* surging with angela narciso torres

Reading through Angela Narciso Torres’s poetry collection Blood Orange, I was moved again and again by the way moments of attention and detail are hinged in such way to the line as to create a visceral reaction, a blur of image and meaning that shifts the act of reading poetry beyond merely running eyes over text.

In this week’s poem, “Ironing Woman,” the memory of being with someone as they work is delivered in rich, physical detail. What makes the details sing is how the poet handles the pacing throughout. There is a move repeated between stanza breaks, for example, that is later followed through the poem’s final image. The broken sentence at the end of the first stanza delivers its wisdom via white space and suspense; white space enters again between the second and third stanza to let the word “Slowly” linger in the reader’s mind so that the movement between the image before and the image after carry significant weight and presence. This movement of presence and resonance comes to a stunning flourish in the final image, which moves from the interior of the room to an image of ” a gull’s shadow / over the surging sea.”

This final image of shadow tied strictly to the sea mirrors the ironing woman’s stare and delivers the reality of how work ties itself to who we are, whether through physical or psychic memory.

seagull

Ironing Woman – Angela Narciso Torres

Afternoons I’d lie on her woven mat
of lemongrass and burnt leaves,
listening to tales of spurned love
on her bright-yellow transistor radio.
From her I learned what the old wives knew —

never to wash after ironing. Propelling
the gleaming prow across the ripples
of my father’s shirt, she’d tell how the iron
gnarled her wrists, once smooth as bamboo.
How the steaming metal twisted
her veins, brought on “the shakes.”
When I saw the serpentine rivers
on her arms, I knew this was true. Slowly

she’d raise both hands to show how
they trembled like maidenhair ferns
before a storm. Turning to her work,
her eyes reclaimed their stare
as though tracing a gull’s shadow
over the surging sea.

*

Happy surging!

José

* moody mooning with stafford & gilbert

If you were a scientist, if you were an explorer who had been to the moon. . . What you said would have the force of that accumulated background of information; and any mumbles, mistakes, dithering, could be forgiven . . . But a poet – whatever you are saying, and however you are saying it, the only authority you have builds from the immediate performance, or it does not build. The moon you are describing is the one you are creating.  From the very beginning of your utterance you are creating your own authority.
(William Stafford)

trojanLast Friday, I had the pleasure of talking at Foy H. Moody High School (Go Trojans!), the high school I graduated from in Corpus Christi, Texas. My talk was structured around the above quote from William Stafford and the idea of writing as performance. Along with reading poems about the moon, I provided students with index cards where they could try their hand at describing/creating the moon. Here’s one that a student, Ashley, was kind enough to allow me to share here:

It makes me want to swallow
my tears, it makes me believe
I can forget my fears.
It gives me hope.

One of the things that moves me about this young poet’s lyric is how it reaches out to a similar sentiment as the Izumi Shikibu tanka I shared last week. Both lyrics set the solitary figure of the moon against the solitude of the self and work out of that tension a feeling of hope. Truly inspiring!

As part of my visit, I donated copies of Corpus Christi OctavesReasons (not) to Dance, and Everything We Think We Hear to the library. As I made my way through readings from Reasons and Everything, I found the moon popping up over and over again in the poems, serendipitously chiming along with the framework of my talk. It was one of those happy accidents that happen while teaching that, in a way, show your intuition paying off.

When a student asked why I thought the moon came up in the poems so much, I surprised myself again by sharing that it might have something to do with having shared a room as a child with my mother. She would work late nights, and often I would stay awake in bed staring out the window. And most nights the moon was there; when not, then the stars.

Looking back on this moment, I can’t help thinking about the following poem by Jack Gilbert, where he gives his own moon-reasoning:

Secrets of Poetry – Jack Gilbert

People complain about too many moons in my poetry.
Even my friends ask why I keep putting in the moon.
And I wish I had an answer like when Archie Moore
was asked by a reporter in the dressing room
after the fight, “Why did you keep looking in
his eyes, Archie? The whole fight you were
looking in his eyes.” And old Archie Moore said,
“Because the eyes are the windows to the soul, man.”

738px-Galileo's_sketches_of_the_moon
* mirrors to the sol *

Another “wish I could back and share” thought: It completely slipped my  mind that in the Octaves I have the following poem where I riff and hold conversation with the Stafford quote. I share it here in the spirit of belatedness:

The moon you are describing is the one you are creating
– William Stafford

How many moons between us, friend?
I meet you under circumstances
bad and good: bad, because you’re not here,
good, because I get to listen

and hear the moon you’d have me see.
Moon of my own efforts: where to start?
My questions? What are questions? Tonight,
the moon is in the shape of one.

*

Special thanks to Simon Rios and Melissa Yanez of Moody for helping set up the talks! Thanks also to Ashley, Marcos, and all the other students who participated in the talk about the moon!

Happy lunaring!

José

 

* refreshing via lisel mueller

Train_stuck_in_snow The Wikipedia page for Snow, under the heading “Effects on human society,” features the image here of a snow blockade in southern Minnesota in 1881. While awe is something I’ve always associated with snow – at least for the first ten minutes of a downfall, then I just get cranky – there’s something altogether new and refreshing experienced with this image. And here, I mean refreshing as in the “refresh” button on your computer screen that makes everything *new.*

There’s the sheer daunting presence of the snow in the image, how there’s essentially more snow than train. There’s the fact the train continues to push forward, it’s engine stubborn and pushed. Then there’s the human figure standing on the train who maybe doesn’t believe what they see, as I don’t; or maybe does, as the above circumstance may have been an everyday occurence for trains.

I look at the lone figure and think: Well, there’s a poet. Not in the sense that I would impose any romantic notion upon them, but rather there’s a situation a poet seeks. Everyday snow and everyday train, but how often from this perspective?

This week’s poem by Lisel Mueller takes into a similar, refreshing perspective. The intimacy of the lyric charges the snow imagery with a tone that evokes both the lightness and light of snow. Snow becomes a way to see and feel ourselves anew.

Snow – Lisel Mueller*

Telephone poles relax their spines;
sidewalks go under. The nightly groans
of aging porches are put to sleep.
Mercy sponges the lips of stairs.

While we talk in the old concepts –
time that was, and things that are –
snow has leveled the stumps of the past
and the earth has a new language.

It is like the scene in which the girl
moves toward the hero
who has not yet said, “Come here.”

Come here, then. Every ditch
has been exalted. We are covered with stars.
Feel how light they are, our lives.

*

Happy lighting!

José

*from Alive Together: New and Selected Poems

* sequencing with galway kinnell

As I work out of the echo of last week’s exams, I continue to have thoughts along the lines of fragmented narratives and ways of making use of what’s called in media res, which translates roughly as “into the middle of things.” It’s a phrase I picked up while reading Shakespeare: we first meet Romeo as he is in between relationships (I always forget that some serious moping opens up that famous play about love: kind of foreshadowing, no?).

I also see the term in media res as summing up how we understand ourselves. We are born into the middle of our parents’ lives; we read poems in the middle of different stages of our life; we eat, uhm, sandwiches in the middle of the day – and from these moments begin to cobble together the narrative pieces that make up who we are.

One of the ways this concept is worked with in lyric poetry is the sequence, and one of the great practitioners of which was Galway Kinnell, whose lines do the careful and exacting work of establishing moments and threading them together towards a greater whole.

Coming back to this week’s poem, there’s some sonic repetition (flop; feathers; flames) throughout the piece I hadn’t noticed before, and it’s telling how those sounds are absent from section 5. The difference, while subtle, does much to make the feeling of that section stand out against the rest. Each stanza, ultimately, plays image and moment against each other powerfully through such distinctions.

flames_of_faces_2nd_version_by_serge1965-d3i7xer

Another Night in the Ruins – Galway Kinnell

1
In the evening
haze darkening on the hills,
purple of the eternal,
a last bird crosses over,
‘flop flop,’ adoring
only the instant.

2
Nine years ago,
in a plane that rumbled all night
above the Atlantic,
I could see, lit up
by lightning bolts jumping out of it,
a thunderhead formed like the face
of my brother, looking down
on blue,
lightning-flashed moments of the Atlantic.

3
He used to tell me,
“What good is the day?
On some hill of despair
the bonfire
you kindle can light the great sky—
though it’s true, of course, to make it burn
you have to throw yourself in …”

4
Wind tears itself hollow
in the eaves of these ruins, ghost-flute
of snowdrifts
that build out there in the dark:
upside-down ravines
into which night sweeps
our cast wings, our ink-spattered feathers.

5
I listen.
I hear nothing. Only
the cow, the cow of such
hollowness, mooing
down the bones.

6
Is that a
rooster? He
thrashes in the snow
for a grain. Finds
it. Rips
it into
flames. Flaps. Crows.
Flames
bursting out of his brow.

7
How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren’t, after all, made
from that bird that flies out of its ashes,
that for us
as we go up in flames, our one work
is
to open ourselves, to be
the flames?

***

Happy flames!

José

* contemplating one-sidedness via bill knott

This week’s poem is another gem from Bill Knott.

I’m always happy to run into poems that take on an overlooked part of life and refresh it, make it new by simple acknowledgement. In the case of Knott’s poem “Paradise,” the act of reading a book with facing translations is blown up for the meeting of worlds and circumstances that it is. The choice of words to describe what he terms “Righthandland” – gutter, damned, pulp, tongue – and what it means to dwell as a reader in one language with only glimpses of the original is spot-on. Enjoy!

* the music facing *
* notes from Lefthandland *

Paradise – Bill Knott

Always reading the recto
translation of a verso
original, my eye fades.
I notice how the paper
here on this side seems
darker than its opposite:
it is brighter over there
on the lefthand page, the
words of the real poem
give it that glow which
the prized act of creation
emits.  We who must live
here in Righthandland
are damned no matter
how hard we try to rhyme
minds with that perfect
realm across the gutter.
Even if our pulp comes
from the same stock,
we fear closing the book
will bring us face to face,
mouth to mouth with
that tongue we’ve always
lost, and can never kiss.

***

Happy nevering!

Jose

* flying beyond the surface with ernesto cardenal

The Parrots – Ernesto Cardenal

My friend Michel is an army officer
in Somoto up near the Honduran border,
and he told me he had found some contraband parrots
waiting to be smuggled to the United States
to learn to speak English there.

There were 186 parrots
with 47 already dead in their cages.
He drove them back where they’d been taken from
and as the lorry approached a place known as The Plains
near the mountains which were these parrots’ home
(behind those plains the mountains stand up huge)
the parrots got excited, started beating their wings
and shoving against their cage-sides.

When the cages were let open
they all shot out like an arrow shower
straight for their mountains.

The Revolution did the same for us I think:
It freed us from the cages
where they trapped us to talk English,
it gave us back the country
from which we were uprooted,
their green mountains restored to the parrots
by parrot-green comrades.

But there were 47 that died.

* cardenal *
* cardenal *

For the past two weeks I’ve been doing my best to share with my intermediate composition students what it means to problematize. Last week, one student neatly summed it up as “asking questions to see beyond the surface.” I was so fond of that definition that I’ve adopted it into my day to day thinking.

Poems, in a way, do this kind of questioning, whether explicitly or implicitly. Robert Frost couldn’t just let the two guys build their wall, he had to go and write a poem about it. What else the act of putting words to what we experience but an admission of wanting to understand, to “see beyond the surface?”

This week’s poem, by Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, takes us beyond the surface of a story about parrots into what he would understand and have the reader understand with him. The voice remains straightforward to the point that we don’t notice when the “surface” of the story is broken and when the deeper levels of political and personal meaning start to take flight around us.

***

I wanted to take a moment and say thank you to everyone for the good wishes on the release of my new chapbook, Reasons (not) to Dance. The show of support and kindness here and elsewhere has meant the world to me. I am extremely proud of this project. To officially be a “microcuentista” and add what I can to the rich traditions of the prose poem, flash fiction, short-short, microcuento, etc. is an honor. Thank you for being along for the ride!

See you next Friday!

Jose

* rivering via bill knott

This week’s poem is another Bill Knott gem.

What moves me most about it is how it stirs up from mere words a whole fabulistic world from a distance, and, by the end of the poem, brings the world closer to the reader, as close as the glass of water in hand that makes up the final image.

Seeing as the poem involves rivers meeting (and not meeting), this week’s image is of the confluence of the Rhone and Arve River in Geneva, Switzerland.

* the friday confluence *
* a friday confluence *

By the River BAAB – Bill Knott

We know that somewhere far north of here
the two rivers Ba and Ab converge to form
this greater stream that sustains us, uniting
the lifeblood length of our lands: and we believe
that the Ba’s sources is heaven, the Ab’s hell.

Daily expeditions embark upcountry to find
that fork, to learn where the merge first occurs.
Too far: none of our explorer’s return.  Or
else when they reach that point they themselves
are torn apart by a sudden urge to choose –

to resolutely take either the Ba/the Ab, to trace
good or evil to its spring.  Each flips a coin
perhaps, or favors whichever one the wind’s
blowing from at that moment.  Down here
even we who have not the heart to venture

anywhere that would force us to such deep
decisions, even we, when we hold that glass of
water in our hand, drink it slowly, deliberately,
as if we could taste the two strains, could somehow
distinguish their twin flow through our veins.

***

Happy veining!

Jose