finding with robert wrigley

I’m a fan of when poems seem self-contained visually, but surprise me as I begin reading. This week’s poem – “Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin” by Robert Wrigley – is a good example of what I mean. On a purely visual level, the poem sits in two six line stanzas. When one considers the title includes the word “bible,” the symmetry of these stanzas mirror an open book. This suggestion charges the poem with expectation.

cabinIn the first stanza, the title’s premise is followed through in rich detail. From the look of “the book’s leather cover” to the “back-of-the-neck lick of chill” the speaker feels as they move closer to the book, Wrigley sets up image and evocation as a means of attention. The poem would be engaging enough with such vivid description, but it grows in its depth across the stanza break.

The speaker’s hesitant movement and approach in the first stanza is pushed back against in the first line of the second stanza as we’re told “the book / opened like a blasted bird.” Suddenly, the speaker’s knack for articulation is put in the service of keeping track of the new details. The choice in words remains rich as we’re told about the “thoroughfares of worms, and a silage / of silverfish husks” that have rendered a book down to “perfect wordless lace.” What is most surprising is how much life is found in these “abandoned” things, and how these things live now in this poem, another kind of “box” of “miraculous inks.”

Finding a Bible in an Abandoned Cabin – Robert Wrigley

Under dust plush as a moth’s wing,
the book’s leather cover still darkly shown,
and everywhere else but this spot was sodden
beneath the roof’s unraveling shingles.
There was that back-of-the-neck lick of chill
and then, from my index finger, the book

opened like a blasted bird. In its box
of familiar and miraculous inks,
a construction of filaments and dust,
thoroughfares of worms, and a silage
of silverfish husks: in the autumn light,
eight hundred pages of perfect wordless lace.

from Earthly Meditations: New and Selected Poems (Penguin 2006)

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new work!

Just a quick note to share the release of the latest issue of The Collagist which features my poem “Cows.”

This issue contains work by Tina May Hall, Felicia Zamora, and other stellar writers. Check it out here.

Thank you to the editors for including my work!

See you Friday!

José

poetry feature: Shirani Rajapakse

chant-of-a-million-women-shirani-rajapakseFor this poetry feature, we have two poems and short essay by poet Shirani Rajapakse. The poems are from her recent collection,  Chant of a Million Women, and her essay goes into the themes of the collection and the role these two poems play.

I am honored to provide a forum for the discussion and interrogation of such complex issues as these poems and prose take on. Rajapakse’s work is filled with astute observation and insight. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” takes its time meditating on the act of men groping a statue; the pace of the poem allows the nuance and charge of the situation to be dwelled upon in a way in an unflinching manner. This ability to dwell on the problematic until it gives over something human is found again in “On a Street in London.” In both poems, and throughout Chant of a Million Women, Rajapakse provides space to acknowledge discomfort, injustice, and hurt, but also to begin the work of healing.

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At the Side of the Old Mandir – Shirani Rajapakse

They come to this place every day
to touch you.
Lonely men with desires unfulfilled.
Can’t afford the real thing, costs too much
these days, a glance, a caress.
They can barely afford food for the day.

You’re the best they can have;
voluptuousness in stone.
They ogle and marvel, then
gradually draw nearer.
A furtive glance in every direction to check
if anyone’s watching and a hand
lifts up to cup a breast.
Human and rock merge for a blissful moment.
An eternity passes as time
drags itself to a screeching halt.
Sighs of contentment escape.

Satiated temporarily,
they return to a place at a distance,
to admire and hope.

Later, moving inside they speak to God, plead
with him, cajole, sometimes demand.
Karma always questioned in times like this.
A truth hard to accept.
The reasons why never defined, lying hidden
in the cosmic ether beyond their
comprehension.

Your breasts are a shade darker than
the rest of your body,
colored from constant caresses of
lonesome men seeking stolen pleasures.
A slow smile playing on your lips, one arm
resting on a hip pushed out to the side,
the other raised from the elbow,
fingers encircling lotus, you stand waiting,
for what might be, as they shuffle past,
circumambulating
like the devout, softly singing praise
of the one within.
Quietly taking in their fill they return to
homes devoid of love and desire.

Who are you,
proud woman standing nonchalantly
gazing into the distance as they walk past?
What was your fate?
Willed by the hand that chiseled
you from a large rock hewn out from
another place one sunny day eons ago.
Who was the man that yearned for you so,
he cast you in stone in remembrance
to watch over the years
and give hope to
a multitude of desperate souls?

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Shirani Rajapakse on “At the Side of the Old Mandir” & “On a Street in London”

Women’s bodies have always been depicted in art as objects of desire and of un-attainability. The artiste or sculptor creates his work of art that is so perfect it moves the audience to gawk and stare and imagine possibilities in their drab little lives. “At the Side of the Old Mandir” speaks of this desire for a statue by a man who can’t have the real thing – a woman in his life  – because of whatever economic or social factors, or maybe because the wife he has doesn’t reciprocate his love. He stands in front of a statue fantasizing about what could be.

The influence for the poem was a statue of a woman at the side of a mandir (Hindu temple) in India. The old beautiful carvings on the outside of mandirs depict women in many poses. Almost all of the women have large breasts and voluptuous hips. What was interesting was that in some Mandirs the breasts of these statues of women were darker and I used to wonder why, until one day I saw the reason.

“At the Side of the Old Mandir” sets the stage to the collection. It also pulls in the idea of the role of women from history to the present and demonstrates that it really isn’t very different, although separated from time and space. Women were seen and continue to be seen as objects of desire; larger than life depictions of male fantasies.

The image of the abused female statues reminded me of what I once saw inside telephone booth on a street in London. This was a time just before the mobile phone and if you needed to make a call you’d use a public phone. I don’t know if those still exist, but one of the things that greeted you when you entered one of those phone boxes was a whole load of calling cards with photos of women, much like the statues of the women in those ancient temples. It appeared as though modern women were trying to emulate the statues which were probably carved out by men who were seeking the ideal woman and not finding that around them, they were creating images in stone.

It seemed very sad. We’d come so far yet as women we hadn’t given up the notion of pleasing others – of turning our bodies into objects of pleasure for men, and it didn’t matter that we were getting exploited as well. “On a Street in London” ends the collection. Between those two poems there’s just about every emotion and situation women have faced and will continue to face unless and until society realizes that something has to be done to halt this negative trend.

If women were objects that men in ancient times used to sculpt dreams of – narrow waist broad hips and voluptuous breasts – then women have down the centuries become the objects themselves, sculpting their own bodies to create a false view of what men want. Between the ancient statue and the modern woman who add breast implants and nips and tucks her body to please a man we have not progressed much. In fact we have come full circle to finally become what men have always wanted us to be – objects, a very visually pleasing object that is molded to certain parameters.

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On a Street in London – Shirani Rajapakse

Watermelons jostle
inside the telephone booth too small to hold
such wonders overflowing their space.

Glass and steel surround him
with a view of the street beyond.
They stare at him defiantly at
eye level sticking out strong and proud.

Watermelons big,
watermelons small,
watermelons cheap,
come buy my wares, a business card
stuck to the side cries out to the world.

Lonely hearts stir at the sight
every time they glance inside.

Her eyes beckon, pick up the phone and
dial me in, they blink lustily, as
watermelons heave inside tomato red spandex
stretched to accommodate.

Tiny shivers run marathons down
his spine as he envisages the feel of it
in his palm yet dares
not lift a hand to touch.

Too many eyes watching silently as
footsteps tap around him.

The city drifts this way and that as he stands
still, inside the box in the middle
of the pavement watching her globes
straining to jump out.

Her voice purrs at the other end,
trembles down the line, he
listens mesmerized and
imagines the thousands of possibilities
squashed between watermelons
brown like the earth, trembling
like an earthquake.

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SANYO DIGITAL CAMERAShirani Rajapakse is an internationally published, award winning poet and author. She won the Cha “Betrayal” Poetry Contest 2013 and was a finalist in the Anna Davidson Rosenberg Poetry Awards 2013. Her collection of short stories Breaking News (Vijitha Yapa 2011) was shortlisted for the Gratiaen Award. Chant of a Million Women was self-published (August 2017). She has a BA in English Literature (University of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) and a MA in International Relations (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India). She interviews, promotes and reviews books by indie authors on The Writer’s Space at shiranirajapakse.wordpress.com

lyrical alignment: The Book of Unknown Americans

I haven’t shared one of my lyrical alignments in a while, so I’m excited to share this one. I’ve also gone ahead and created a new category for them on the side there, so one click can take you to my collective formal experimentations across the years.

henriquezThis week’s lyrical alignment comes from Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf). While the novel’s main narrative details the migration and lot of the Rivera family who come to America from Mexico to find a school that can accommodate their daughter, Maribel, who has suffered brain damage from an accident, the novel also presents the stories of the neighborhood the family finds themselves becoming a part of. These “unknown Americans” hail from a variety of countries and represent a spectrum of latinidades; each one tells their stories in every other chapter. Henríquez’s gift for voice is evident in these monologues that go into the struggles of migration and survival.

When I do a lyrical alignment, I first find a passage of prose that calls to me on the level of language: a range of lyrical turns, an engaging metaphor, or, as is the case here, strong voice. I then try to find a phrase I connect with sound-wise. Here, I was caught by the natural pause at the end of “street” in the first six words. From there, I rewrote the excerpt in my notebook, making sure to keep each line to six words. To my surprise, the full excerpt I was writing out naturally ended in a six word phrase. I’m still spooked by the serendipity of it.

Aside from the lyrical quality of the voice and prose, this excerpt also hit home in that it has a character following a line of thinking that I am familiar with, in particular the feeling of being both “seen” and not “seen” at the same time. This kind of stereotyping/profiling very much makes one feel unmistakably “unknown.” Henríquez’s accomplishment in this passage is the evocation of a voice; the argument remains personal while creating a space where the reader can dwell alongside the character.

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The Unknown American

lyrical alignment by José Angel Araguz
drawn from Cristina Henríquez’s
The Book of Unknown Americans

When I walk down the street,
I don’t want people to look
at me and see a criminal
or someone that they can spit
on or beat up. I want
them to see a guy who
has just as much right  to
be here as they do, or
a guy who works hard, or
a guy who loves his family,
or a guy who’s just trying
to do the right things. I
wish just one of those people,
just one, would actually talk to
me, talk to my friends, man.
And yes, you can talk to
us in English. I know English
better than you, I bet. But
none of them even want to
try. We’re the unknown Americans, the
ones no one even wants to
know, because they’ve been told they’re
supposed to be scared of us
and because maybe if they did
take the time to get to
know us, they might realize that
we’re not that bad, maybe even
that we’re a lot like them.
And who would they hate then?

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Check out Cristina Henríquez’s novel, The Book of Unknown Americans (Knopf).

poetry feature: Trust Tonji

This week’s poem, “The thing about colors,” is a fine example of how poets often have to be unsettled in language. For instance, there is the performance of language in the public realm, where we do our best to honor one another in regards to pronoun preference, ability, and sexuality as well as cultural and racial backgrounds. Then there is the way language is rooted in the private realm, the personal effort and experiences that shape the way we come to understand such language and how we embody and live what it means.

Nebula Space Sky Abstract Colorful ColorIn my own life, I welcome a phrase like “person of color” for what it offers in the public realm, how it offers me, as a Latinx, a place in a larger, societal conversation. As a tool for unpacking and coping with insults and imbalances, such terminology provides a way to speak up with and make big picture connections where otherwise I would be too hurt to do so. And yet, in the private realm, I am obligated to unpack such phrases further because the distance they provide as tools leave a space where things like hurt and emotions remain to be addressed.

To put it another way, words that help in one realm don’t necessarily help in the other. But as poets, we are curious as to why that is. They are words after all. We will never have enough words to describe every hurt, nor will the world wait for us to find the right ones. We can only manage with the words we have, and add to those when necessary, when vision and heart allow.

Tonji had this to say in regards to the poem:

As a non native speaker of English language, ‘The thing about colors’ is my attempt at voicing my confusion and revealing my sociolinguistic interest on the expression ‘people of color’, especially when we are all cognisant of the denial of the obvious that comes with it; a statement of ambiguity attributing the black person a sense of being special or out of place as the case may be, the tendency of humans to rechristen everything but themselves.

What I admire about Tonji’s poem is how it points to the work still left to be done beyond political terms. When the speaker describes a moment with an immigration officer who lingers, trying to place “the colour of my accent,” and then goes on to describe the “color riot” caused by skin-bleaching, it is an admirable and necessary interrogation of the space between the public and private realms. Poetry aids such interrogation by making clear the mutability of language, a mutability that we as people can only continue to learn from.

The thing about colors – Trust Tonji

that I don’t understand
in this language
is why only black men
are said to be of color
when everyone has it
painted across their skin

the thing about colors
is the way they paint
themselves into what
lives under tongues
in borders, names
everything that looks
different from your norm

and yes,
this is not America
my skin’s brown like his
still this immigration officer
is slightly tilting his head
listening for the difference
in the colour of my accent

the thing about colors
on your brown body when
you stopped bleaching is
it beginning to heal itself
returning you back to the
color of your beautiful self
saving you the shame
of looking like color riot

the thing about colors
is that everyone has it
but if you’re too afraid
to share identity with us
you can keep painting
your imaginations black
black . . . black . . .

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Trust Tonji is too confused to choose, he doesn’t have a particular favourite. He writes from Porto Novo, Republic of Benin. His poetry has appeared in Prachya Review, Synchronized Chaos, The Kalahari Review, Praxis Magazine, The Electronic Pamphlet and elsewhere.