two by Barry Spacks

In an interview with Grace Cavalieri, Kay Ryan talks about a certain “chill” and restraint she feels is necessary to writing:

I sometimes compare the chill to say, if you put an ice cube on your hand, your hand – your skin would turn pink when you took the ice cube away, and you’d see that your skin was pink where you’d had that ice, because your blood is all sent to where the chill was. So that if you have a somewhat chilly surface in work, it brings the reader’s blood to that place.

I’ve been fascinated by this quote for years now. I admire what it honors about language, its ability to have an effect, to draw meaning to itself, and how, even with restraint, language remains as intimate as ice on skin.

I also enjoy what Ryan’s words make me think about in regards to writing about personal material. In a way, a writer is always negotiating how much of their personal life they put into their work; and because even writers are humans, and as humans things are messy, never strictly one way or another, language remains fluid, directed rather controlled by how we use it.

treesI’m always fascinated by this idea of personal and creative negotiation and how it plays out across a poet’s work. This week, I’m sharing two poems by Barry Spacks. Both poems stood out to me in my reading of his book Spacks Street: New & Selected Poems, enough to write them out in my notebook. What fascinates me looking back at these two poems specifically is how different yet connected they are.

“Poem” is as enigmatic as its title in terms of what it is about, working as an ars poetica almost, a meditation on the fluidity of language. “At 35,” on the other hand, delves into specifics, ideas of age, fatherhood and son-hood. Where these two poems connect is in their haunted tone. Whether contemplating the abstract or the personal, these poems by Spacks are charged with intimate lyrical sensibility.

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Poem – Barry Spacks

Will it come again like this?
Will we ever get it right?
It is always as it is,
And it passes.

Never as it was,
Yet always somehow bright,
Always somehow sweet
In its changes.

We will never get it right.
It will come, but not like this.
It is always as it is,
And it changes.

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At 35 – Barry Spacks

Father, what would you make of me? I wear your face.
I hear my cough and think the worms have sent you home.
Here at my table in my insubstantial house,
your myth of hope,
the piece of man you left,
I live your death
stroke for stroke.

There are no vows you did not keep I will not break.
I leave no darkness unacknowledged for your sake.
You are the school I teach. The course I take.
I move toward age, and you become my son.
Along the path ahead
you lift aside
the branches.

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To learn about the work of Barry Spacks go here.

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unraveling with Gregory Orr

One thing I’m always reminding myself to do when revising a poem is to open up to what’s already there on the page and push beyond what I see to what else could be there. Usually I’ll write a list of images or words that the language of the draft as-is inspires. While I have no insight into how this week’s poem – “Song: Early Death of the Mother” by Gregory Orr – got written, reading it is a lesson in a similar unraveling of thought and lyric.

Briar_Rose_prickles_(3438080014)From the image of the “last tear” made of glass, the speaker begins an inventory of comparison images, each with its own metaphoric charge. The glass tear becomes “ice” that “doesn’t thaw”; then becomes a tooth; and so on. The eleven lines in which these images travel through pass by with such urgent enjambment, one is shook at the end by the rush of meaning and significance. This rush and tumble evokes the emotional tumult beginning for the boy in the poem, who himself is having to catch up with what has passed.

Song: Early Death of the Mother – Gregory Orr

The last tear turns
to glass on her cheek.
It isn’t ice because
squeezed in the boy’s hot
fist, it doesn’t thaw.
It’s a tooth with nothing
to gnaw; then a magical
thorn: prick yourself
with it, thrust it in soil:
an entire briary
kingdom is born.

from The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press)

tremoring with Mona Van Duyn

One of my favorite happenings in a poem is when something seemingly distant from our personal lives is brought closer. This week’s poem, “Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri” by Mona Van Duyn, is a profound meditation of a far-off quake deemed “nothing personal.” The speaker in this poem pushes against this assertion and interrogates the possible meanings of the tremors felt. The poem becomes a space for lingering and dwelling, the most exquisite moments of which happen in the second stanza:

But the earth said last night that what I feel,
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me.
One small, sensuous catastrophe
makes inklings letters, spelled in a worldly tremble.

milky wayHere, I’m moved by the turn from the outside world to the inner workings between two people. Not only is the natural occurrence put in terms of a relationship, it becomes conspiratorial. When the speaker notes “what secretly moves you, moves me” and makes it a suggestion from the earth itself, the far-off motion of a quake is juxtaposed with desire. Suddenly what is privately known is, for a moment, potentially exposed.

That the form of the poem is a sonnet further adds to the conspiratorial argument. In fourteen lines of rhymed and nuanced pacing, we are invited into the tremors of another’s thoughts.

Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri – Mona Van Duyn

The quake last night was nothing personal,
you told me this morning. I think one always wonders,
unless, of course, something is visible: tremors
that take us, private and willy-nilly, are usual.

But the earth said last night that what I feel,
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me.
One small, sensuous catastrophe
makes inklings letters, spelled in a worldly tremble.

The earth, with others on it, turns in its course
as we turn toward each other, less than ourselves, gross,
mindless, more than we were. Pebbles, we swell
to planets, nearing the universal roll,
in our conceit even comprehending the sun,
whose bright ordeal leaves cool men woebegone.

from Selected Poems (Knopf 2003)

poetry feature: two poems by German Dario

This week’s poems are drawn from the poetry feature submissions! For guidelines on how to submit work, see the “submissions” tab above.

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One of my favorite quotes to go back to when talking about poetry is W. H. Auden’s idea that a poem is an individual’s version of reality. He said this specifically in terms of poets dealing with rejection; whereas the novelist may have a set of characters, a plot, and a whole world of complex narrative between themselves and the reader, the poet has only the scaffolding of a few lines, an image, perhaps a wisp of memory, all to evoke a feeling and experience. While rejection is felt strongly by all writers, for poets the experience is especially jarring; it is, in Auden’s mind, a rejection of their sense of reality.

I mention this notion of “poems-as-individual-versions-of-reality” because the work of this week’s featured poet – German Dario – carries itself into a reader’s reality in an undeniable way.

The first poem “Pan y Vino” has a speaker detailing childhood memories of a religious grandmother. The narrative develops first through the senses: the smell of “cigarettes, / coffee, / her” leads into a “Bible / size of a minivan.” These larger-than-life impressions help develop a logic founded on childhood memory and imagination, marking a distinction between the two. This distinction is experienced in the flow of lines from “With her voice / she painted / childhood pictures” to the ending’s admission of the speaker’s imagination helping to stray from the hold of these “pictures.” This break in affection and memory is subtle but powerful; it is not rebellion, but rather the inevitable break of an identity forming itself.

This attention to emotional nuances can be found in the second poem below, “evanescent.” Here, the speaker’s meditation on two separate memories, one of watching fireworks and one of a watching a comet, presents a parallel set of images. Fleeting light and fire pass through lines working to evoke memory; as the images pass, so does the gravity of the following moment during the fireworks memory:

that night my Dad said
“you know where you are
exactly
in the world right now”
Mom agreed
I
was never
so grounded again
none of us were

cometThis moment mid-poem has a two-fold effect: it first presents the speaker’s realization after the fact of what was actually happening during the fireworks. There’s the awe of the fireworks; but also the awe (tinged with wonder and sadness) of what was said. This awe resonates further as the comet imagery develops later in the poem.

In a way, the passage of time between memories becomes a third passing of light and fire; we realize along with the speaker that what strikes awe in us in moments like these is not the sights alone, but the fact of these sights, which is the fact of our lives essentially.

Dario’s poems, in this way, evoke reality’s ephemeral nature – something we try to reject, but also something that poems like these teach us to accept.

Pan y Vino – German Dario

Abuela’s religion was good,

It smelled of cigarettes,
coffee,
her.

Bible
size of a minivan,
an opened
flower garden,
Abuela led me
by the hand
of spoken word,
weaving story,
parable, fantasy,
real life.

We only judged
Abuelo’s religion,
she joked.
While he
manned the store
we ate pork.

With her voice
she painted
childhood pictures
so vivid,

I wanted to be a priest,

until my imagination
began to paint,
other pictures.

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evanescent – German Dario

it happened
on a fourth of july
three lost souls
sitting
alone
on the hood of a car
watching fireworks

shooting up
whole
together
burning bright
breaking up
the brightest transient life

that night my Dad said
“you know where you are
exactly
in the world right now”
Mom agreed
I
was never
so grounded again
none of us were

in the arms of a lover
in a rainy day
under a favorite blanket

never again

maybe
close
when three of us
a different three of us
sat on the hood
of another car
under the same stars
watching a comet
fly by in a hurry

to our human eyes
with our mortal time
it sat still
in the black
star littered canvas
so we could marvel
at our insignificance

the tips of our cigarettes
lit up the empty desert night
like the stars above
watching us
ash falling off
like the pieces
of the comet
marking its tail
leaving its trail

why was it always
three of us
together
right before
we broke apart

all we have left
are memories
folded petals
in long lost books
good enough to hoard

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German Dario resides in Tempe, Arizona with wife, two sons, two dogs and sometimes a fish. His poems are about everyday life moments through the eye of an immigrant. Earlier poems were published in the 1990’s in Anthology magazine. More recently published in the Blue Collar Review Summer 2017 issue.

Follow German on Twitter: @German_Colores
(photo credit: Amanda Nelson)

one more from Hannah Cohen

anatomyIn my recent microreview & interview of Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press), I wrote about recklessness in poetry as being the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. My thinking even now is that it’s not enough in poetry to be honest and tell what happened, but to summon the nerve to make art out of it, to reach out and engage with poetic elements like image and metaphor, and suss out the aesthetic possibilities in this meeting between life and art.

Cohen’s Bad Anatomy does this work in every poem. In “Superficial” (below), the work plays out in a narrative that starts with a Google search and ends with a moment of vulnerability and admission. The vulnerability of the initial subject of babies born with their intestines outside their body is pivoted into another kind of vulnerability that is felt by the speaker; for them, this other vulnerability is another thing that is hard to see. Yet, the fact of the poem proclaims that because it is felt, it must be seen.

It is the gift of lyric poetry to provide tools that take us to such places of insight; it is the gift of each poet to let us in on what they make with these tools.

Superficial – Hannah Cohen

Today I learned there are babies
born with their intestines
outside their little baby bellies.
I don’t know how I spent
three hours on Google scrolling through pictures
of guts, viscera, that lucent sac

like God’s after-thought.
What if in some alternate universe,
I had my heart and lungs out
for everyone to see? The kidneys,
the liver poked, judged—hell,
maybe even loved. And you’d be with me

in that world—because you’re not
with me in this world—and I’d let you
touch me. Here, the babies have
their guts shoved back in.
Here, I only see what isn’t
and what isn’t us.

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To learn more about Hannah Cohen’s work, check out her site.

microreview & interview: Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy

-review by José Angel Araguz

anatomy

There’s a sense of recklessness that feels natural to poetry. By recklessness, I mean less Robin Williams standing on a desk shouting a Whitman poem in Dead Poets Society and more the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. It is this latter recklessness that runs through Hannah Cohen’s chapbook, Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press). In poems that show the lyric self pulsing between various modes of suspension and isolation, Cohen engages language in a way that invites the reader to experience the plummet into language we call poetry.

The collection opens with “Aubade Inverse,” a poem that subverts the traditional aubade with its focus on lovers reluctantly departing and grounds it in feelings of threat and danger:

I left scuffmarks
on white doors. I wish
I could break. I left
my legs in bed.
I left you
before you, left wet
knives in the knife block.

The emphatic “I” statements here create both a presence and momentum that charge the poem with the panicked feeling of someone checking for their car keys in the dark. Yet, despite this feeling, or perhaps because of it, the aubade’s theme of love is still invoked in the poem’s ending line: “I leave / nothing.” These three words point outward in a few directions. They can be read as the speaker implying that they “leave / nothing” meaning no trace; but they can also be read as refuting the departure implied in the aubade form, the speaker adamantly making it clear that they “leave / nothing” behind, suspending what they can through the act of the poem.

Or perhaps both meanings are meant: The way ambiguity works here and throughout these poems shows a poetic sensibility awake to the subtleties of line break and evocation. This next set of three lines from the middle of the poem serve as another example of this sensibility:

I am drinking. I drive
so fast I kill
the moon.

Here, the clipped enjambment creates an opportunity to dwell on the meaning of each turn. Between “drinking” and “drive,” there is recklessness; when we get to “kill” there’s a heightened sense of danger, a sense that is pivoted into surreality by the time we get to “moon.” The juxtaposition of action, voice, and image in these lines evokes not a swagger or false bravado (see my earlier reference to Dead Poets Society) but a clear, suspended feeling. This moment works in a way that is instructive and illuminating; dwelling on these lines brings out what the speaker means as the reader understands it. In the middle of a poem that ends with “I leave / nothing,” these lines point to ways in which meaning can be followed as it leaves from word to word.

This ability to navigate across ambiguity and voice is present throughout the world of the poems in Bad Anatomy. In “Like Someone Driving Away From Her Problems” we find that:

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs       can’t save her
from living
without landmark
or companion       the road a black snake
beheaded

Here, isolation is depicted as a space that even god can passively inhabit, joining the speaker in disbelief. The apt break between the words “can’t save her” and “from living” do similar work as in the opening poem, creating a space where mortality itself is glimpsed for a moment as a threat before moving on with the narrative. This reckoning with mortality is found again in “Upon Starting My Period After The Election” as the speaker reflects:

Even my body knew it was wrong to begin
again. What’s different between this cycle

and a hundred ones before? Is this my god-
given right to be less every time?

Here, the interiority and isolation found in other poems is given a more outward, public turn. Yet, the poem engages with the outside world on its own terms, framing this meditation on the political climate within the workings of the speaker’s body. The purposeful break on “my god-” sets up the gravity of the following line; together they evoke a personal and public bleakness. When the speaker notes at the end of the poem that she “can’t stop the betrayal,” the speaker’s menstruating body parallels the more public feeling of betrayal felt by most since the last election.

By tempering lyric recklessness with vulnerability and honesty, the poems of Bad Anatomy deliver reading experiences that reward nuanced and repeated readings. These poems are filled with the insight and thrill of overhearing someone tell a story at a bar, or reading someone’s lost love letters. And like great stories and love letters, these poems are compelling because of their unabashed mix of light and dark. What I mean can be seen in the final lines of “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal” (printed in full below):

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

What keeps me reading and re-reading these poems are the flashes of lyric self like this one; they occur in moments braided from voice and imagery, but are executed with raw soul.

Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal – Hannah Cohen

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t — that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

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

Hannah Cohen: I have a few tangential thoughts for this question:

– At its best and even at its worst, poetry is a community. An ever-changing, populous community of thoughts that manifest into words. With this in mind, Bad Anatomy represents everything about being a person with depression, anxiety, and an unhealthy sense of self-deprecating humor. These traits interact with each other like passersby on a street, or rowdy drunks in a bar. However, there’s always that thread of hope that weaves itself throughout the chapbook’s pages, and I fully believe that for a poem or set of poems to fully succeed for the reader and its author, there must be that “break.”

– Poetry can be short and terse, with gaping spaces of images that sometimes don’t make sense the first time. The ending poem “[and the deer flash guernica]” serves as a soft echo to the chapbook’s opening poem, with a one-act scene of some deer at night juxtaposed to the multiple “I” scenes in “Aubade Inverse.”

– Accessibility is important. I want to believe people can emotionally and mentally relate to the poems in Bad Anatomy. Even if they can’t always see where the poems are coming from, they can understand the content at least.

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

Hannah Cohen: These poems are like my own piercing arrows in that they’re tangible problems I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with in my life. While obviously not 100% autobiographical, several poems from Bad Anatomy sprouted from real situations and feelings. “2 a.m.,” for example, was made up of several moments where I was driving home in the dark. I suffer from pressure headaches and take Excedrin mainly for the placebo effect. I put all these things together and gave it that title to emphasize the aimlessness I was experiencing in my early twenties. Other poems have painful content (see “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal”) that was eventually tamed by either its form or presentation.

Another challenge was the actual order of the poems. I did not want an obvious A to Z narrative, nor did I want poems to merely be mirrors to each other. I am thankful that one of my blurbers, Emilia Phillips, was able to offer some valuable advice about how to arrange Bad Anatomy for the most emotional impact. “Saturnism” was a frustrating poem to work into the chapbook, because it’s based on Vincent van Gogh and is the oldest poem. I almost removed it entirely. However, because it’s bookended by two short-ish poems about either separation or moving on, it seemed to finally work as its own entity, allowing me and the reader to inhabit a different mental space.

In the end, I’m happy with the final result. At some point, you just have to save the Word document and send it off to your publisher because if you keep nitpicking or changing up the order or a poem’s line, it won’t ever be done. Poems aren’t this finite object – you can always change it up at a reading or any future reprints.

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Special thanks to Hannah Cohen for participating! To learn more about Cohen’s work, check out her site! Copies of Bad Anatomy can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

authorpichc*

Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. Hannah is the author of the chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press and co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and Gravel. She’s received Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations.

idioma-ing with Rhina P. Espaillat

Reflecting upon my first year here of teaching at the faculty level, I find myself valuing the concept of visibility. I have been moved by students who have reached out to me and thanked me for bringing in poems that are in English and Spanish, or for having made the space to discuss issues of Latinx identity and marginalized communities in general. These interactions reaffirm what I feel is one of my responsibilities as both an educator and Latinx poet, that of being a visible presence of where I come from, who I am, and what I believe in.

I feel I have been doing this kind of work in my poetry for years. Since I could first sonnet and haiku, I’ve been mixing my two languages, letting them knock into each other on the page similarly to how they knock around in me day to day. I feel the experience of writing in two languages, often in the same poem, charges the written work with a further gesture of presence and visibility.

pexels-photo-69004Finding this week’s poem, “Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina P. Espaillat, was an experience filled with this charge and gesture that I speak of. Espaillat is a formidable formalist (pun intended) and what she accomplishes in this poem is a prime example of her virtuosity. In this poem, she takes on the heroic couplet, and strings a number of them down, rhyming the whole way, while also braiding together a dual narrative of language and family. The result is a reading experience that resonates with the precious human qualities that lyric poetry singularly evokes.

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Bilingual/Bilingüe – Rhina P. Espaillat

My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was—his memory, his name
(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

from Where Horizons Go (New Odyssey Press, 1998)