat seems well aware of her tradition, and her debts are well acknowledged–directly through epigraphs or with a stylistic wink and nod. Several poems carry epigraphs from Dickinson, while others (including the introductory poem) are written in a style suggestive of Dickinson’s work. Others, such as “Poetry Reading” and the final “‘Why Publish?’” are reminiscent of the apologias of Herrick and the Cavaliers. I’m sure you can find echoes of Wilbur in there, too, if you look for it.

One final note. Where Horizons Go won the 1998 T.S. Eliot Prize from Truman State. Espaillat was born in 1932, according to the bio on the fly sheet. That means she was more than 65 when it was published (there is a delightful poem about being 65 years old, but I can’t say for sure that the speaker is the poet in this case). The book bio says nothing about an earlier book, though I did find mention of another one published in 1992, though it seems rather obscure. In any case, this arguably marked her debut into the broader poetry community. I find it remarkable, and encouraging, that she was just hitting her stride after six decades. Perhaps that’s why many of these poems speak with such unruffled wisdom and compassion. I hope I can achieve the same in my time.

Strange garment

Like many poetry aficionados, I was grieved the hear about the death of W. S. Merwin, among the last of the great poets born in the annus mirabilis 1926–1927, which also gave the world Snodgrass, Ammons, Merrill, Creeley, Ginsberg, Wagoner, O’Hara, Bly, and Wright, among others. I probably first encountered Merwin’s work in college—he didn’t appear in the Sound and Sense anthology that informed by high school days. That’s not entirely surprising, given the emphasis on form and meter, but it remains a embarrassing oversight.

I recall writing an essay as a freshman on this small poem (which has stuck in memory ever since):


Your absence has gone through me
like thread through a needle.
Everything I do is stitched with its color.

It turns out my reading was different than everyone else’s. It all hinges on the word “through.” To my mind, that implies a complete passage: when you go through a tunnel, it’s understood that you come out the other side, or when a camel passes through the eye of a needle, it’s understood that he emerges on the other side, if he passes through at all. So for me, the thread going through the needle meant that one end went through the hole, but the rest followed until it had all snaked through, leaving nothing behind. I wasn’t a very good seamstress, I suppose, and that had happened to me more than once in attempting to sew on a button. But to me, that made the poem all the more poignant and clever, as the stitches are literally the color of absence because they hold no thread—and therefore cannot hold anything together anymore. As I recall, my teacher didn’t buy it, but I still think such a reading is well within the realm of possibility.

Another poem from my college days that has stuck with me throughout the years:

Dead Hand

Temptations still nest in it like basilisks.
Hang it up till the rings fall.

I just love the brutality, the bathos, the cynicism, the utter lack of compassion, the whip-smart pivot from wonder to disdain. He presents a complete, singular vision of humanity in roughly the same amount of syllables as would make a haiku. Interestingly, Merwin lived out the latter part of his life in a place called Haiku, in Hawaii. That’s apt, insofar as his work often displayed an intense compression; but his work rarely strove to achieve the whimsy, serendipity, and pleasant shift in perspective we associate with haiku.

I recall the scandalous decision by Merwin not to award the Yale Younger Poets prize (in ‘97, I think). I later met one of the finalists that year, who did not have any kind words for a man who had nothing to lose by awarding the prize, but who chose to withhold it anyway. This poet subsequently went on to achieve considerable acclaim, including a Macarthur prize. But at the time, she really had no idea of who this Merwin character was. While I couldn’t defend his decision, I certainly did defend his poetry (often lumped in the “Deep Image” or “American Surrealist” schools). In particular, I raved on and on about The Lice, published in 1967 during the escalation of the Vietnam war, which heavily influenced the poetry of the time. This book sort of completed the transition away from punctuation. You’ll still find a few end stops, but those are rare. At first, I approached the lack of punctuation as sort of a gimmick, but I quickly understood what a powerful device it can be, stripping down language to its barest utterance. Many of his lines end with the completion of a thought or phrase, but many are enjambed–and the lack of punctuation really forces the reader to stop and backtrack to correctly follow the sentence. It can also impart a sense of simultaneity of thought, or a rushing together of disparate elements. Consider this poem (another that I committed to memory years ago):

Sunset in Winter

The sun sets in the cold without friends
Without reproaches after all it has done for us
It goes down believing in nothing
When it has gone I hear the stream running after it
It has brought its flute it is a long way.

The first lines all present a complete phrase; but the last line runs two phrases together. Consider how different it would sound if the final phrase were also brought down to its own line. It’s not just the lack of punctuation but the lack of pause or caesura that makes it sing.

Like other Deep Image poets (e.g., Wright), Merwin started out writing in a more traditional style, but abandoned it to forge his own poetics. Perhaps he felt that he scaffolding and embellishments of formal structure prevented him for reaching the true essence of a thing. Certainly, much of his work is elemental, with more than a few stones, birds, trees, and visits from a quasi-personified Death. This focus often allowed him to create fabulous metaphors and images. I love, for example, the final lines of “When You Go Away,” which reads, “my words are the garment of what I shall never be / Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy.”


There is an undeniable misanthropy undergirding these poems—not surprising, given the public’s growing lack of faith in government and the general disaffection of the age. Nature is a redemptive power, but even Nature might not have the wherewithal to reform the excesses of humanity. Consider the final lines of “December Night,” which read, “Tonight once more / I find a single prayer and it is not for men.” Or “Avoiding News by the River,” which ends bluntly: “If I were not human I would not be ashamed of anything.” This sense of shame in humanity is another undercurrent. It appears most notably in one of his more famous pieces, “For the Anniversary of my Death,” which reads,

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what.

That would of course be an apt place to end, though I could go on for pages and pages. But I’ll end by noting that I saw Merwin read—not once, but twice. I didn’t realize how fortunate I was, as he rarely gave readings (as far as I know). The first was some time around 1990, in Atlanta or thereabouts, and the second many years later in LA (where Merwin was introduced by the inimitable Stephen Yenser). He read “Lament for the Makers,” which at that time felt like a swan song, even though he still had many years ahead of him. In it, he recalled many of his poetic influences and friends, from Frost and Eliot to Wright and Merrill, who had recently died. It was truly an emotional performance—and that’s not what comes to mind when we think about Merwin. In part, it is a straightforward dirge, but in part, he considers how his efforts to carry on the tradition are doomed to failure, and how everything eventually comes to nothing. It is precisely the sort of sentiment that Buddhists are supposed to embrace, but in this poem, he seems to rebel against the Buddhist sentiment, if only for a moment (he also returns, ever so slightly, to the formalism of his younger days). It ends poignantly,

the best words did not keep them from
leaving themselves finally
as this day is going from me

and the clear note they were hearing
never promised anything
but the true sound of brevity
that will go on after me

Old gold

While I was searching through my shelf for Mary Oliver, I chanced to notice a book by Sharon Olds: The Gold Cell. I must’ve had it for a long time, but as I flipped through it, I realized that I had never really perused it. My loss—here’s another poet that everyone should read again and again.

It’s a long book, as far as poetry collections go, clocking in at 90 pages. It’s divided into four sections of thematically linked poems. The first section is something of a grab bag, including poems about the seamier side of life in NYC as well as meditations on the violence that underpins the human condition. Though many of these are engaging, they offer only a glimpse of the extremely powerful writing that is to come in the second section, which focuses on the poet’s early life with her father. Yes, the mother figures in, too, but mostly as a foil for the father.

The writing here exhibits what I most look for in poetry—a raw emotional intensity combined with a deft handling of form, even if the form is simply a tight narrative technique. This is old-school Confessional poetry, which can be truly moving when done right. Olds is a master of the extreme metaphor, as evidenced in the first poem of this section, “Saturn,” which compares her father to the titan devouring his kids. Goya’s painting immediately springs to mind, though this Saturn seems more pernicious; he does not simply swallow his children whole, but rather cracks them open like shellfish, needing not only to consume them but break them in the process: “My brother’s arm went in up to the shoulder / and he bit it off, and sucked at the wound / as one sucks at the sockets of a lobster.” The father is shown to be passed out on the couch every night, so perhaps alcoholism was part of the problem, though that is never expressly stated. A similar hint appears in a later poem, “June 24,” which states, “You died night after night in the years of my childhood, / sinking down into speechless torpor.”

One of the highlights of this section is “History: 13,” which describes the father coming home late one night covered in blood—perhaps from a bar fight? The cause is never made clear, though the image of the blood-covered father reoccurs in other poems, where the father assumes overtones of both victim and butcher. Plath famously compared her father to Hitler in “Daddy,” but in “History: 13,” Olds compares her father to Mussolini (who seems to be fading more and more from our collective memory). The effect, I’d argue, is more visceral in Olds’ poem, as it shifts seamlessly from the injury of father to the death of the dictator, whose body suffered all the abuse of a traumatized nation waking up from its war-torn nightmare. Just as the desecration of Mussolini’s body served as a watershed for Italy, so the unexplained violence against the father marks a defining moment in the poet’s life: “I turned my back / on happiness, at 13 I entered / a life of mourning.” In the last poems of this section, the poet achieves some sort of rapprochement with her parents—or at least their memory—and seems to reach a point where the tyranny of the past no longer controls her. Of course, such reconciliation can be oddly unsettling, necessitating a hefty dose of soul-searching. Olds makes this starkly evident in “After 37 Years My Mother Apologizes for my Childhood,” where she writes, “I could not / see what I would do with the rest of my life,” and later, “I hardly knew what I / said or who I would be now that I had forgiven you.” Even pain and anger can be hard to let go, when they’re the two qualities that have defined your entire life.

The third section pivots to more sensual concerns, with a lot of poems about sex, desired and consummated, in all its messy glory. These, too, tend to be unabashedly straightforward in their description. As I’ve said before, a straight man cannot write in such terms, using the same sort of diction and imagery, without inviting accusations of toxic masculinity. Of course, these poems were written 30 years ago, so prevailing sentiments were different. I’m sure they must’ve seemed even more scandalous at the time.

The final section completes a natural progression from the third; that one focused on making babies, the final one focuses on raising them. Some of these seem a bit self-indulgent, with references that presumably hold more meaning for the poet than the reader. Still, the description is masterful. I suppose that’s no surprise. Olds specializes in focusing on the smallest but most telling details, and as a parent, she’s predisposed to notice the infinite minutiae that define her kids. Consider these lines from “When My Son is Sick”:

… his skin going
pale gold as cold butter and then
turning a little like rancid butter till the
freckles seem to spread, black little
islands of mold…

I could’ve selected any passage nearly at random and found similarly engaging language. That deft turn of phrase is what I love about Olds. Annoyingly, though, I was recently working on a poem and composed a phrase that seemed perfect and unique, and smiled at my good fortune to have discovered it. Then, in reading this book, I found the exact same phrase! Olds had beaten me to it!

If I have any gripes at all with this book, I would say that it might’ve been even more powerful if it had been a bit shorter. Perhaps some of the poems in the first or fourth sections could have been omitted—though it would, admittedly, be hard to choose which ones. And what about that title? Well, there is a poem entitled “In the Cell” but that doesn’t seem representative of the collection overall. The cover shows a snake curled around a gold circle that resembles the sun. So on the one hand, it conveys a sort of alchemist aesthetic; but on the whole, it looks rather like an ovum, a round human egg cell, which makes a lot more sense, given the focus of the poems.

This was Olds’ third collection of poetry; other books received greater acclaim, but I’d say that this one ranks among the best of them. Even after 30 years, it has not lost its currency or freshness.

More lilies

I don’t want this to become an obituary blog, but I need to note the death of another of my poetic luminaries: May Oliver.

I think I first became acquainted with her work through the Poulin anthology, Modern American Poetry (the same can be said for a number of my favorite poets of the last generation). I felt an immediate affinity, as I considered myself (and still do) a nature poet at heart. Still, whereas I sometimes feel compelled to include the occasional human in my poems, Oliver did not.

I’ve been flipping through House of Light recently, and I’m struck by the general lack of human contact. Most of the poems stem from a walk by the poet through secluded woods and fields, and center on an observation made during the excursion. That may sound a bit formulaic—and OK, if I have one gripe with Oliver’s poetry, it’s that it is forumulaic—but the insights are beautifully rendered in sparse language that speaks directly to my inner sensibilities.

Sparse, direct, plain language is a defining feature of her poetry. She adores flowery plants, not flowery language. Adjectives are typically simple, and often simply indicate color. Interestingly, the main colors found in House of Light are white, black, and red, with occasional patches of green and blue. And again, it’s just “red,” not “blood red” or “cherry red” or scarlet or fuchsia—just “red.” She gets away with this partly because the objects she’s describing are so familiar, they hardly need describing at all. We all know what color is a crane, or a bear, or the sky; any attempt to portray them with more specificity would mar the image. I started flagging all the poems that mentioned white, black, or red, but I ran out of stickies.

And it’s not just colors that appear throughout. The familiar woodland creatures make multiple appearances: deer, cranes, owls, frogs—not to mention lilies, her favorite flower (lilies for Oliver are like ballerinas for Degas). These are not exotic creatures, and that’s partly the point. Nature is not what you find in zoos or on safari, it’s what you find in your own backyard. On the other hand, you don’t find many dogs, cats, and squirrels—such creatures are far too domesticated. Nature is not the antidote to civilization, it’s the default state. Buildings and structures and mechanical devices are the anomaly, and though they may distract us from our natural state, they do not erase it.

Her poems often convey the serenity of nature, which, on its own, does not typically change in human timescales. Death is ubiquitous, but it’s typically a quiet, and sometimes quick, death: a heron nabs a frog and moves on, a turtle gulps a duckling and is gone. And afterward, the quiet returns. Death is to be welcomed as an opportunity to return to the earth and set the cycle of life in motion again. In fact, when she declares in “Foxes in Winter,” “I never said / nature wasn’t cruel,” I’m suddenly taken aback by the defensiveness of the line and the surprising truth to it. Yes, she never said nature wasn’t cruel, but that’s because she didn’t need to; cruelty is a human construct, implying some sort of malicious intent or pleasure in someone else’s suffering. Nature can’t be cruel, though we may perceive it to be. She also says, perhaps with a bit irony, “I think this is / the prettiest world—so long as you don’t mind / a little dying.” Of course, most people do mind a little dying, especially when they’re the ones doing the dying.

I sometimes find myself starting to write a poem, but then stopping and saying, “Wait a minute, are you really going to write another poem about snakes? Shouldn’t you try something different?” Oliver’s work repudiates that advice. She returns to the same subjects, the same tropes, time and again, following a well-worn path through her poetic woods, literal and figurative. But as with a favorite hiking path, I never get tired of following her.

The Hall effect

The effusive obituaries and encomiums for Donald Hall have given me pause. He was, by most accounts, an “important” poet, part of the miraculous crew born in the mid- to late-1920s. He served as poet laureate for a time, and remained something of a revered public figure. He received the Frost Medal and Ruth Lilly prize, both for lifetime achievement. And yet, I could not name a single poem of his, let alone quote one. The only books of his on my shelf are Remembering Poets and its later revision, Their Ancient Glittering Eyes, which I recall greatly enjoying once upon a time. But as for the poetry itself? I had nothing. So, I turned to my floppy, well-worn copy of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, and was amused to discover that Hall had edited the first edition!

Perusing the poems, I vaguely recall reading them decades ago, but nothing really stuck with me. And, I must admit, the intervening years have not endowed them with any new and uncanny resonance. I still find them all rather pedestrian.

Hall was a vocal critic, and seemed to have little patience for poetry that did not comport with his tastes and preferences. But even if you agree with his assessments, it’s hard not to view them as the peevish pronouncements of a crotchety old man who just can’t understand these kids nowadays.

In fact, Hall was basically the poster child for white male privilege in the academy. Born in New Haven, he attended Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, and Stanford. He taught for a while at U. Michigan, but then retired to the family estate in New England. He served as The Paris Review’s first poetry editor. He was an advisor to the NEA during the senior Bush presidency and was named Poet Laureate by the junior.

Much has been made of his marriage to Jane Kenyon; perhaps it was happy and productive, but I, for one, find it distinctly icky when a college professor shacks up with an undergrad 20 years his junior. Surely an older academic should engage in some self reflection before plunging in to such a relationship—especially with his divorce so recent (or perhaps not even finalized) when it began. To be fair, Hall is not the only one with such a complicated personal history (Yeats, of course, comes to mind); but his relationship with Kenyon perhaps provide a lens through which to view his work, a lens defined by self-regard without self-awareness.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. Clearly, many people have a high opinion of his poetry. Maybe I simply haven’t read enough, but I can’t say that I share that assessment. On the other hand, he exhibited a profound influence on American poetry, and helped shape the debate about the value and function of poetry. Much of that debate—between the raw and the cooked, the well-wrought and the naked—was still going on during my formative years, and helped shape my own ideas about what makes a poem (or a poet) truly great.

A connecting principle

When I was younger, the Police popularized the concept of synchronicity, or the belief that an apparently random coincidence carries some sort of deep meaning or significance. Jung was of course beyond me at the time (though I would later take great interest in his theory of the collective unconscious), but synchronicity became a buzzword in every conversation (and a predictable prompt for charades). I also learned later that the song “Synchronicity II” owes a creative debt to Yeats, who held immense influence on my development as a poet. Can that just be a coincidence?

In any case, even if I hadn’t been listening to the Police again lately, I might still have latched on to the concept of synchronicity because in my last two journal publications, I shared space with another poet. I don’t think that’s ever happened before. The writer is Faith Shearin, and the odd confluence prompted me to grab her book, The Owl Question, from my shelf. That was her first book, published shortly before my own (in fact, it’s a safe assumption that I received the book because I also entered the May Swenson competition that year). The judge for the prize was Mark Doty, another poet I’ve always admired.

It was a great choice. Shearin’s poetry, even then, combined an unusual maturity with a youthful exuberance and sense of wonder. Many of the poems in this book look back on childhood events and memories with an eye that is not entirely critical or nostalgic. Rather, they read more like an examination or a documentary in which the poet seeks to explain—to herself, at least—how she came to be the person she is. One of my favorites in this vein is “Frogs,” which recounts a third-grade science exercise dissecting frogs. The poem bounces (leapfrogs?) around a bit, as her poems often do, providing bits of information that gradually form a larger picture. And the language is vivid: the frogs arrive “dead and soaked in formaldehyde / so they looked like wet vegetables dug up on some // other planet.” That fabulous description is another hallmark of Shearin’s work, as is the deft and unexpected turn of phrase. This poem, for example, extrapolates from dissecting the frog to dissecting her own life, with equal rigor but equivocal results: “And because of her I have taken my life apart many times, / to examine it, though I have never understood what it was.”

The first poem in the collection, “Piano Lesson,” ends on a similar crescendo: “I want to be like the girl upstairs who has braced / herself before a grand piano and taught her own blind fingers to sing.” Like many in the book, this poem speaks of both the unknown possibilities of life and the known tragedies—but it’s the optimism that wins out in the end. The view of an indifferent universe that piles life upon death shows up a lot, as in “Flat World,” which literally places a pregnant woman in a cemetery. Although wry social commentary is not a recurring trope, it is certainly on display in the line, “even without bodies, the rich slept better // than the poor.”

Which draws attention to another aspect of Shearin’s work. It is frequently quite personal, and tells of a genteel southern upbringing—but that family history is far from gothic, and the depictions never stray into caricature. In fact, it could be argued that the conventionality of her life became a source of underlying unease and self-doubt. We learn about her engagement and marriage in terms that are ambivalent, to say the least. In “Matrimony,” for example, she tries out the role of “wife” and finds it “like gaining / fifty pounds, all on my ass” (a phrase that is delightfully out of character in the book). Shearin also evokes the complicated mess of emotions that accompany pregnancy and birth in several poems, the most visceral being “Childbirth Revisited,” which conveys the sense of absurdity and helplessness when the one giving birth seems to have the least control over the entire situation.

The title poem puzzled me for a long time, until it finally dawned on me that it’s not a question about owls, it’s the question the owls ask: Who? Who are you really, in this world, which imposes such expectations and assumptions on you? How much of what you do—even falling in love—is the result of your own pure desires, your own pure persona, as opposed to the gestalt, the collective unconscious, you may have accepted without question or examination? “Surely I am pure beneath the layers I’ve grown for love.” Note that sentiment ends with a period, not a question mark—as though punctuation can differentiate between the real and ideal.

The world the Shearin grew up in was vastly different than mine, but I feel a strange affinity for her work. Granted, it is a bit more prosy than my usual fare, but it is carried off with grace and aplomb. Also, I think we can all get behind the desire for the world as “a picnic where the wine is free and sex / turns everyone to swans.”

Things of this world

How come no one told me?

I was flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers when I happened to glance at the “In Memoriam” column—and was somewhat stunned to see Richard Wilbur listed there. How is it that I did not know he died? How could I have missed something like that? (Well, I see that he died on a Saturday, so maybe there’s a lesson here: don’t die on a weekend if you want the public to notice.)

Wilbur ranks among my favorite poets, and was certainly an influence and inspiration for me (as I’m sure he was for many who followed in the “New Formalist” tradition). When did I first encounter his work? I vaguely recall reading “Praise in Summer” in my high-school textbook, Sound and Sense (back when it had an eye-assaulting neon-fuchsia cover—I may still have it somewhere), but I may be misremembering. In college, though, I started reading him in earnest in the pages of Poulin’s Contemporary American Poetry, which included, among others, “Hamlen Brook.” That poem was a revelation for me. It evinced a mastery of technique that I’ve been striving ever since to achieve, most notably in its vivid descriptive imagery (especially about the natural world) and the use of the unexpected but oddly juste word, the word you wouldn’t have thought to use, but after you see it, you couldn’t imagine using a different one. For example, “I lean to the water, dinting its top with sweat,” or “A startled inchling trout … Trawling a shadow solider than he.” Dinting?!?! Trawling?!?! Amazing! I remember sharing that poem with my girlfriend, who remarked, “You could’ve written that poem… Well, all except for the last stanza.” Well, yeah… the last stanza makes the poem, and I certainly couldn’t have written it. But it did make me start to understand that vivid description is not enough in itself—it must serve a greater purpose. “How shall I drink all this?” Wilbur writes. That’s the question I would not have though to ask, but the question that takes the poem beyond the beautiful into the sublime.

I have loved so many of his poems, and committed some to memory. “A Late Aubade” comes to mind (“I need not rehearse / the rosebuds-theme of centuries of verse…”). As an interesting sidenote, many of his poems make casual reference to certain touchstones of art and culture—e.g., Schoenberg’s serial technique, or Schliemann staring down on the crowns of Troy. In this way, he shares the genius of Merrill; but with Merrill, such references and nuances always bore a whiff of the patrician, the commonalities you learned by virtue of your station in life, not the hunger of your mind. Wilbur’s poetry, while certainly not plebeian, was more grounded in the things of this world. I could not imagine Wilbur playing around with a Ouija board, much less writing a book-length poem about one.

And who could forget “The Writer?” The richness of metaphor is astounding—even as he undercuts his own “easy figure.” And I suppose, in our electronic world, fewer readers will appreciate the way he likens the sound of a manual typewriter to a “chain hauled over a gunwale.” My keypad makes no such noice, though the typewriter that I learned on certainly did. And his pacing is impeccable: who doesn’t share in his exuberance, or feel his spirits rise, when the trapped bird suddenly clears “the sill of the world?”

Also remarkable about Wilbur, he could write for any audience. My kids encountered his work at an early age in books such as Opposites and The Disappearing Alphabet (Oh, do not let / anything happen to the alphabet!). It is a far journey indeed from that to Molière.

I learned in Wilbur’s obituary that he grew up not far from where I did, so perhaps that’s why a poem such as “Hamlen Brook” or “The Death of a Toad” or “A Grasshopper” speaks to me so directly. I can place myself completely in the scene; but I suspect I’d be able to, even if I didn’t have that sort of referent.

I will miss him. He was most surely called to praise, called by love to the things of this world: fountains, and insects, and train stations, and birds, and art, and sound, and legends. It was always a matter of life or death. The forsaken will not understand. Mr. Wilbur, I do not place much faith in a hereafter, but wherever you are, I wish you a lucky passage.