recap of my recent Linfield College reading!

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Just a quick note to share this thoughtful recap of my recent poetry reading at Linfield College up at Medium!

I read on September 11th as part of the Readings at the Nick series held at Linfield’s Nicholson Library. Here’s “Alabanza” by Martín Espada, the poem I read to start things off.

Thank you to Ryan O’Dowd for this engaging detailing of the reading!

— José

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rad Wallace Stevens

This week’s poem – “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm” by Wallace Stevens – takes me back to a conversation I had with a co-worker when I worked at a bookstore years ago. I had been arranging the poetry section for National Poetry Month and positioning a Wallace Stevens book to face out from a eye-level shelf. My co-worker happened to pass by and say: Stevens! Cool! I know one poem by him. “The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm.” It’s rad!

I hadn’t read the poem but I was intrigued, as Stevens is often not the easiest person to follow line by line. Not that I didn’t think my co-worker incapable of following a Stevens poem, but rather that a conversation about Stevens, for me, usually brings in difficulty, his use of ambiguity and lyrical obfuscation, and the way you have to work at following what he has to say. At least that’s been my experience. I usually tell folks that I’ve picked up and put down Stevens’ Collected Poems three times in my life, each time getting a little farther into it, before moving on, not defeated just knotted with questions. And yet, getting through more and more poems of his continues to be a rich experience.

bookstore_eugene_oregonWhen I finally read the poem below, it was a double surprise. Not only is it a poem that feels like looking through a beam of light – the clarity of the language and meta-thought is such that I immediately doubted my ability to follow what was being said – but the subject of the poem at the end, the way it honors the reading act, makes it an apt poem to be shared between bookstore employees. I mean, our living was made around reading.

I suppose this post is less about the poem but more about reading acts and reading experiences shared. As this blog began as an effort to share my own reading experiences, it’s nice to come back to those roots as dwell a bit on how they’ve been inspiring me throughout my life. Whether you find the poem below “rad” or not, see what you catch of it. See what you “become” and what becomes of you in the process.

The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm – Wallace Stevens

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

from Collected Poems (Vintage)

new review at The Bind!

Just a quick post to share my latest review for The Bind!

montesIn this review, I share thoughts on Lara Mimosa Montes’s The Somnambulist (Horse Less Press, 2016) via an “eight-ball” form.

Alternating between excerpts from the book and my own critical/meditative prose reflections, this review mimics the pool game of eight-ball in terms of its section and its free range form.

Here’s my explanation:

In [the] spirit of braided open-endedness and intimacy, I have arranged my thoughts on and reactions to The Somnambulist across the following fifteen moments from the text. Consider these thoughts arranged like a game of eight-ball after the break shot where nothing has been pocketed. The pool analogy stems from the narrative of the uncle, whose role as a hustler parallels the role of a poet for the speaker in the book. My aim is to have my thoughts parallel the excerpts in a like manner, with the review being another open table where what matters is not any grand point being made or “pocketed.” Instead, the back-and-forth between reader and text is the focus, the reading experience as a game without scores, whose play and movement are trajectories into poetry.

Check out the full review here.

— José

testamenting with Carolyn M. Rodgers

Over the summer, I got a chance to add to my forthcoming poetry collection, An Empty Pot’s Darkness, which will be published in 2019 by Airlie Press. This book is an expansion of my chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves (Flutter Press) and its series of lyric sequences about two late friends from my hometown in Texas. This new collection builds on the theme of mortality, the latest addition being a “testament” poem.

testamentTestament poems tend to be a mix of a poet’s last will in verse (a la Francois Villon) and a catalogue of wishes and hopes (a la Pablo Neruda). This particular mode of lyric meditation, for me, ended up feeling expansive. I was surprised by how I ended up writing less about the life live and more about the act of writing as living and survival.

I see a similar emphasis on survival in the poem below by Carolyn M. Rodgers. The poem begins by immediately departing from the testament’s focus on the self and instead addressing the poem to another. By doing so, connection becomes part of the survival act. The poem moves in its declarations and images of hardship, creating a narrative that reaffirms life through active survival. Speaking of how “we can stand boldly in burdening places (like earth here),” Rodgers honors this survival as the undeniable fact of who we are. 

Testament – Carolyn M. Rodgers

child,
in the august of your life
you come barefoot to me
the blisters of events
having worn through to the
soles of your shoes.

it is not the time
this is not the time

there is no such time
to tell you
that some pains ease away
on the ebb & toll of
themselves.
there is no such dream that
can not fail, nor is hope our
only conquest.
we can stand boldly in burdening places (like earth here)
in our blunderings, our bloomings
our palms, flattened upward or pressed,
an unyielding down.

from The Heart as Ever Green (Anchor Press)

birding with Edward Hirsch

This week’s poem – “Branch Library” by Edward Hirsch – takes me back to being a kid getting dropped off at the Greenwood Library in Corpus Christi, Texas (an experience I recently wrote a short essay about). Those early experiences of wandering stacks are with me in some small part to this day as I walk around a library or bookstore.

bird-sketch-1517679561sj1Along with this personal connection, Hirsch’s poem moves me for the way it braids together a variety of wordplay. From the play on “branch” as both the specific locale of the title to the poem’s riffing on bird language, there is a purposeful cleverness at work. What this levity does for the poem is give it an imaginative momentum that keeps over-seriousness and sentimentality from taking over by bringing them together directly. The earnest love of books and language meets the bird imagery and metaphor to evoke the exhilaration of the speaker’s younger self.

Through this braiding and inventiveness, Hirsch’s poem takes the reader along for the search for a younger self, a search that is a wonder in itself.

Branch Library – Edward Hirsch

I wish I could find that skinny, long-beaked boy
who perched in the branches of the old branch library.

He spent the Sabbath flying between the wobbly stacks
and the flimsy wooden tables on the second floor,

pecking at nuts, nesting in broken spines, scratching
notes under his own corner patch of sky.

I’d give anything to find that birdy boy again
bursting out into the dusky blue afternoon

with his satchel of scrawls and scribbles,
radiating heat, singing with joy.

from Special Orders (Knopf 2008)

intuiting with Mary Oliver

The beginning of the school year for me is always a time of advice. New students come into the fray of doing the work to better their lives via education, making the necessary sacrifices of time, energy, and finances. It’s a sensitive position, and I work hard to be sensitive to it. Whether the topic is making decisions about what classes to take or simply a poem or essay they are working on, one of the things I think I’m guiding a student towards is intuition. I figure if a person learns to listen to themselves and hear what they already know, they’ll be that much more aware of what they don’t know and how to seek it out.

night treesThis week’s poem – “The Journey” by Mary Oliver – is a poem that I associate it with this kind of intuition and listening. The poem is grounded in a narrative that is richly ambiguous; the choice of the second person “you” address brings a reader close to the stakes of the poem while the language is kept in a register that is accessible and fluid. Yet, rather than fall into any cliches about “journeys,” the poem creates a creeping urgency through its physicality. A house “trembles”; something “tugs” at the ankles; and by the end, the you is striding forward with a newfound conviction, if not confidence.

This poem, in particular, is a favorite because this feeling I’m attempting to describe remains consistent over my twenty years of admiration and rereading. The poem lives in a lyrical mode that asks the reader to be present in themselves, a position where all strong writing – and living – begins.

The Journey – Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

from Dream Work (The Atlantic Monthly Press)

summering with William Carlos Williams

The end of summer is a ways off, but with the start of school there is a change in summer’s energy at least. For me, I’m bracing to become some version of those balloon figures you see at car dealerships, the ones that are flung in various directions depending on the wind. That’s what teaching mode is like for me, lots of energy and enthusiasm.

car dealership balloonIt’s a mixed blessing, though, as there is a part of me this time of year that wants to stand back and reflect. Could be my birthday, could be the looming end of summer, could be knowing that what happens during the semester is a huge shift, and I don’t love change. I’m reconciled to it, and I love teaching. But yet there’s an unnameable feeling that comes.

This week’s poem – “Summer Song” by William Carlos Williams – touches a bit on what that unnameable feeling might be like. Through the personification of the moon, Williams builds a short narrative whose logic leads up to a compelling closing image and thought. I consider the closing question from a grounded place, but am lifted by it nonetheless.

Summer Song – William Carlos Williams

Wanderer moon
smiling a
faintly ironical smile
at this
brilliant, dew-moistened
summer morning,—
a detached
sleepily indifferent
smile, a
wanderer’s smile,—
if I should
buy a shirt
your color and
put on a necktie
sky-blue
where would they carry me?