The Fine Print

I’m not dead—just busy. But I happened to steal a few minutes this past weekend to pop into a used bookstore (that is, the books are used. I presume the bookstore is, too) where I chanced upon a copy of George Bradley’s Terms to Be Met, which won the 1986 Yale Younger Poets Series, selected by James Merrill. I know I’ve encountered Bradley’s work in the past. Certainly, the titles of some of his books ring a bell—The Fire Fetched Down and Of the Knowledge of Good and Evil—but I don’t recall any specific poems. My loss, because these are wonderful poems. In some ways, they are emblematic of the mid 80s, combining something of a world-weariness with a wry wit. They also bridge the gap between the confessional and formalist modes, with an easy, colloquial delivery that often masks an astute structural underpinning. The first poem, “In Suspense,” is a fine example. The poem is occasioned by a trip across the Verrazano bridge. The language itself is soaring—no aversion to multisyllabic words here—though the tone conveys a slightly bemused self-effacement:

…We hadn’t been paying attention
To much besides a perception of ourselves
As puny and audacious, caught in a monumental

The form is itself the “monumental undertaking,” structurally symmetrical as the bridge itself. The end-words of the first 13 lines become the end-words for the final 13, though played in reverse. The middle (14th) line ends in the word “summit.” I’ve discussed poems like this before (and have even written some), but this is among the earliest instances I’ve encountered. In this way, Bradley is somewhat of a harbinger for the later school of “neo-formalists,” who did not simply revive traditional forms but sought (seek?) to create new forms, to bridge the river between medium and message. Bradley even dapples in concrete poetry. “Life as We Know It” is shaped like a circle on the page—or more specifically, a sphere, which comes to represent not only our planet but the ideal or most efficient form of matter. “The Old Way of Telling Time” assumes the shape of an hourglass. That in itself is not remarkable, but the genius in this poem lies at it’s very heart, as the last word of the top part of the hourglass is broken to become also the first word of the bottom part. But wait, it gets better: the word is hyphenated—and the hyphen occupies the midpoint of the hourglass. Wow.

Also remarkable is the way Bradley weaves cosmology into his work. I don’t know how much of this science had entered into pop culture (the book predates Hawking’s A Brief History of Time), but it’s intriguing to see references to Planck time, or the ruminations on the various stages of a star’s life—red giants, blue giants, white dwarves, and black holes. I can’t help wonder if that red, white, and blue is a coincidence, especially as they lead ineluctably toward the black hole at the end or in the center of everything. And yet, these science-inspired meditations are found alongside poems about vestiges of antiquity, of ancient cities and marvels such as Alexandria and Hagia Sofia, and bucolic destinations dotted throughout the Adriatic. It’s no wonder that Merrill selected this book–much of it seems an homage to Merrill himself.

And speaking of Merrill, I was intrigued by an inscription on the title page, which seems to read, “To Priam, from James.” Attached, as it is, to the “Foreword by James Merrill” type, I can’t help wondering whether I have stumbled across a book signed by Merrill. In comparing it to other signatures, there is a definite similarity, but unfortunately, no last name. I’ll have to consult an expert. Regardless, I’m delighted to have chanced upon Terms to Be Met, which is definitely a book to be read. Again and again.

The title page of my book.

The title page of my book.

Merrill signature

Samples of Merrill’s signature from about the same time period.

The simple truth

Philip Levine has died. That is the simple—the brutal—truth. I first encountered his work in the pages of a red anthology, which served as our textbook in Roger Gilbert’s modern poetry seminar at Cornell, back in the late ’80s (I still might have that book on my shelf somewhere). I remember taking great joy in the poem, “Animals are Passing From Our Lives,” with it’s bleak, defiant, somewhat mocking, and unexpected ending: “No. Not this pig.” It’s a phrase I still repeat to myself in certain situations. Similarly, “They Feed They Lion” made an impression, with the driving urgency of its language. But though these earlier works were remarkable in their own right, they barely hinted at what he would later achieve in What Work Is. For me, and many other young male poets, that book was a revelation. It deeply influenced everything I wrote thereafter, as it probably did for the likes of B.F. Fairchild, Joseph Millar, and others who would be hypnotized by the force and muscularity of his verse. Thin, taut, the cascade of lines carried the reader down the page, dragged the reader into a world that was far removed from the effete ivory towers of academia. But though they were powerful, I would not call his poems raw, for they were in fact impeccably engineered. Certainly, they taught me the importance of cadence, and the sense that you could not work on a particular line without considering every line that came before it, and the collective rhythm of the poem. I was also struck by what could only be called a dismissive attitude, a tone that said, “this is important, so forget you, if you can’t relate.” Levine also illustrated the difference between the personal and the confessional, as well as the distinction between honesty and truth; history is subjective, and therefore, so is truth—but the honesty with which we embrace that truth must be incontestable. And of course, the characters themselves, straight out of story by Isaac Babel! Nobody else was writing about such people at the time, with the intimacy that comes from first-hand knowledge and the wisdom that comes from detached regard. His politics were also out of the mainstream. As a young man, he had been an ideological communist, espousing the belief that “property is theft,” and displayed an apparent bond with the anti-fascists in Spain. This, too, influenced my work at the time.

Side note: Shortly after the publication of What Work Is, Levine gave a reading at a small bookstore in LA. I don’t remember now whether he was promoting that book, or the next one, The Simple Truth, but is strange to think now that he was still reading to sparse crowds at such a venue. But though I had devoured the book, I had never seen him in person. So, I was expecting this brooding hulk of a man, a steelworker or truck driver, with a stentorian voice like that of James Earl Jones. Instead, here was this wiry little guy with a whiny little voice. The incongruity was unsettling. It also intrigues me to think of him in the cattle burb of Fresno in California’s central valley, ground zero for the migrant farm-labor industry, about as far as you can get from the grimy confines of Detroit and the hearty eastern European stock that took root there. But perhaps it’s the vast open spaces there (ever redolent of dung and fertilizer) that focused his mind and verse.

It’s a shame that I often don’t revisit a poet’s work until I hear that they’ve died. But in this case, I’m looking forward to pulling those books off my shelf and reliving my early joy in discovering them.

Southern messenger

Another great loss, which I failed to notice, distracted as I was by the frenzy of the holidays and subsequent slide into the new year. Claudia Emerson died of cancer in December, but I only just found out about it. We went to grad school together, at UNC-G, from ’89 to ’91. Our class was small, so we got to know each other pretty well, though our temperaments and situations were vastly different. In fact, looking back, she probably found me rather annoying, but (mostly) put up with me good-naturedly. She took her work seriously, and (though I didn’t realize it at the time) viewed her presence in the program as a wondrous gift that could not be squandered. I, on the other hand, was much younger, and had only graduated college a year or two before joining the program. I still very much had an undergrad mentality—work hard, yes, but don’t forget to have fun. I was the Jarrell Fellow that first year, and it probably irked a few of my classmates to see that honor given to someone with such a dubious work effort (of course, I was working—diligently—but I never let anyone see that). As for Claudia, she had been waitlisted for the program. How could that be? I don’t know. Perhaps she simply didn’t have any contacts in the poetry world. She was not yet widely published, though that was soon to change. In an effort to enhance her chances of getting in off the waitlist, she started submitting her work everywhere, she told me. And the acceptances started rolling in. We were all a bit stunned and chagrined to see her work appearing in some of the premier journals of the day during our second year in Greensboro. That year, she also began editing The Greensboro Review, along with her close friend Kathleen Driskell. I remember being somewhat disgruntled—I thought the job would be offered to me, as the Jarrell Fellow. I was so clueless, I didn’t realize that: a), they didn’t just offer it—you had to pursue it, and b) the job required a good deal of work, and I suppose my reputation in that regard was already well established. In any case, she and Kathleen did a great job of it. That year, Claudia, Kathleen, and I did an independent study with Prof. Tom Kirby-Smith. He was, strictly speaking, not part of the writing faculty, but did write poetry, and taught classes in poetry and prosody. When I look back at my time in Greensboro, it’s those mornings that I remember most, and most fondly. Kathleen and Claudia would swing by my house in Kathleen’s Volvo, and we’d all sit together in Tom’s genteel sitting room, sometimes treated to tea and cookies by his wife. On warm mornings, we’d sit outside by the flower garden. And we’d read and discuss poetry, not just our own, but anyone we’d discovered, or who Tom thought we should know about.

Claudia’s basic voice and style were already established, and she was developing greater range and complexity. My poetry was awful, but I was excited by it, because I was trying new things, pursuing new experiments, most of which failed admirably. I remember one very long poem I wrote about a river flooding around a farmhouse. I knew nothing about the subject, but it was hard not to be influenced by the perceived trials of the rural south in such an environment. Claudia, who knew a thing or two, had written notes all over her copy. I don’t think she was planning to give me her written comments, but Tom asked us all to share them when we had them. She was so apologetic, but I must say, her critiques were spot on. I’m sure that none of us ever dreamed that one of us would one day be honored with a Pulitzer prize. I don’t think anything I wrote in Greensboro made it into my first book, but I think (though my memory is not always reliable) that I first encountered some of the poems in Pharaoh, Pharaoh in Tom’s sitting room. In fact, I remember when the book was first published. I was living by then in Oakland, CA. We hadn’t been in touch much, but I still had her phone number. I called to congratulate her, and ended up speaking with her first husband, as she was out of the house. I don’t know if she ever got the message.

I’ll finish with a snippet of poetry from her first book. To do justice to her early work, I should present something with cows in it—cows figured prominently in her poems, and became oddly emblematic (there’s a paper topic for you, students!). But instead, I will finish up with the second stanza of “Bait,” which has stuck with me for many years:

But when you slide the earthworm like a stocking
over the sharp toe, the smooth curve
of this wicked, hooked leg, tell me again how
the bloodless vessel feels no pain as you pierce
the first of its abundant hearts.

Corners of the Mouth

Another new anthology arrived in the mail recently: Corners of the Mouth: A Celebration of Thirty Years at the Annual San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival. As the name implies, the book is a collection of poems from folks (like me) who have read at the annual SLO poetry fest. It’s a fairly hefty tome, weighing in at about 400 pages—so I must confess that I have not read every single piece yet. But I probably will, eventually. It’s a remarkable collection, and though not all of the poets are from California, the overwhelming majority of them certainly are. In that regard, it’s an intriguing view of contemporary California poetry. The poets are arranged alphabetically—perhaps not the most imaginative scheme, but it does produce some intriguing juxtapositions. I was a bit surprised at how many poets were unknown to me—though perhaps that’s to be expected: poetry in California still has a connotation of being outside the mainstream, off on the margins, and decidedly counter-culture. One such poet is Nixson Borah, whose “Back from Old Country” is one of the stand-out poems for me (at least, of those that I’ve read so far). His keen eye for imagery and metaphor is something that I try to cultivate in my own work. He describes a blossoming plum tree’s “pearl-embroidered dress,” and the individual flowers as “faint photographs punctuated / with dots for eyes and mouth.” I also love the language and sound of “the oaks are gnarled, / arthritic, lichen-flecked” and “frog song resounds.” I was also moved by Edward Martin’s “The Barracks Game,” which dispassionately recounts his experience as a bomber in WWII. The poem stands among any that have been written on the topic.

A few sweeping generalizations can also be made about California poetry, based on this collection. For one thing, it does not favor formal meter and rhyme–though stanzas are in vogue. It is deeply rooted in place, and takes inspiration from the stunning and unforgiving landscapes, from the coastal cliffs to the inland valley. California poets are also in conversation with each others. And I’m not just talking about the occasional epigram or dedication—something about these poems, collectively, seems self-referential. Perhaps it’s the influence of natives and transplants such as Larry Leavis and Phillip Levine. Perhaps it’s because poets in California are social, or lonely, and have to seek each other out. A quick look at the poet biographies indicates that most are not full-time college professors (or at least, choose not to emphasize that), while a surprising number edit literary journals. There is an undercurrent of activism, literary and social, that connects many in this anthology.

The editors, Kevin Patrick Sullivan (who started and still runs the poetry festival) and Patti Sullivan, have included a listing of all the festival participants by year. It’s curiously interesting to read through the names. At least one, Glenna Luschei, appears on both the first and final rosters.

I love the midstate region, up around SLO and Paso Robles, and am always happy for an excuse the get up there. Of course, if I actually lived there, I’m not sure how much poetry I’d get written. There’s really no need for poetry in heaven (which makes it all the more remarkable that SLO has such a vibrant poetry scene).

Perfume of embraces all him assailed

I recently received my contributor’s copy of The Book of Scented Things, edited by Jehanne Dubrow and Lindsay Lusby. This collection arises from an intriguing conceit: the editors sent small vials of perfume to a bunch of poets and asked them to write something inspired by the scent. The book is remarkable for the range of styles represented. I asked the editor if she had simply sent solicitations to every poet on the PEN roster, but she assured me we were all specifically selected. (The roster is decidedly “mid-career,” as most of the poets have published only two to three books.) I dutifully dabbed some on my wrist, and was immediately transported back in time—not surprising, considering the well established link between scent and memory. When I was finished with my “research,” I gave the vial to my daughter, who probably still has it safely tucked in a box of rare and secret treasures. Perhaps one day she’ll chance upon it, unscrew the cap, and recall her own wonder-struck childhood?

In any case, I was pleased to find a good many of my favorite contemporaries represented in the book. Some of them have already been mentioned on this blog, but today, I’d just like to focus on Patrick Phillips. Of all the fine poems in this collection, his “Green Irish Tweed” was among the highlights for me. The poem is very loosely a villanelle, though Phillips takes great liberties with the form. And the form is perfect for the subject, as memory is itself repetitive, cyclical, unlikely to travel in straight lines. The repeating lines are never repeated verbatim, and are therefore suggestive of the way that remembering is also rewriting.

The scene is simple enough: the speaker, now a middle-aged man, is transported back and forth from the present to an instance in his boyhood, when he stood in front of the bathroom mirror, touching—fetishizing—his father’s shaving tools, his razor and cologne. There is a sense of compassion and nostalgia for the boy’s innocence and awe that completely avoids sentimentality. The details are stark, concrete, and familiar, which fosters a strong connection for the reader (or for me, at least). What boy never took his father’s razor and pretended to shave, acting out the true motions of manhood? And yet, the beauty, the mystery, lies in what is missing, what remains unsaid and left for the reader to surmise—as in, “Your brother still lovely, your father still strong.” The understanding is that, 30 years later, the brother and father are not lovely or strong. It’s the reader’s job to consider the reasons. And think of what a powerful and unusual word that is to describe a brother—lovely. And yet, just a few lines earlier, the brother is described as being (or at least being with) someone “totally totally stoned.” Regardless, I doubt I’ve ever described my brother as lovely. Also left to the imagination is the actual father. We have his artifacts, but not the man. Even his face is not his own, as it has been supplanted by the poet’s face: “In the mirror, you’re still forty-one / wearing a face that your father wore then.” His absence is made all the more acute by the final line: “Where you breath, and your father comes home.” On the one hand, this is all wish-fulfillment. But deeper, it’s a recognition of the passing and cycling of time. When the father “comes home,” it is in fact the son who sees himself as the father. Another thing I love about this poem is the superposition of time, as it’s not always clear what’s in the present and what’s in the past. Rather than causing cognitive strife, this opens up layers of complexity, as the sense of the poem changes based on the reading (and rereading). Odd to say, but this poem reminded me of another favorite (but very different) poem—”Encounter,” by Czeslaw Milosz, which ends,

O my love, where are they, where are they going
The flash of a hand, streak of movement, rustle of pebbles.
I ask not out of sorrow, but in wonder.

I had been planning to write about Phillips’ first book of poems, Chatahoochie, for some time now, and may still do so in the future. For now, let me simply give it my highest recommendation. And, of course, let me also give a plug for The Book of Scented Things. There is probably no better compendium of mid-career American poets on the market right now.

Who am I to judge

So, I’ve been serving as a preliminary judge for a poetry book competition. I definitely had no idea what I was getting myself into. There are nearly 250 manuscripts, and my job, along with my two fellow readers, is to narrow that down to 10 finalists and forward them on to the final judge (who presumably has much better name recognition than I do). I’ve been through the process many times as a submitter, but never as a judge. The experience has definitely given me better insight in how it all really works. Let’s start with some simple math. Assume 250 manuscripts have been submitted, and each is 50 pages long. That’s 12,500 pages to read. If you skimmed them all at 1 page per minute, that would take more than 200 hours, or five full 40-hour weeks. So, unfortunately, you can’t read every page, at least not the first time through. At best, you can spend 5 or 10 minutes per manuscript, which translates into roughly 20 to 40 hours. My basic approach is to read the first two poems, and the last poem. If the collection is named after a particular poem, I make sure to read that one, too. Otherwise, I pick a few more at random. Sometimes, it’s clear that the collection will never be ready for publication, and the decision can be made to move on fairly quickly. Sometimes, the collection is clearly above par, and again, an initial verdict can be made without spending much more time. More often, though, the collection is clearly competent and complete, but it lacks that ineffable spark that distinguishes it from the rest. And those are the ones that take the most time–I read much more of them, to see whether I have missed something, or just happened to pick some of the weaker poems to read. Many of these are clearly first manuscripts, and really just need the help of an objective and dispassionate editor. But it’s not my job to edit. I suppose that’s one of the hallmarks of competition books–they need to be complete as is, because the judges can’t assume that they will be further refined by the publisher’s developmental editor (if there even is such a person).

While the task is indeed daunting, I have found it to be a pleasant diversion from my usual routine. The act of judging other poems has made me more critical of my own (if that’s even possible). When I see what I consider to be a missed opportunity or generally weak writing, I ask myself whether (or how often) I have made the same mistake. I also have a more concrete notion of what I don’t like in poetry, although it’s harder to codify what I do like. For example, I don’t like parentheses (in poems–they’re fine in blog posts). If something is important enough to include in a poem, it should be faced straight on. I don’t like religious imagery or biblical references. For one thing, they’re too facile. They’re ready-made. That’s also what limits their range and effectiveness. Similarly, although I prefer classical myths to biblical ones, there’s probably not much that a young poet can do with Orpheus and Odysseus that hasn’t already been done. I don’t like the use of ampersands to replace the word “and.” It’s distracting, and just seems juvenile. I don’t like poems that address an unnamed “you.” If you want to address a particular person, write a letter. I don’t like the use of the word “so” as an adjective (a peeve I share with Richard Hugo). And I typically don’t care for poems written from a child’s perspective. It seems a cop-out, an excuse for not trying to fully engage with the subject at hand. I don’t like poems about poems and poetry and writing. That just seems like the height of narcissism.

Of course, I’m by no means dogmatic, and I frequently find exceptions to the rules. For example, I generally don’t care for ghazals (which seem to be the sestina of the modern age), but I found a few in these manuscripts that impressed me. In fact, I’m often most intrigued by poems that violate my list of “don’ts” but still manage to hold my attention.

And what does hold my attention? Engaging language. Empathy. A distinct and perhaps unusual perspective. And, of course, honesty. A good poem is one that won’t let me stop reading until the end. And I’m not talking about morbid curiosity. I’m talking about a visceral connection from writer to reader that can’t be severed without both parties losing something vital.

As with most things, my experience as a judge has been both depressing and inspiring. It’s disheartening to think of all the people writing poetry in a world that does not particularly value it. And it’s inspiring to see that they continue nonetheless. And while I consider it a disservice to encourage anyone to pursue poetry as a life ambition, I definitely want to support anyone crazy or desperate enough to try. Young poets deal with a lot of disappointment, and I hate to make matters worse. That’s why I’ve had a different scale in mind as I read these manuscripts: not “yes,” “maybe,” and “no,” but rather “yes,” “maybe,” and “don’t lose hope.”

News that stays

I recently shared the limelight with an LA poet and artist, Jen Hofer. We read together at Cal Plaza as the culmination of our City of Los Angeles (COLA) literary fellowships. We made an unlikely pairing—I gave a rather staid and traditional poetry reading, while she premiered a performance piece in which she and her cohorts read a poetic re-scripting of scenes from Polanski’s “Chinatown,” which were looped without sound (mostly). It was an intriguing presentation, though it’s impossible for me to view such “neo-benshi” without thinking of Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily.”

Since then, I’ve been perusing Hofer’s chapbook, Front Page news. The book is a work of art in itself—hand-stitched, with a silkscreened fabric cover. But though the chapbook is small, the poetic conceit is large: Every day for a year, from birthday to birthday, Hofer created a poem by excising all but a few words from the front page of the local newspaper wherever she happened to be that day. The newsprint is glued to an old-style ledger of some sort, and this is another feature that makes the chapbook such a joy to hold. The concept of erasure is of course not new—I first encountered in back in the ’80s in Ronald Johnson’s Radios, which was an erased version of Paradise Lost. But while Johnson’s work seemed more like an academic exercise, tailor-made to suit the deconstructionist zeitgeist of the day, Hofer’s is more firmly rooted in the seamy world at large. The use of a newspaper as the substrate conveys an odd sense of urgency mixed with banality. Pound famously declared that “literature is news that stays news.” In Hofer’s case, the news is literature that stays literature.

The chapbook only includes two weeks worth of poems, in April and May of 2011, which are remarkable for their repetition. Does the news ever really change? Have we all become so inured to tragedy that we fail to see it repeating or proliferating day by day? I don’t know Hofer’s actual birthday, so I can’t say whether the chapbook begins with her preliminary birthday poem, but it was certainly an eventful two weeks. The limitless war on terror was still in full swing, so words such as “war,” “kill,” “force,” and similar terms dominate the poems. More significantly, the time span includes May 2, 2011, when front pages across the country trumpeted the killing of Osama Bin Laden (Hello, NSA! Welcome to the blog!). It also includes Shakespeare’s birthday, though through some strange oversight, that failed to make the front page.

Hofer was (I think) born in 1971, so 2011 would’ve marked her 40th year. It’s probably just a coincidence, but the poems average about 40 words apiece. It’s more likely, of course, that the word count was not intentional, but informed by an imagist or zen sensibility that seeks to convey the grandest truths in the fewest words. Unlike Radios, Front Page News erases a text set in multiple columns, and takes advantage of the format. There is not always a linear progression down the page, and no grammatical sentence structure. Words and phrases can be read in several directions, rightward and downward, or as loosely connected but isolated images and phrases. At times, the format can be reminiscent of refrigerator-magnet poetry—but at its best, it conveys a progression of ideas that gain significance as they build, ultimately revealing a consciousness shaped by a sense of dread, horror, outrage, and impotence. It is hard to quote such poems—not just because of the uncertain line breaks, but because the physicality of the medium is part of the meaning, much as it is for concreate poetry—but the May 2 installment is worth attempting. The “title” comes from the headline (set in a huge pont size the dwarfs everything else): “Kills.” The poem reads: “terror / murder / death / war / terror / fighters / and / terror / days / ravaged / grim / violence / and / terror fact / killed / killed in the city / killed   killed   killed / killed / fight     forces / attacks   death     war     a corpse / crowds / the / people / dark streets / the former   World / bitter / still.” The result is a damning summation of our entire imperialist endeavor. And as in the best Deep Image poetry, the lack of punctuation expands, rather than confounds, our understanding. The ending of this poem is fine example, allowing the dual readings, “the former world still bitter” and “the former world bitter and still.” Even focusing on the single word, “still,” we get—depending on our own mindset—a sense of continuation, as of something still happening, or conclusion, as in the stillness of death.

Front Page News is probably not available on Amazon or in your local bookshop—because it’s more than a book. Perhaps that’s just the direction we’re headed, where books will become more than just another exchangeable container for words, but artifacts and objets d’art in their own right. Certainly, Front Page News fits (or should I say breaks?) that mold.

Something we can feel

I was writing a small poem recently that had a pair of recurring lines–it seemed like a triolet, but not quite. To remind myself of the exact rhyme scheme of a triolet, I turned not to a stodgy textbook but to The Shifting Line, the debut collection by a master of the form, Chelsea Rathburn. Indeed, there are at least half a dozen triolets in the book. One might suggest that Rathburn is single-handedly trying to revive or rescue this increasingly rare form, often neglected in favor of its more familiar cousins, the villanelle and pantoum. (OK—maybe not single-handedly: Stallings also achieved wide recognition for her triolet beginning, “Why should the devil get all the good tunes…”)

What I love about repetition (aside from its ability to satisfy my OCD impulses) is how it demonstrates, literally, an odd fact of phenomenology: when you really look at something, it ceases to be what it was, or what you assumed it was. Stare at your hand long enough and it takes on an uncanny “otherness.” Likewise, when you repeat the same line, it takes on different meaning every time. And this is a quality that I find in my favorite contemporary poems–the ability to say something quite simple that is completely true on more than one level. In modern politics, the conventional wisdom seems to be that if you say something often enough–even if it is a baldfaced lie–people will start to believe it. Repetition in poems functions in the opposite manner: say something often enough, and it becomes entirely suspect. Consider, for example, Bishop’s “the art of losing isn’t hard to master.” Perhaps, in this way, the form demonstrate’s Auden’s assertion that poetry “makes us more difficult to deceive.”

The triolet is also one of those forms that showcases the writer’s skill (or lack thereof). Deceptively easy, it has only eight lines, and only five of those are unique. Well, not quite–the skill comes in knowing how to alter those repeating lines for maximal effect. For example, “Home Maintenance” begins, “Charred cords, bad lines, the smell of something burning, / and currents we can’t see but must repair.” By the final line, that’s been changed to “currents we can feel but can’t repair.” The negation, “can’t,” is still there, but it’s moved, changing the determination of the earlier line to the resignation of the last. Also, “can’t see” becomes “can feel.” On one level, the change is dictated by moving the word “can’t.” But it also makes the sensation more visceral. Also, the negation works in an interesting way. The phrase “currents we can’t see” implies a desire to be able to see them, whereas “currents we can feel” implies a desire not to feel them. I’m not sure why this work, or whether it appears that way to every reader, but it certainly does to me.

This poem, by the way, is largely representative of the book overall, which often focuses on domestic unease and “the woe that is in marriage.” (That’s Lowell, not Rathburn). The title of this poem, for example, speaks not just of the need to keep up an aging house, but to service a tenuous home–that is, the domestic relationship. The poem is ostensibly about an effort to fix a burnt fuse–and the reader can’t help feel that it was written after somebody “blew a fuse.”

Carrying this theme further, several poems pick up on the Orpheus myth from the perspective of newly disillusioned Eurydice, and still others treat the newlywed subjects of a Van Eyck painting. The most poignant, to me, are the poems that focus on an unnamed teenage daughter. These are still tinged with frustration and fear, but they are manifestly different from the emotions that bubble up in the spousal poems; it is a tender frustration, one that hits home without sentimentality. They certainly add depth to what could’ve been a one-dimensional (though equally gripping) collection.

When you are ode and gray and full of sleep

The Winter holidays have again brought a sublime and blessed abundance. Three of my favorite journals have all arrived within weeks of each other to help me through the bleak and blurry embers of the year: Cave Wall (12), River Styx (90), and Hampden-Sydney Poetry Review (39).

One thing I love about these (and other) journals is the personal connection that the editor has to the poetry, and to the readers. This always comes through in the editor’s letter, which opens up each issue and sets the reader’s expectations. It also shows the connections among the journals, which probably should not come as a surprise, as they seem to favor a similar aesthetic. For example, Cave Wall opens with a poem by Nathaniel Perry. He’s the editor of Hampden-Sydney. The River Styx poetry competition in this issue was judged by Terrence Hayes; his work also appears in the latest Hampden-Sydney (I’ve never met him, though we shared the National Poetry Series honor in 2002). I also see that Renee Soto has joined the staff of Cave Wall. She was the editor of the short-lived magazine, roger (she’s also a fellow UNCG alum).

And speaking of UNC, I was pleased to find two poems by Michael McFee opening up River Styx. He hasn’t lost his gift for poignant yet whimsical nostalgia. It’s fitting that he open up an issue dedicated to the American ode. It’s remarkable how many poems have “ode” in the title, and I wonder whether they were written or renamed specifically for this themed issue, or whether they were composed independently. I particularly love Jim Tilley’s “Ode to a Martini,” a drink which does indeed merit a dry sonnet, smugly stirred. Another standout is Lee Upton’s “Love’s Ode,” and I love the device of taking a piece of each metaphor to craft a new metaphor (hard to illustrate without reprinting the entire poem). George Bilgere is certainly not the first to trawl for meaning in the preparation and consumption of a lobster, but he does so with a buttery richness, capping his ode with a description of “their red steaming vaults / ready to be plundered.” Niamh Corcoran gives us a different kind of love/hate ode in “A Love Affair.” The poem is a lush and exuberant indulgence in the patois of the English language, with its history of assimilating foreign words (in that way, the language becomes the synecdoche of empire). The turn comes in the last two lines, when the plundered language is Irish. It is probably no coincidence that some of our greatest English writers were in fact Irish, writing in what is essentially the language of the subjugator, and many if not most Irish writers have had a troubled relation to it. River Styx also includes a poem by Joan Murray in an obscure and intriguing form known as the cento—a poem composed entirely of lines from other poems. This is the sort of form that must appeal to poets who read and memorize great poems (and I’m somewhat surprised that I’ve never attempted one). One the one hand, it is severely constrained and contrived, but on the other hand, deliciously random. And as a reader, it’s fun to recognize the lines and the myriad associations they induce.

In a sense, several of the poems in Cave Wall can be considered odes, including several focused on the father figure. Bruce Bond’s “Ground Zero” is one such ode, juxtaposing the destruction of the Twin Towers with his father’s illness or operation in a hospital. And Perry’s “In Bloom, Where the Meadow Rises,” has some fabulous imagery. In The Triggering Town, Richard Hugo presents some of his rules for writing poetry; one that has always stuck with me suggests that the word “so” should never be used as an adverb unless it sets up a larger subordinate clause. Perry applies that admonition to great effect in lines such as “a field so bleached with drought the giant cross / of shadows from the pines is friction enough / to set the day on fire.”

Robert Wrigley’s “Tinnitus” in Hampden-Sydney is at once a nostalgic ode to the pay phone, but on retrospect, speaks more generally to the alienation and lack of intimacy in a world where personal communication is ubiquitous, and in which the excess of connection spawns its opposite, where speech is reduced to a dull white noise. Though not a cento, the poem does lift a few lines verbatim from the past, notably Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” and Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse.” Appropriate, perhaps, considering those poets’ inability to connect with Margaret and Maude. I was also singularly impressed by Craig Challender’s “Alzheimer’s Cookout.” I had already read it three or four times before I even realized the poem is a sestina. And again, an appropriate form, given the subject matter, as the repetition (with variation) accentuates the struggle of the central figure to reconstruct a cohesive narrative of the past-into-the-present, or even to remember simple words and names. I love the way the poet actually leaves words out, and represents them simply by blanks, as in “with the _______________ sponging open her hand.” The reader becomes complicit in the process of creation, and I wonder whether the poet had specific words in mind or not.

Many more in this issue deserve more than a shout-out—Eamon Grennan’s “Camouflage,” Don Johnson’s “Hazard,” Hannah Craig’s “Turkeys”—but that’s all I’ve got time for today. The new year is pacing by the door, jiggling its keys in its hands, impatient to get on the road.

Dig with it

Heaney today. Hollander two weeks ago. The world of poetry has grown a bit smaller.

I had the good fortune to see Heaney just a few months ago, at the AWP conference in Boston. I missed his reading, regretfully, but I attended a conference session that was essentially a tribute to him. He was in the audience, and said a few words at the podium following the presentations, seemingly bemused by the effusive encomiums. I believe it is a peculiar ability of the Irish to appear grave and dignified and puckish and homespun all at once.

I remember my first encounter with his poetry, years (OK, decades) ago. It was through an anthology—I don’t remember whether it was specifically an anthology of Irish poetry or simply contemporary poetry in English. I must confess my ambivalence after reading the opening of “Digging,” which reads, “Between my finger and my thumb / the squat pen rests, snug as a gun.” Squat pen? Snug as a gun? How awful, I thought, how amateurish, how polemical. And what does a gun have to do with the following bucolic scene of digging potatoes and turf? And yet, those words have never left me. And of course, guns were certainly part of the local environment. And I subsequently dug into more of his work, particularly Station Island. Here was a man who loved language, and had the benefit(?) of two rich traditions, the Irish and the English. During the early part of the past century, the Irish language was kept alive as an act of political defiance (it was in fact banned under British rule). And even those who did not speak it could not help but absorb some of its structure and mannerism. Of course, Heaney’s Irish tradition was different than mine. He was there, in the North, whereas my ancestors fled to America. And my ancestors didn’t live in the occupied counties. And of course, Heaney was anything but polemical. Perhaps one virtue of loving two languages is that you can’t hate the people that speak them. And the poems that were infused unavoidably with violence and politics were complicated and conflicted—as befitting the subject matter.

I consider myself, at heart, a Nature poet, so I was of course gripped by poems such as “Death of a Naturalist,” which conveyed the visual scene though its deft imagery and conveyed the sounds and sense through the language itself. Who could not love the guttural consonance of “Bubbles gargled delicately,” or the echoes through “bluebottles,” “spotted,” “slobber,” and “clotted” in the next few lines, or the “strong gauze of sound” with its smashed-together velars? And in describing the frogs with their “blunt heads farting,” he marries the highbrow and the low, the poetic and the vernacular, the serious and the childish. My own poem “Mosquito Spawn” was surely influenced by “Death of a Naturalist,” which probably introduced me to the word “spawn” to describe a clutch of eggs (Heaney’s poem mentions “frogspawn” twice).

Even in “Naturalist,” Heaney’s sense of the Anglo-Saxon tradition is evident, so it’s not surprising that his translation of Beowulf immediately became the definitive version. I’ll never forget opening that book and being stopped by the very first word. As many readers know, the “Hwaet” the starts the story is in fact an aberration from the strict form that follows. And translators have tried various ways to present it. But nobody ever really captured it. Heaney’s solution? “So.” I know that seems simple, even obvious. But no one had done it before. And in that one word, that one syllable, he set the entire scene, evoking an image of an old-timer waiting for the perfect moment to start his story, silencing the rapt kids clustered around the hearthfire.

* * * * *

In other news, the paperwork has been submitted, so I can now say that I’ve been awarded a 2014 COLA fellowship from the City of Los Angeles. It’s kind of like the city’s version of an NEA grant. So I will have to stop saying that this city does not care about poetry. I might even give a reading or two in town.