listening with jane hirshfield

As the year ends, I find myself amidst so much newness: new job, new city, new friends and faces in my life. I am still catching up with it all. It’s the kind of upheaval and momentum that makes me return to poems in a specific way; mainly, to relearn how to listen.

I was reminded of this idea of listening while reading an interview with Jane Hirshfield earlier this week:

What is the most important thing to do when reading a poem?**
Listen, without worrying too quickly about whether you understand or not. Give yourself over to a poem the way you give yourself over to your own night dreaming, or to a beloved’s tales of the day. And then, try to listen first to a poem the way you might listen to a piece of music — the meaning of music isn’t some note by note analysis or paraphrase, it’s to find yourself moved.

To sit back and be witness to a singular circumstance. To be still, and reflect only after all has been said. These are skills in life and in poetry.

cheese rackHirshfield’s knack for listening is on full display in this week’s poem, “Sheep’s Cheese.” This short poem accumulates its narrative details slowly, doles them out line by line with the same care as is being described. It’s the kind of lyric nuance that can be missed out on if read too fast.

There are resonances in poems and in life that are felt even without our knowing. Same as the man in the poem, whose arms “know the weight” of a weekly task, there is a part of us listening and tracking the effect of nuances, even when we’re busy looking away.

Sheep’s Cheese – Jane Hirshfield

In the cellar, sheep’s milk cheeses
soak in cold brine.
Once a week, a man comes to turn them.
Sixty pounds lifted like child after child,
lain back and re-wrapped
in their cloths on the wooden shelves.
The shelves are nameless, without opinion or varnish.
The wheels are only sheep’s milk, not ripening souls.
He sings no lullabye to them. But his arms know the weight.

from After (Harper Perennial, 2007)

**Check out the rest of this interview with Hirshfield here.

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purpose & craig santos perez

lukao coverIn my recent microreview & interview of Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao], I spoke of Perez’s multivalent poetic approach demanding an equally multivalent reading, and how the book makes this demand in an accessible manner. Every literary tradition has their footnote-ridden “masterpieces” (I’m nodding at T.S. Eliot’s aptly named “The Wasteland”), but for every footnote or incorporation of Latin or French in such pieces, there’s a headscratch moment that is rarely explained, specifically  regarding purpose. Literary critics can extrapolate and pontificate about their given interpretations and tell us why something matters only so long before one wonders how much the poem/poet is actually intending and putting down for the reader to pick up.

Upon first reading, the poem below, “(pō),” reads as an intimate love lyric, one whose enjambment and use of brackets and slashes only heighten the need for a close reading. The rhetorical approach of presenting a list of “before” statements only heightens the intimacy, creating tension amidst close listening and rich language. Even before one makes use of Perez’s textual notes, which explain the title’s meaning as:

—Pō: In the Hawaiian belief system, Pō is the creative darkness from which all things emerged

there is an contextual translation in the pacing of the lines

before was pō \\
the first darkness

The poem, then, upon first reading, gives over enough of itself to stir and evoke reactions on a number of levels; it also makes itself matter in a way that is only further served by the online “footnote” Perez provides.

There is a great generosity in this approach, a virtuosity that is humble and tactful. It is something I empathize with when I see it in other writers like Perez who write in more than one language not as intellectual flourish but poetic necessity. That Perez accomplishes this once would be gift enough; that his latest collection lends itself to multiple and various readings is nothing short of a tribute and testament to the poetic act itself.

*

from ginen understory

(pō)

~

before i first visit [you]
in ka’a’awa // before
[we] swim in salt water
and forage the tide
for shells \\ before [we]
learn our body
languages // before i
mistake trade winds
for your hair \\
before [we] dive
// before [we] come
against wreckage \\
before [we] close
our eyes to see
what night asks [us]
to let go // before
the emotional
chickens crow the sun
risen \\ before vow
-els and consonants //
before was pō \\
the first darkness
birthing our sea
of moving islands

*

find out more about Dr. Craig Santos Perez’s work here.

microreview & intervew: Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao]

review by José Angel Araguz

lukao cover

from the legends of juan malo (a malologue)

~

(the birth of Guåhan)

“Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have deep water and the U.S. expects [us] to home port 60% of the Pacific fleet. Or [we] have to continue supporting the Navy (one team, no seams). Or [we] have a last place ranking in annual per capita medical spending on Chamorro veterans #islandofforgottenwarriors. St Michael the Archangel, tayuyute [ham]. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have resources for the taking. Or [we] have our customers’ needs as our first priority. Or [we] have to change our name after the Obama administration referred to the East Wing of the White House as “Guam, pleasant but powerless.” “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have many nicknames, including USS Guam, The Tip of America’s Spear, Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier, Superfortress Guam, The Trailer Park of the Pacific, America’s Gateway to Asia, and Micronesia’s Gateway to America. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have been tricked out and targeted. Or [we] have tourism 2020 vision when setting forth a plan for the future. Or [we] have a charmingly exotic, endangered look. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have to change our name after Mariah Carey appeared on American talk shows with a dog she got in Mexico and named “Guam” : “Here Guam, here Guam, stop hiding Guam, Guam is a good boy.” St. Roch, tayuyute [ham]. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have many names for our people, including Chamorro, Chamoru, Tsamoru, CHamoru, Guamese, Guamesian, Guamish, Guamaniac, Guamanian, Guatemalan, Chaud, Indios, Mestizo, and Mexican. “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. As in [we] have serious identity issues because our original meaning has been translated as “lost.”

Craig Santos Perez’s from unincorporated territory [lukao] (Omnidawn, 2017) is the fourth book in his series engaging with the history, ecology, and mythology of his homeland Guåhan (Guam) and his current home, Hawai’i. Perez braids these three themes via a variety of poetic modes, making use of the news articles, interviews, and other sources to create a text that gives space to a variety of voices. In fact, voice is at the heart of this collection; whether drawing from his personal experience or making use of a persona as in the poem above, Perez brings an urgency into the voice of each sequence, marking them as political in a way that honors the personal.

This balance is further achieved by the inclusion of a “Sources & Additional Materials” link at the end of the book, a resource that emphasizes the importance of the project as well as its presence beyond the page. A note in this resource informs the reader that:

—Juan Malo is a young, poor Chamorro man who lived in Guåhan during Spanish colonial occupation. His mischievous adventures (reminiscent of other indigenous tricksters) involved outwitting the Spanish governor and other officials with the help of his carabao (water buffalo). In Spanish, malo means bad.

With this framework in mind, one can see the “from the legends of juan malo” series of poems as Perez placing the subversive and fluid energy of the trickster persona at the service of that other equally fluid and subversive entity, human language. In “(the birth of Guåhan),” there is a charged insistence in the repetition of the phrase: “Guam” is now named “Guåhan,” which translates as [we] have. This insistence engages with the plasticity of sound as well as meaning. As the prose poem develops, the juxtaposition of historical facts about Guåhan against Juan Malo’s faux-playful tone works to keep the reader unsettled while simultaneously informing them and keeping them close. One feels the political tug-of-war reflected in Guåhan’s history played out via this poetic insistence. Through the repetition of “tayuyute [ham]” (“pray for us”), however, the poem maintains a human charge as well.

Along with this flavor of intertextuality, Perez also creates “poemaps” which depict such things as the use of toxic chemicals in Guåhan as well as the island’s role in global communication via having more communication cables routed through the land than Hawai’i or California. Like the use and riffing against historical facts in the poem above, the visual subversion in these poemaps work to evoke from the reader an awareness that is only half an awareness. Because this is a book of poems and not a history or anthropology book, there is a sense of being invited into the factual world these poems spring from, but also of being asked to dwell in the complexity of what these facts mean beyond themselves. This unsettled mode is more fruitful than aggressive. More to the point, the book’s multivalent poetic approach demands a multivalent reading. One of the accomplishments of Perez’s project is that it presents its concerns on its own terms.

The reason for such an approach becomes palpable in such moments as this one, drawn from “ginen organic acts“:

as a patgon : child, i never heard the creation story of our first mother, fu’una (whose name translates as first), or our first father, puntan (whose name translates as coconut sapling) // grandma always said “in the beginning was the word and the word was god

her fingers erode
rosary beads // waves erode
coasts \\ words erode
silence

Here, a childhood memory is rendered through a hybridity of form and language. The move from prose to poetic lines evokes the move from memory’s necessarily patchy connection to a moment of focus and understanding. The stanza above drives home the theme of language being subversive and difficult; because language is fluid, it is capable of eroding the meaning it creates. The use of slashes in both directions in the stanza above evokes the waves described while at the same time implying the breaks in meaning this moment represents.

Yet, from these breaks in meaning, further understanding can be wrought. This seems to be the hope of Perez’s book. Nowhere is this hope more evident than in the sequence of poems dedicated to the birth of his daughter. “(first teeth)” (below) renders a scene of his daughter (addressed as [neni] in the poem; the mother is addressed as [you]) during teething. Because even parenthood doesn’t happen in a vacuum, Perez’s poem weaves recent incidents of violence into an ode to what matters most for this poet and this book of poems: life.

from ginen understory

(first teeth)

~

[neni] cries from teething // how do parents
comfort a kid in pain, bullied in school, shot

by a power drunk cop #justiceforkollinelderts
\\ [you] gently massage her gums with your

fingers // count how many children killed in gaza
this hour of siege \\ how do [we] wipe away tear

-gas and blood, provide shelter from snipers,
disarm occupying armies #freepalestine //

[you] recite the hawaiian alphabet song
to [neni] \\ what lullabies echo inside detention

centers and traverse teething borders to soothe
thousands of youth atop la bestia #unaccompanied //

[you] rub her back warm with coconut oil
\\ how do [we] hold violence at arm’s length

when raising our hands up is no longer
a sign of surrender #blacklivesmatter //

[neni] falls asleep in your cradling arms,
skin to skin, against the news \\ how will [we]

teach her to safely cross any body of wter
by believing in her own breath #

*

Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Craig Santos Perez: To me, poetry is an art form through which I can express my thoughts and emotions about culture, identity, place, the environment, history, and politics. Poetry can capture the deeper meanings of life, expose injustice and inequality, and articulate decolonial and sustainable futures. I believe poetry can educate, inspire, and empower people, as well as dignify and humanize people who have often been denied our dignity and human rights. This new collection, and all my books, are grounded in these foundational beliefs about the power of poetry.

In terms of form, I believe poetry is a dynamic art that can bring together poetry and prose, the visual and the virtual, the real and the fictional. Throughout my work, I interweave narrative, lyric, epic, prose, collage, imagistic, and avant-garde forms/techniques to create a complex and fragmented basket of words. To me, this makes the work multi-formalist and polyphonic.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Craig Santos Perez: One challenge was finding a way to arrange the diverse forms, techniques, and subject matter into a harmonic composition. As fragmented and indeterminate as my work is, I always try to counterpoint with access points symmetry. My other challenge was how to bring together in a compelling way the different discourse of history, politics, environmentalism, culture, memory, and personal experiences. To work through these issues, I revise extensively, and I also experiment with various orderings and “maps” of contents.

*

Special thanks to Dr. Craig Santos Perez for participating! To find out more about his work, check out his sitefrom unincorporated territory [lukao] can be puchased from Omnidawn.

author photo copy 2Craig Santos Perez is a native Chamoru from the Pacific Island of Guåhan (Guam). He is the co-founder of Ala Press, co-editor of three anthologies of Pacific literature, and the author of four poetry collections. He has been the recipient of the PEN Center USA Literary Award and the American Book Award, as well as fellowships from the Lannan Foundation and the Ford Foundation. He is an Associate Professor in the English Department at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa, where he teaches creative writing and eco-poetry. 

exquisiting with nathalie handal

This week’s poem, “White Trees” by Nathalie Handal, provided the first line to an exquisite corpse exercise I conducted with my classes this week. An exquisite corpse is a writing game created by surrealists and is conducted in a group setting. Each person writes down a line of poetry, then hands their paper to another person who then writes a line based on the previous one on the page; the paper then gets folded so that the first line is tucked away and only the most recent line is visible. The paper exchanges hands again, the poem growing line by half-glimpsed line.

Handal’s first line (When the white trees are no longer in sight) lent itself to a number of interesting following lines. One particular exquisite corpse poem started:

When the white trees are no longer in sight
I close my eyes and see the black ones
with large white fangs taunting me

black-and-white-branches-tree-highI feel the spirit of Handal’s poem lends itself to this particular exercise because of its logic and progression. Line by line, the poem deploys its images and metaphors, each one a turn down the hallway of the poem, a turn that leads to only more hallway, no doors or rooms. As the reading experience grows and the mind tries to gather a narrative from the lines, a lyrical logic takes over, and, instead of a linear narrative, what is evoked is the feeling of what is present slipping out of sight. This pattern of impression and shift of thought contains a spontaneity and surprise similar to that experienced in the writing of an exquisite corpse.

White Trees – Nathalie Handal

When the white trees are no longer in sight
they are telling us something,
like the body that undresses
when someone is around,
like the woman who wants
to read what her nude curves
are trying to say,
of what it was to be together,
lips on lips
but it’s over now, the town
we once loved in, the maps
we once drew, the echoes that
once passed through us
as if they needed something we had.

*

from Love and Strange Horses (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2010)

Read more about the poet here.

unrealing with kelly davio

In my recent microreview & interview of Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017)I spoke of her essays being driven by “a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.” These three elements are in full effect in one of Davio’s recent poetry projects, a series of poems focused on the persona called the Unreal Woman. Through this persona, Davio brings together these same elements from her nonfiction essays to create a fulcrum to dig further into her experiences as a woman with a disability.

While the persona of the Unreal Woman takes center stage in Davio’s upcoming poetry collection, The Book of the Unreal Woman (Salmon Poetry, 2019), she is also an influence throughout the essays of It’s Just Nerves, as can be seen in the following from “Strong is the New Sexy”:

The product of a generation of girls who grew up with the specter of anorexia stalking our friends and siblings, I was told that “real women have curves” as though it were a mantra.

Our elders were trying. They wanted to flip the arbitrary concept of thin-body beauty on its ear. They wanted us to find self-acceptance, but when they tried to scare us with photos of undernourished bodies and with cautionary tales of the dangers of disordered eating, we learned that being skinny was one more way in which we could fail—one more way our bodies could be repellant.

With the onset of a progressive neuromuscular disease several years ago, my body’s relationship with solid food became a complicated one. I was never a curvy woman to begin with, but with each of the more feminine attributes I’ve lost, I’ve become, I am given to understand, less and less of a real woman.

I wonder at what point I will become unreal altogether.

davioIn the poem below, Davio approaches similar ideas as here but in a more visceral manner. Where nonfiction allows for the unpacking of rhetoric in a meditative manner, poetry allows for moves that go for the jugular as much as the heart and the mind. By subverting the well-intentioned phrasing of “real women have curves” and creating the persona of the Unreal Woman, Davio pushes against the erasure of women whose experiences don’t fit into the neatness of this phrase’s logic.

This poem brought to mind Anne Sexton, in specific her poem “Her Kind.” Through the imaginative and interrogative space created by the Unreal Woman persona, Davio evokes some of what and who is left out of the “real women” conversation, and invites it in with the conviction of one who has been “her kind.”

Real Women – Kelly Davio
—“Real Women Have Curves”

They fit in size-Q panty hose, we’re told.
Their volume fills the special-order bras
built wide enough about the lacey bands
to suggest a well formed plentitude

in fully lined and double-lettered cups.
Real women give birth to multitudes
of Gerber-blonde babies in a continual
swell and retraction not unlike that

of a latex balloon, so quick to snap back
to size. Real women, after all, work out.
They repeat a mantra: healthy is the new,
but forget what was old. They raise dumbbells

and celebrate themselves. They know
what would fix you, Unreal Woman, disposing
of your sharps in the bright orange canister.
They have tut-tutted you, unreal woman,

when bottled prescriptions spill forth
from your open purse. They have watched you,
unreal woman, vertiginous and clutching
for the staircase handrail or shuffle-stepping

with a limp, your slacks dangling from meatless
hips, from bony kneecaps. And under the Lasik
clarity of their vision, Unreal Woman, you
become small as they expand, claim the space

you were never meant to occupy. They start
with your hair, thinning from steroids,
and thread it out by the root. They nibble
at the keratin of your fingernails, roll skin

from your limbs like wet paper, knock
your bones together in a jaunty tune.
Seconds are all it takes to absorb you.
Real women, they eat your heart out.

*

For more about Davio and the Unreal Woman poems, check out this 2016 interview and poetry feature at Easy Street. Also, visit her site here.

microreview & interview: Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves

review by José Angel Araguz

davio

Kelly Davio’s It’s Just Nerves: notes on a disability (Squares & Rebels, 2017) is a collection of creative nonfiction essays that explore and report the inner and outer realities of living with myasthenia gravis, a “a chronic autoimmune neuromuscular disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles, which are responsible for breathing and moving parts of the body, including the arms and legs” (NINDS). The language of this definition, in light of its clarity and conciseness, or perhaps because of it, does little to bring the condition into human terms. One of Davio’s gifts is her ability to translate the complexities of her experiences into relatable moments via an authentic, engaging voice, a voice capable of insight and snark, as well as compelling honesty.

The opening essay, “Strong is the New Sexy,” for example, starts:

In the hospital complex, I sit in a room with a woman who plans to teach me how to swallow. Or, to re-teach me. I came into the world knowing how, born with the universal instinct to suckle and feed. I knew how to swallow just as I knew how to breathe. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, my body’s muscles have forgotten.

Here, Davio recasts her condition as a species of “forgetting,” a phrasing that would seem simple were it not also connected with “the universal instinct” mentioned earlier. This connection evokes the depth of vulnerability felt in this moment; the breaking down of the body means a breaking down of the self. This transition and necessary “re-teaching” doesn’t happen in a vacuum either, but rather in the public, fraught atmosphere of a hospital. The influence of the outside world is evident a little later in the same scene:

On the other side of the plate-glass window of the physical therapy room, hang gliders swoop down from the pine-covered mountainside. Their sails are the bright neon of 1990s fashion, and it’s impossible to miss the daredevils with their spectacular, spandexed bodies. I wonder whether the location of the window is intended to be inspirational: a call to the possibilities of good health, a motivation to perform one’s exercises well and get back out there. I have an impulse to drop the blinds over the window. I’d like to occlude the mountain.

In these opening paragraphs, we have a different kind of clarity and conciseness than that of medical jargon. There is the clarity of one’s thoughts and feelings during the awkwardness of physical therapy, but also the clarity of what colors the experience. The indirect violence and insistence on difference implied by most so-called “inspirational” posters is never more charged than in a medical setting. In a context where one is forced to question and doubt who they are bodily, posters like the one described here force an inner questioning of one ‘s attitude. For this reason, the sentence “I’d like to occlude the mountain,” is striking not only in its agency and defiance, but also because it comes from a speaker who themselves is feeling “occluded,” blocked and forgotten by their own body.

One of the questions I feel this collection of essays keeps asking and answering is: Who are we in the face of what we don’t know? This is engaged with in a dual manner throughout. Like in the above, the essay “On a Scale of One to Ten” presents a scene where outside pressure, this time in the form of a doctor’s question, forces a quick gauging of one’s self. In response to a doctor’s request to tell “what percentage [she’d] been debilitated by [her] neurological disease” during an assessment for surgical intervention, Davio experienced the following:

“What percentage?” I had prepared myself for all kinds of possible outcomes in this consultation. I was ready for anything, from him brushing me off to telling me that I’d need one of the more gross and undesirable procedures for which he’s known. One thing I hadn’t prepared for was performing quality-of-life math on the spot. I didn’t know how to put a number to the way I lived, or to the extent to which I’d adapted, year after year, to a new and inadequate set of circumstances.

I told him, “I have no idea.” He assured me that he just wanted an estimate, as though that clarified anything. At this point, I was emotionally exhausted, and I was frustrated. As I often do when frustrated, I said whatever came to mind.

“I haven’t been able to chew a salad for three years. I can’t teach a whole class anymore. I can’t walk anywhere without falling. I stop breathing sometimes. You tell me what percentage that is.”

He stopped typing away at his computer, swiveled around in his chair to look at me, and smoothed out his tie. “I think you answered my question.”

Here we again have a disconnect between the clarity and conciseness of the medical world versus the language of human experience. While the use of math terms to discuss one’s pain carries its own thwarted ambition, what stands out more in this scene is the disparity between Davio’s frustration and consequent edged statement “You tell me what percentage that is,” and the detail of the doctor “[smoothing] out his tie.” This latter detail symbolizes the discomfort, even on the part of the professionals trained and paid to treat patients with chronic conditions, feel in the face of said patients’ realities. Which is where the duality of the question, Who are we in the face of what we don’t know, comes into play. In this scene, Davio has to summarize an experience in an impossible way; in the process of giving an answer she doesn’t know how to give, Davio herself becomes something that the doctor doesn’t know how to respond to. At the end of this scene, she is frustration, he is a tie to be smoothed down.

What these essays make clear through scenes like this one is the range of things one has to reckon with as one learns to live with a chronic medical condition. From unpacking the shaming and misinformation about disability in mass media, popular culture, and writing conferences, to her experiences living and working in England pre-Brexit, Davio’s gift for writing relatable, unromanticized accounts of her life remains consistent. One thing that the trio I mentioned above – insight, snark, and honesty – do well in this collection is to keep things dynamic. Time and again, when the world shows itself as wanting to neglect, ignore, and not see her, Davio stares right back, answering the impulse to “smooth down” and look away with essays that are undeniable and unignorable.

*

Influence Question: Did your background as a poet come into play in any way as you put together this essay collection?

Kelly Davio: I think my work as a poet did play a role in how I approached the subject matter of this book. Poets have these great toolkits for examining the world indirectly; it’s as though the whole of our training is geared toward delivering ideas and information in the least likely way possible. If we can compare nonfiction to another medium, like photojournalism, then poets are probably the most like these intrepid photographers who take underwater portraits of people’s pet schnauzers. So yes, poetry taught me to come at my subject matter from unusual angles, and that has allowed me—I hope—to keep this fairly universal subject matter fresh for the reader.

But there’s another respect in which writing these essays was a new experience for me. When I write a poem, I’ve typically gnawed on the idea for some time before I put the text down on the page. I have an idea of what I want my underwater schnauzer portrait to look like. Essays turned out to be more exploratory for me; in my early drafts, I was writing to understand something, whether about myself or about the world around me, eventually revising down some more fully formed idea. That was a really exciting process for me as a writer, because I hadn’t really felt that same kind of freedom to wander around on these long, intellectual hikes before.

Influence Question: One of the great accomplishments of this book is your ability to write sober, unromanticized yet relatable accounts of experiences like being an American living abroad and engaging with the (mis)representations of disability in popular culture. What were some of the obstacles and/or lessons learned in evoking this hard-earned clarity on the page?

Kelly Davio: First of all, thank you for that! I think that the greatest challenge I had in writing these essays was getting past the stigma that exists around my subject matter in the literary world. I cannot tell you how many times I was lectured by other writers on the global truths that there’s no audience for books about illness or disability, that reading about other people’s pain is boring, that personal essays aren’t a legitimate thing to be publishing in the first place…you get the idea. For a long time, I bought into that stigma.

I got over it one morning as I sat in a panel discussion on the craft of essay writing at a literary conference. I had been hoping for a discussion of—oh, I don’t know—the craft of essay writing. But what I and the other attendees got was an hour or so of some hung-over looking guys I don’t think any of us had ever heard of roundly mocking the work of several well known women writers who publish personal essays. I left that room knowing exactly who my audience wasn’t. Who cared what those guys thought?

After that panel, I decided I to write whatever the heck I wanted. I wrote the kind of thing I wanted to read, and I trusted that there were other folks who might want to read the same kind of thing. Since the book’s come out, I’ve been enormously gratified to find that, yes, there is an audience for this work, and they’re much more pleasant people to hang around than those sour-grapes panelists, anyway.

*

Kelly_Davio_web-1Special thanks to Kelly Davio for participating! To find out more about her work, check out her site. It’s Just Nerves can be puchased from Squares & Rebels.

Kelly Davio is a poet, essayist, and editor. She’s the author of essay collection, It’s Just Nerves and the poetry collections, Burn This House and The Book of the Unreal Woman, forthcoming from Salmon Poetry in 2019. She also writes the sometimes-column “The Waiting Room” for Change Seven Magazineand her work has been published in a number of other journals including Poetry NorthwestThe Normal SchoolVinylThe ToastWomen’s Review of Books, and others. She is one of the founding editors of the Tahoma Literary Review.

suggesting via thomas lux

This week’s poem, “Empty Pitchforks” by Thomas Lux, does a great job of making suggestion a lyrical engine. Diving off the epigraph “There was poverty before money,” the poem begins an engaging game of evoking poverty and lack through the subjects it engages. In doing so, Lux is able to move poverty from abstraction to concrete reality.

pitchforksThe title phrase, empty pitchforks, begins this work by suggesting a specific image and meaning. To think of pitchforks alone is one thing; to have the added word “empty,” which implies its opposite and brings to mind the states of holding and lacking, is to have the image colored by suggestion. Through the quick work of juxtaposition, the tines of pitchforks become all the more sharply rendered (pun intended via “sharply,” btw).

This work of suggestion gains momentum as the poem continues, down to the action of the last line which drives home poverty as not only a material but spiritual dearth.

Empty Pitchforks – Thomas Lux

There was poverty before money.”

There was debtors’ prison before inmates,
there was hunger prefossil,

there was pain before a nervous system
to convey it to the brain, there existed

poverty before intelligence, or accountants,
before narration; there was bankruptcy aswirl

in nowhere, it was palpable
where nothing was palpable, there was repossession

in the gasses forming so many billion … ;
there was poverty—it had a tongue—in cooling

ash, in marl, and coming loam,
thirst in the few strands of hay slipping

between a pitchfork’s wide tines,
in the reptile and the first birds,

poverty aloof and no mystery like God
its maker; there was surely want

in one steamed and sagging onion,
there was poverty in the shard of bread

sopped in the final drop of gravy
you snatched from your brother’s mouth.

from New and Selected Poems: 1975-1995