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In the Days of New Wonder – Okla Elliott

Nikola Tesla watched a brown bear
climb the persimmon tree
and shake her snout
at the sour bites she took.
He nursed
his sickness
by an open window,
seeing death in stellar signals.
The brown bear
climbed down and gamboled
to Tesla’s darkened frame and snorted
her animal displeasure.
This is why
he did not sharpen the razor
purchased secondhand for loneliness.

This is how electricity made a home
in his disintegrating mind.

*

okla2This week I’d like to use this space to celebrate the work of poet, translator, essayist, and critic Okla Elliott who passed away earlier this week. While his death was surprising, the outpouring of fond reminisces and informal testimonials to his enthusiasm and belief in writing more than reflect the man I knew briefly.

Okla and I became friends when I reached out to do a review of his book of translations. Since then, we corresponded via email and social media. He was always encouraging about my review work, quick to emphasize the value of doing the work of literary citizenship and community. It’s the kind of encouragement that keeps one from feeling lost in the world. I remain ever grateful for that.

The two poems I share this week highlight some of the range Okla explored in his poetry. In the poem above, the directness and subtle richness of description quickly moves a narrative about the inventor Tesla into the realm of something fantastical. The reader follows the lyric’s logic and is left with the “electricity” of the poem in their minds, a sense of something almost glimpsed, and charged with meaning.

In the poem below, rich detail plays a central role again. Here, however, what the poem would have us glimpse is made clear. The image of the blackbird “[screaming] out from memory” parallels the speaker who claims he has “everything / I could wish for — this air, this sea, this night.” Where the Tesla poem in a way reaches after the ineffable and unsayable, the speaker in this poem is striving to not say, but rather to be, like the blackbird, “pleased / with its sour chirping.”

*

Tilting Toward Winter – Okla Elliott

The air is gray and quiet as the sea’s
wet-dying warmth. A blackbird
screams out from memory and, pleased
with its sour chirping, keeps at it undeterred
by the browning season. I have everything
I could wish for —this air, this sea, this night.
We tilt toward winter, though the sand is spring
sand, erotic and youthful. Spirits are light
as May lasciviousness. But blood swells
to shore in cool disintegrating waves—
gone summer and gone winter aren’t real.
I walk into the unwarm froth, say farewell
to my selves that have died and pray for those still
to die — their wet wombs, their thick-salt graves.

*

Happy chirping!

José

Just a quick post to announce the release of the latest issue of Tinderbox Poetry Journal which includes my poem “Pantoum for the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe!”

This poem is cousin to my recent microessay published at the Letras Latinas blog.

This issue of Tinderbox also includes powerful work by Su Hwang, John Sibley Williams, and Anuradha Bhowmik amongst others. Check it out here.

Special thanks to Jennifer Givhan & everyone at Tinderbox for putting together such a great issue.

See you Friday!

José

 

Building off of last week’s theme of story work, this week’s poem – “The Story, Around the Corner” by Naomi Shihab Nye – presents another side of stories.

Here, a story takes on human attributes, including free will. The logic of the poem develops the idea of a story as being out of our hands, being made up of “[riffs] of common talk.” This logic then deepens; lines discussing “a city you don’t live in, where people / might shop forever or throw a thousand stories / away” have great yet nuanced implications. The story as entity is a creature of chance and circumstance, much like ourselves.

japan-217882_960_720Because the language remains nonspecific, we are in the position as readers to intuit the “story” of the poem in our own way. It’s the kind of poem I like to meditate on during stressful times because it speaks at a register that is heard before I can resist. Not sure if that make sense. What I’m getting at is that at the end of reading the poem, I am left with my own idea of the “story” knocking and waiting for an answer — and, for a moment, I glimpse what it would it would be like to give one.

The Story, Around the Corner – Naomi Shihab Nye

is not turning the way you thought
it would turn, gently, in a little spiral loop,
the way a child draws the tail of a pig.
What came out of your mouth,
a riff of common talk.
As a sudden weather shift on a beach,
sky looming mountains of cloud
in a way you cannot predict
or guide, the story shuffles elements, darkens,
takes its own side. And it is strange.
Far more complicated than a few phrases
pieced together around a kitchen table
on a July morning in Dallas, say,
a city you don’t live in, where people
might shop forever or throw a thousand stories
away. You who carried or told a tiny bit of it
aren’t sure. Is this what we wanted?
Stories wandering out,
having their own free lives?
Maybe they are planning something bad.
A scrap or cell of talk you barely remember
is growing into a weird body with many demands.
One day soon it will stumble up the walk and knock,
knock hard, and you will have to answer the door.

*

Happy answering!

José

Just a quick post to share the publication of my microessay “One Broken Line at a Time: Notes on Poetry and Migration” featured at Letras Latinas earlier this week.

During the month of March, Poetry Coalition members CantoMundo and Letras Latinas are partnering to present guest posts by CM fellows at Letras Latinas Blog that will include essays, creative non-fiction, micro reviews and dialogues between writers as part of the project Because We Come From Everything: Poetry & Migration (#WeComeFromEverything).

My essay brings together ideas on the poetic form haibun and the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe into conversation, along with some reflections on both from my personal experiences.

Special thanks to Barbara Curiel & Francisco Aragón for including my work in their project!

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I also wanted to announce the release of the latest issue of Star 82 Review, which features three of my microfictions: “Over the Sink” “At the Table” & “Pallbearer.”

This issue includes work by Devon Balwit and Natalie Campisi amidst some other stellar writing. A warm thanks to Alisa Golden for featuring my work!

*

See you Friday!

José

Just a quick post to share that my poem “Of Breaking” can be read and heard on Toe Good Poetry’s site!

This poem is featured in my upcoming second collection, Small Fires (FutureCycle Press), which I am happy to share has a release date of May 22nd. I’m really looking forward to its release.

I am also happy to share that the audio from my reading with Rochelle Hurt and Linwood Rumney in November at the University of Cincinnati’s Elliston Room is available to be listened to. In these tracks, you can hear me read from Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press), Reasons (not) to Dance (FutureCycle Press), and  The Divorce Suite (Red Bird Chapbooks).

Check it out the reading here!

See you Friday!

José

RUNAWAYIn my recent microreview & interview of Rochelle Hurt’s In Which I Play the Runaway , I discussed how the idea of “narrative inheritance” is central to the collection, working as a background to be subverted and challenged via the themes of the physical body and the conceptual runaway. What this means is that the collection is concerned with the stories we accept about ourselves and how those stories change, either on their own or through our effort.

In “Poem In Which I Play the Cheat” below, the speaker begins their story as something they “could explain.” Through the modal verb “could,” the speaker places their story in an imaginative space, suspending the scene of “when he touched my arm” and the image of “a stunned doe” as part of only one instance of the experience.

The speaker then charges back into the material of their story, back to “Sun as first love.” In the third stanza’s depiction of being younger and in love with the sun,”its heat, so much / like a body, a welcome weight,” the speaker establishes distance from scene with the “he” of the first stanza. This distance is where the story begins to change, the speaker now less in love with a person and more in love with an experience.

When the final stanza changes the first stanza’s phrasing of “when he touched my arm” to “when I touched his arm,” a subtle, but significant shift happens. Where the first stanza has an outside action create an interior response, the last stanza grounds itself in inner sensation. Rather than having a story of action and response, the last stanza has a story of response only, a lingering and holding onto sensation that leaves the speaker “wanting until a kind of night” falls within them. Suddenly, the role of “cheat” and its connotations of evasiveness serve a more complicated and honest purpose: that of unflinching witness to the self.

*

Poem in Which I Play the Cheat – Rochelle Hurt

I could explain
that when he touched my arm, a field opened
inside me, so I lay down there like a stunned doe
wedding herself to the ground for its green.

But you should understand it began before that —

Sun as first love: when I was small,
I would close my eyes each afternoon
and press myself into its heat, so much
like a body, a welcome weight on top of me.
Its light split my skin, and I opened
to the infinite red and shine beneath my lids
as time thickened and pleasure oozed
like syrup into the bowl of my skull.

What I mean is that I fall in love with surfaces —

When I touched his arm, the horizon flickered
before us, and I knew the sky was only
a scratched film of sky. I fixed on its sun nonetheless,
wanting until a kind of night fell in my chest.

*

Happy storying!

José

RUNAWAYJust a quick post to share my latest microreview & interview up now at the Cincinnati Review blog!

This time around I focus on Rochelle Hurt’s second collection, In Which I Play the Runaway (Barrow Street Press).

I’ll be sharing a poem from this collection on Friday. Stay tuned!

For now, enjoy the review.

See you Friday!

José

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