into the octaves part three

araguz coverThis post is the third and last of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here and the second here).

For this final post, I’m sharing a sequence that did not make it into the book. It’s a sequence strictly written around the life of E. A. Robinson, with some braiding of my own narrative in there. I share them, flaws and all, in the spirit of craft lessons as well as a kind of fan fiction among poets.

On the craft side, one can see the moves I was trying out. The word “untriangulated” comes into play, for example. There are distinct syllabic patterns throughout these as well. As for fan fiction, I do borrow from Robinson’s own mythic Tilbury town and mention a number of his characters. Even if you haven’t read his poems, however, there is at least a sense of a lonely dude being written about.

This last bit might be at the heart of both these posts and my book. Facing and acknowledging the loneliness that the death of others leaves us in. And also the loneliness of mortality, of living on. In conversation with a friend, I surprised myself by calling this my most vulnerable book, mainly due to how stripped the poems are, eight lines per page, no title even. Whatever flaws in the lyrics below, what I hope comes through is the effort to push beyond sentimentality into clear sentiment and human gesture. Ultimately, in lyric poetry, and especially when it comes to elegiac material, human gesture is what we’re after.

Octaves for E. A. Robinson

His medicine was stronger than any
supplied to him.  It waited for him to sit
alone, and drew from him its strength the way
the sun and moon divide the sky, pulling
the light between.  The days of sun would burn.
The days of moon returned to count the hours,
the body for him especially a thing
irreparable: grit turned on itself.

*

He stood with them in the moonlight as though
walking on air – that’s how it comes to me
at least, this poet of images like rare and vague
Bible curses slipped through codes and tongues,
and only registered by some to have
a cursing power.  Many read his words
and puzzled, but never called it puzzle: the air
in which they read, the moonlight he stood in.

*

No readings, talks or lectures: no voice, then,
one would think, reading on the poet.
Time was always set aside for words,
for words and drink.  He drank the words, the words
drank him.  His writing like water passing
from one glass to another, the same volume
kept, the same clear substance moving.
A restlessness you could almost see.

*

I walk the city where you stumbled, stumble
myself a few  times. I do not have
your untriangulated stars only
a vague idea where they are. The lights
I walk under are different from the ones
that lit your way. You stumbled in the dark.
I am blinded on my way between
the page and working for the page, the stars.

*

They dropped names into a hat
and picked yours out. The winner
was from Arlington, so there
your middle name. The words came
slowly. Whatever the sun
did to the sand, whatever
filled the air that day: laughter,
broken waves: each has named you.

*

You gave them drink, Win,
gave them Tilbury,
the house on the hill,
the mill and no one
there anymore, gave
Flood and Stark, Bright tore
down the slaughterhouse,
you did not give, Win.

*

Had I your nerve South Texas
would be riddled out, riddled
with faces over bottles,
riddled with birds, wingspans wide
as palm trees. I’d follow down
each crack on the face the Sphinx
sits there holding, be part of
the wearing wind howling through.

*

Black diphtheria: two words
to end a life your mother’s
body left for her sons to
care after to carry out
past the porch where the preacher
prayed at a distance down to
where two brothers dug and you
clung to life you’re supposed to

*

you loved your brother’s wife like
Lancelot loved Guinevere
you fell into your stories
drank Tilbury dry drank Flood
would’ve drunk the moon could you
see straight into yourself as
the bullet through the head which
has not landed since it shot

*

just a person in the crowd
or in Hood’s sketch a man too
busy reading to look up
every curve and shade around
the pages made them seem set
for flight but not yet one more
turn of phrase what sentence then
for the silence you’re drawn in?

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

into the octaves part two

araguz coverThis post is the second of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD (check out the first post here).

Around the time of putting the early drafts of these sequences together, I remember having a conversation with a friend about Donald Justice and the work he put into having Weldon Kees’ poetry be more well-known. I remember saying that it’s what we do as writers: carry each other forward, whether in memories, stories, or creative work. Always advocating for presence on some level.

This thought shaped the collection in a lot of ways. An influence and example of this type of carrying each other work is the sequence “Twelve Poems for Cavafy” by Yannis Ritsos. In this powerful sequence, Ritsos pays homage to the poet Cavafy through distinct lyric meditations. The ones that move me the most are the ones that focus on the every day life of the poet, honoring the things that lived around the poet and his poems.

The poem “His Lamp” (below) is a good example of what I mean. Ritsos uses Cavafy’s lamp as a jumping off point into a meditation on mortality. Similarly, the sequence “for Dennis Flinn” in An Empty Pot’s Darkness chronicles moments of my friendship with Flinn, specifically during a summer in which I lived at his house. He lived without electricity, and offered me a room during a tough period in my life. We survived in the dark together, often talking or writing by the light of kerosene lamps ourselves. In the excerpts below, I do my best to honor Flinn’s armchair. It’s the kind of thing you don’t realize plays a large part of the experience of living with someone until that person is gone.

excerpt from “Twelve Poems for Cavafy”
by Yannis Ritsos

2. His Lamp

The lamp is peaceful, serviceable; he prefers it
to any other lighting. He adjusts his light
to the needs of the moment, to the age-old
unavowable desire. And always
this odor of kerosene, this subtle presence,
very unobtrusive, at night, when he returns alone
with so much fatigue in his limbs, so much futility
in the texture of his coat, in the seams of the pockets,
that every movement seems useless, unendurable —
once more, to distract him, here’s the lamp — the wick,
the match, the flickering flame (with its shadows
on the bed, on the desk, on the walls), but especially
the glass cover — its fragile transparency
which, in a simple and human gesture,
once more involves you: in saving yourself or in saving.

**

excerpts from “for Dennis Flinn” sequence — José Angel Araguz

You spent afternoons in your armchair,
in and out of sleep. You’d call my name
to see if I was around. Evenings,
you’d go housesit, leaving me the dark.

Since you died in someone else’s house,
no one’s explained it to your armchair:
He is sleeping in another life.
When he wakes, you’ll know it when you creak.

*

No plot then, no arc, no denouement.

The day you turned ash, I wasn’t there.
I can only tell it like you might
through white, gray words: You rest in pieces.
Perhaps you’d laugh. You merely left scraps.
A chuckle. A crackle in your throat.
You left life as broke as you had lived.

I can almost hear your armchair creak.

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

into the octaves part one

araguz coverThis will be the first of a short series of posts discussing some of the thinking and inspirations behind my latest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press), which is available on SPD as of this week!

Back when I started experimenting with the octave form, I drew inspiration from a series of poems by Edward Arlington Robinson also entitled “octaves”:

XI – Edward Arlington Robinson

STILL through the dusk of dead, blank-legended,
And unremunerative years we search
To get where life begins, and still we groan
Because we do not find the living spark
Where no spark ever was; and thus we die,
Still searching, like poor old astronomers
Who totter off to bed and go to sleep,
To dream of untriangulated stars.

I wrote about this particular octave once in a previous post, and noted how much I admired how Robinson gets away with the highly syllabic words “unermunerative” and “untriangulated.” As my own experiments at the time had me working around intuitive syllabic phrasing, I took it as a challenge to include highly syllabic words throughout the sequences of An Empty Pot’s Darkness.

The octave below is from the sequence “for Christine Maloy” which pays elegiac tribute to a young poet from my hometown Corpus Christi who was living with lupus, a serious autoimmune condition, until she died one winter due to flu. Her death was discussed in the local news in a way that glossed over how vulnerable people who are immunocompromised actually are to things like the flu which are summarily dismissed or made light of in society. In writing about her passing and our friendship, I found myself at turns angry and lost to these attitudes and how they overlook the real human lives affected by them.

In this sequence dedicated to my friend I try to work out poems that are examples of how formal strategies can be subverted and brought into conversation with personal and political stakes, all in the effort to represent the human life we carry in memory.

excerpt from “for Christine Maloy” sequence – José Angel Araguz

On Facebook, people still seek you out.
This last face, pixelated,
thumbnail hitchhiking to now,
gives a grin, lends small glints to your eyes,
constellates them to sharp points of light.
Is this the shape of your myth?
A held look, a look away
I cannot triangulate.

*

Copies of An Empty Pot’s Darkness can be purchased from SPD and Airlie Press.

community feature: Airlie Press book launch!

This particular community feature post is focused on the upcoming book launch of three of Airlie Press’s new titles: Ordinary Gravity by Gary Lark, Savagery by J.C. Mehta, and, winner of the 2018 Airlie Prize, Wonder Tissue by Hannah Larrabee!

Here’s the info for those of you in the Portland, OR area:

When: Tuesday, October 1st @ 7pm
Where: Annie Bloom’s Books, 7834 SW Capitol Hwy, Portland, OR 97219

I’m presently in my second year of a three-year stint as a co-editor of Airlie Press and can honestly say that it is a joy to be able to play a part in bringing these books out into the world. Below are excerpts from the new books either to give a taste of the upcoming book launch or to hold space for those of us, like myself, who aren’t able to be there.

Excerpt from Ordinary Gravity by Gary Lark

Much Improved 

Hardly anyone dies of typhoid fever
any more. We can send our sons to war
without complaint. Lice are quickly dispatched
and no one freezes to death.
We have piles of antibiotics.
The broadsword wounded aren’t left
in the field to die with others rotting around them.
Of course there are more bombs and bullets
but morphine is readily available.
We can usually save a soldier whose limb
is blown off.
Yes, things are much improved.
We can send more daughters up to the front.
They have the right.
Soldiering is still a good option for the poor.
We’re working on pills for madness,
more medications to calm the nerves
and we’ll get a handle on this suicide business,
yes we will.

*

Excerpt from Savagery by J.C. Mehta

The Heart Consumes Itself 

It’s not true the starved
don’t eat, we die

of broken hips, pelvis
churned to dust—slowly,

the heart consumes
itself. Atrophies and implodes.

(These chambers, remember,
are a muscle.)

Nobody nowhere shoulders
the strength to stop it all, the whole
fat world from slipping
between cracked, wanting lips. We eat

and we hate,

with each bite and gag-
me spoon. Our weakness
displayed like limbs
splayed wide, flushed
shameful folds of pink.
How I wish

I could stop. Let the valves
shut down cold. Listen,
that last organ coda. And you
in dutiful ovation.

*

Excerpt from Wonder Tissue by Hannah Larrabee

Extraterrestrial

Loose-leaf planet I survive
steeping in a pocket of dust
or lakeside listening to loons,
my tongue curling around
their songs of sorrow, fierce
red eyes, fierce as her body,
its way of going about me—oh,
abandoned bed like a reliquary,
her bone fingers a memory
inside me—oh, I have learned
the language of the homesick
 on
this planet of horses, this planet
of her legs tightening around me,
force rising against gravity, magma
loosened as from a spur kicked
into earth, foaming at the bit, I am
tamed, I am tamed, come tame me
extraterrestrial, I, too, have learned
the word beautiful, mapped its quiet
coordinates, the wind through her dress
is the conversation of cells, I am alive
in all my fires.

*

Click on the following to learn more about Airlie’s publishing collective model, our present single poem prize, our national Airlie Prize, and the regional open reading period from which editorships are determined.

And be sure to check out my own new Airlie title, An Empty Pot’s Darkness.

new book: An Empty Pot’s Darkness!

I’m happy to announce the release of my newest poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness (Airlie Press)! This collection takes the octave form I worked with in my chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves and expands on it with new sequences on life, love, and death.

araguz coverThank you to Ani Schreiber for creating the cover art! Special thanks also to Adeeba Shahid Talukder, Vincent Cooper, and Laura M Kaminski for writing blurbs and spending time with the project early. Also, thank you to the whole Airlie gang for taking a chance on this project.

One last thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read my work in the past! This new project has me working in a more nuanced space, one that I hope reads as a further development of my way with the line.

Copies can presently be purchased at the Airlie site – where you can also read more about the book as well as catch an excerpt.

Thank you for helping me welcome this new book into the world!

one more from Sarah McCartt-Jackson

stonelight3In my recent microreview & interview of Stonelight (Airlie Press) by Sarah McCartt-Jackson, I noted how nature is often used as a lens in these poems to engage with human understanding and feeling. In detailing the narrative of Ora and her family, this lens feels natural, a kind of environmental intuition. Much like in poetry writing, the speakers across these poems scratch out meaning from what they have and are left with.

I say “left with” here specifically to imply loss. One of the things Ora has to reconcile to herself is a series of pregnancies which at times lead to miscarriages. In “Ora names her children (before they are born)” (below), one can see how the act of reconciliation plays out in linguistic and metaphorical richness. McCartt-Jackson’s rich facility with language and phrasing is in full display here as the natural and human world are braided in a way that invokes a soul to one and a wildness to the other.

“Naming” her children after elements of the natural world, Ora’s act of reconciliation is also one of reclaiming. She recovers what is not there – not there either through loss (as elsewhere in the book) or through not having arrived (as in this poem) – by bringing it into communion with what is there. The result is a speaker both haunted by and haunting the world around her. With every loss and possibility, Ora emphasizes her presence through this ability to name. The ending here, ultimately, troubles the certainty of this presence in a way that echoes throughout the whole of Stonelight.

Ora names her children (before they are born) – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

unafraid of the shadow that glides up the mountain
approaching the nest. She names them the too-close sound
of a child’s whisper inside her ear. She names them buds
on splintery sycamore limbs and the buds’ curled leaves.
She names them after river clay and lightning shapes,
after songs she hears from the bucket dropped into the well.
She names them turnip and buckeye and leather and bird-feather hat
and tulip and the yellow color of rooms lit by flame.
She names them loneliness that can be rocked to sleep,
rooms haunted by dust that crawls in between the floorboards,
a thunderstorm of starlings crowding out the light. She names
the fingernails, the knees, pale eyelashes, tiny shoes,
caterpillar inching along the branch hung over the roof.
And when her upturned hands pile up with names, she pours
them onto every pinecone fallen empty of seed split through
the staves, every fur tuft stuck to bark, every quill hollow
poked through the pillow. She plants them until they return
stitched to the ridgeline bones. They tell her not to name them.

*

Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Be sure to consider entering a manuscript for the Airlie Prize.

To find out more about Sarah McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site.

microreview & interview: Stonelight by Sarah McCartt-Jackson

review by José Angel Araguz

stonelight3

In Stonelight, winner of the 2017 Airlie Prize, Sarah McCartt-Jackson adds to the tradition of lyric narrative collections that includes Margaret Atwood’s The Journals of Susanna Moodie and Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah, books that take on the materials of human life and through them evoke human presence. Informed by McCartt-Jackson’s background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism, the poems of Stonelight move individually as statements of intimate experience, but also work together to tell the story of Ora and Eli and their family. One of the main engines behind this poetic storytelling is the use of nature as a lens to understand and feel human interactions.

The opening poem, “Kentucky Rose,” embodies what I mean in its opening lines:

This soil is a vein of stone the company calls blue heron
to indicate its grade—
a bituminous grease in the pleats of eyelines
and thumbnail quick,
in the corners of Eli’s mouth
until everything tastes like the long coal throat of Mine 18,

In these lines, the worlds of nature and human life are blurred in the physicality of Eli’s experience. The arduousness of coal-mining is evoked in the description of the soil working itself down into “eyelines” and “thumbnail quick.” Yet, the inclusion of the name of the soil “blue heron” frames this meeting of worlds. Bringing to mind a blue heron and its grace and flight, the following lines then sink down into Eli’s more grounded experience. This intense sensory experience continues to the poem’s end:

And when the earthhush of that shaft struggles to slip from the blue
shale stitched above the carbon, the sound becomes the rasp
of a carpenter bee’s mandibles boring tunnels
into the porchwood to remove its yellow poplar
grain by grain, gram by spittled gram.

Here, the intensity of Eli’s work is paralleled with a carpenter bee, an image whose focus and drive is as apt as it is startling. The implications here are double: not only is there the drone of the work, but also the feeling of necessity. Both are doing the work necessary for a living. From start to finish, this poem upends any idea that natural life and human life are at odds; rather, they exist as troubled neighbors leaving impressions on each other.

This use of nature as a lens for human understanding and feeling is found again in “Jacob’s Ladder,” which details Ora experiencing a miscarriage. The poem begins:

They say children born on the wrong side
of the river grow wild as fleabane
and do not return until Spring,
their veins all grass stems and cricket legs,

and that wild scuttles straight from their eyes
over the creekbed and slips over the birdfoot violet
into the sandstone,

Here, the world of superstition is brought in, framing what is at stake in childbirth for Ora. The narrative that begins here, that “children born on the wrong side / of the river grow wild,” is developed through nature metaphors of “fleabane” and veins gone “all grass stems and cricket legs.” This metaphoric language evokes directly what is meant by “wild” and what is to be feared. And yet, the narrative continues in the second stanza with the implication that this wildness will affect the land as well. As with “Kentucky Rose,” human intensity is paralleled with nature. Here, however, the parallel serves storytelling directly. Later in the poem, the reader finds out that Ora is unable to make it to the other side of the river:

So her baby’s hands uncurled as bluet and phlox,
her heart a hard walnut, shriveled and shut,
her bloody mouth a kiss on her mother’s thigh.

In these closing images, the experience of miscarriage is translated into nature metaphors. This reads like a natural progression from the opening stanza’s logic. Where what is feared for the child born on the wrong side of the river is expressed as a wildness whose mystery evokes troubled images of land and insects, the mystery that is death is approached through imagery that withholds further understanding. Here, nature represents what shuts out human life and renders it unknowable.

This reckoning with mortality is woven throughout the poems of Stonelight. As the narrative of Eli and Ora plays out in poems whose rich language is stitched with human heart, what remains compelling is how these characters survive and understand their survival. Even as disaster strikes, Ora’s perceptions of the world around her echoes and defies disaster. Seeing her lost children in nature, and through nature seeing herself, Ora is set down as one of poetry’s most compelling characters.

This presence is accomplished through McCartt-Jackson’s ability to braid together poetry, folklore, and research. In “O Death” (below), whose title is borrowed from an Appalachian dirge, McCartt-Jackson goes in the opposite direction of a majority of the poems in the manuscript. Where, as in the poems cited above, human characters are shown to interpret their experiences through the lens of nature, here we have an unnamed speaker evoking Death in a way that renders the experience human, intimate, and ever-present. Despite the contrast in approach, this poem continues the work of expressing the urgency of the world of Stonelight and its characters.

O Death – Sarah McCartt-Jackson

One by one the cicadas clutching the brittle bark turn their spiracles to the light to breathe her in. Their breath leaves ours on the sky-veined insect wings of the world fluttering in the edge of lampglow between umbra and fire. O candle whose light we love even as your wax taper wanes. She rattles but we do not even hear her, ears pressed to the cold cookstove, to the ragged beanvines, to the dog’s frothy tongue. O stone torn from the coalface, time-split and aching, receive her shaking tail of sound into each seam. Overturn each rock, unearth the roly polys and roll their husks between fingers so she will uncoil from the corngrass and lie on a rotting barn beam where moles scurry into her open mouth, and then turn one by one their bodies inside out. O twitching cicada hull hatched one by one with her rattle. O rattle. She sheds a snakeskin rustling on our front porch step, the silent rings in which she has traveled. Our yard, filled with each year of her scaly chaff, hisses like the white undersides of leaves blowing before the flood-rains. Each day we turn our faces to the woods, to the shade curled in a fern’s fiddlehead, to the shade clasped inside a hollow shell. O night, let their antennae burn.

*

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

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: What excites me most about Stonelight is that this collection combines elements of poetry and fiction. I wrote the book with a narrative arc so that the reader can experience the poems, and the lives inhabiting them, much like experiencing a novel. I was also able to incorporate my background in folk studies, oral history, and naturalism. Throughout the book, readers encounter folk beliefs, words of our ancestors, and a lush environment teeming with flora and fauna. I hope Stonelight guides the reader through the journey with Ora as she experiences her triumphs and tragedies.

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

Sarah McCartt-Jackson: One of the challenges of writing these poems was creating the narrative arc. I had to outline the book much as an author would outline a novel. When I went to put the poems together, I had to identify plot points that might be missing, then write new poems to help fill these gaps. The narrative arc went through many iterations before settling in its current stream.

Another challenge was the sheer history of the poems. Writing about the turn of the previous century required a lot of research—both historical and personal. I spent a lot of time reading old geology books, government documents, oral histories, and naturalist collections. This research gave me some new, rich language that readers might not immediately recognize, but I insisted on using these terms as they are. Because of that, I tried to help readers along with metaphor and imagery, while also providing extensive notes at the end of the book. In this way, we learn something about history, belief systems, and the folk—the people—that I have created in Stonelight.

*

Special thanks to Sarah McCartt-Jackson for participating! To learn more about McCartt-Jackson’s work, check out her site. Copies of Stonelight can be purchased from Airlie Press.

Also: Be sure to consider entering the Airlie Prize, open now through March!

smj*

Kentucky poet, folklorist, and naturalist Sarah McCartt-Jackson has received honors from and been published by Copper Nickel, Bellingham Review, Indiana Review, Journal of American Folklore, The Maine Review, Tidal Basin Review, and others. She is the recipient of an Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council, and has served as artist-in-residence for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shotpouch Cabin (Oregon State University). She is the author of Stonelight (Airlie Press), which won the 2017 Airlie Prize, and two chapbooks, Vein of Stone (Porkbelly Press) and Children Born on the Wrong Side of the River (Casey Shay Press), which won the 2015 Mary Ballard Poetry Prize. She works on a farm in Louisville.