suggestion via Rita Dove

Suggestion is a key element to poetry. Whether it’s a matter of word choice, how using the word “broken,” say, suggests its opposite, “fixed”; or within the structure of a metaphor itself, the juxtaposition of two things bringing to mind a further connection, suggestion is one word for poetry’s ability to tap into language’s conspiratorial nature.

The poem below, “Flirtation” by Rita Dove, is a good example of what I mean. Dove takes the contextual framework of the title and aligns it right away with a variety of evocative images:

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

First, the movements here of an “orange, peeled / and quartered” are said to flare “like a tulip on a wedgwood plate,” a parallel that works both on a visual and sensory level. This parallel implies subtle physical shifts, similar to one person becoming particularly aware of another. The type of attention described here is sharp and visceral.

peel-and-unpeeled-orangeThere is suggestion at work in Dove’s line break’s as well. The enjambment of the above lines, with line breaks on “peeled” and “flares,” creates tension as image and simile develop. This tension is broken by the following line “Anything can happen.” whose conceptual certainty is echoed in the use of a period to create an end stopped line.

A similar push and pull occurs later in the lines:

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

The line “across the sky. My heart” is especially effective as the enjambment and line break here both end and start a sentence, but also imply another parallel, that of a heart being like a sky. This deft way with the line creates a dizzying atmosphere, which brings us back to the title and its implied feelings. Dove continues to develop this atmosphere straight through to the poem’s elegant ending.

Flirtation – Rita Dove

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgwood plate.
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh–
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.

*

from Selected Poems (Vintage)

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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)

with Rae Armantrout

This summer has me putting in office hours on campus, spending the mornings thinking through the syllabi & co. for the courses I’ll be teaching in the fall. I then, to varying success, allow myself time in the afternoon to work on writing projects, including a nonfiction essay collection, a book of poems in Spanish, and new poetry collection.

Could be the range of the projects, how each pushes me to different thresholds of memory, presence, and ability, but I’ve been experiencing pockets of doubt, not of the projects exactly (but maybe), more of my sense of what it means to articulate. If language is a wooden dock leading across water, then this doubt is the appearance of missing wood planks here and there, which make me falter, slow, change my gait. I’m sure it’s all part of another season in my understanding of writing and its place in my life, but damn if it ain’t awkward.

 4904054_ae891eb9I feel some of this awkwardness, at least in spirit, is evoked in Rae Armantrout’s poem “With” (below). While the poem doesn’t contemplate some odd metaphor of water and wood planks, its three sections stir up some dust around words and the meaning-making process. The first section brings attention to action, only to end on being “still.” This stillness is furthered in the second section by the mention of the act of writing. Yet, the dichotomy of action and stillness remains in the apt use of “or” and how it splits what the stanza presents into indecision. The third section departs in another direction, focusing on the word “with” and its inexactness. Armantrout’s sensitivity to language creates a moment that leaves the poem open-ended in a way that feels, in itself and the reading experience, like closure.

With – Rae Armantrout

It’s well
that things should stir
inconsequentially
around me
like this
patina of shadow,
flicker, whisper,
so that
I can be still.

*

I write things down
to show others
later
or to show myself
that I am not alone with
my experience.

*

“With”
is the word that
comes to mind,
but it’s not
the right word here.

*

from Money Shot (Wesleyan University Press)

poetry feature: Dah

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

*

One of my favorite things about reading a new poet is being introduced to their ways of noticing. Whether it’s what they notice in the world around them or their interior world, this kind of noticing leads naturally to the noticing that plays out in language through word choice and phrasing. This week’s poem – “Inheritance” by Dah – captivates through its evocation of a unique sensibility and way of seeing.

First, the poem sets itself as being about seeing, about “Adjusting to darkness…” and “beginning to see.” From there, we get a catalog of sensation and detail starting in the second stanza. The speaker’s voice has a directness that is near terseness; for example, “wind-slap” and “moldy apples” are rendered through enjambment across line break and phrasing. One gets the feeling of overhearing someone sussing out the right words for things.

red tail hawkThis terseness opens up to the third stanza’s longer sentence about Death Valley. While this sentence is broken across four lines, the phrasing is only interrupted in a natural way at the end by a list. Yet, the pace continues to change. The third stanza’s last line is an interrupted sentence, taken up by the fourth stanza. There is subtle momentum that brings the reader closer in attention to what is being detailed. This attention is rewarded by the final interruption of the last two lines; here, the action of hearing “flapping, swishing” wings interrupts the pacing in a way that doesn’t disrupt the sense of the poem. Instead,  the action of these lines, and of the noticing and wording of them, ends the poem with a lyric turn reminiscent of haiku. We are left, like the speaker, listening close.

Inheritance – Dah

Adjusting to the darkness
my eyes dilate. Stars cast faraway
doubt. I’m beginning to see.

Against my face, a wind-slap
rattles my teeth. On the ground,
like musty breath, moldy apples
splayed open in crates;
I pocket the seeds and head west.

The expanse of Death Valley
is an exhausting sandbox
strung with ghost-rivers,
white sage, wild mules.
Under a littered moon

meteorites are agitated sparklers
or troubled spirits.
I hear flapping, swishing,
a red tail hawk.

*

DAH_02 copy*

Dah’s sixth poetry collection is The Opening (CTU Publishing Group 2018) and his poems have been published by editors from the US, UK, Ireland, Canada, Australia, Africa, Singapore, Spain, Poland, Philippines and India. Dah lives in Berkeley, California and is working on the manuscript for his eighth poetry book. He is a Pushcart nominee and the lead editor of the poetry critique group, The Lounge. Dah’s seventh book, Something Else’s Thoughts, is forthcoming in July 2018 from Transcendent Zero Press.

 

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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

To learn about the work of Barry Spacks go here.

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.

*

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

unapologetic with Sharon Olds

I recently found myself returning to this week’s poem, “Station” by Sharon Olds, in conversation with students. Specifically, I referenced what happens in the poem as a way to describe the work writers have to do to find space and time to write. Among the themes addressed, the poem makes clear how the decisions made in balancing obligations and artistic ambitions aren’t always easy, but they are always necessary.

dock-2820217_960_720The poem presents a scene where the speaker has taken time away from parenting to write poems out on the dock by their house. The speaker describes the walk back with unapologetic clarity. The speaker’s unapologetic clarity reads like a response to being watched “with no / hint of shyness” by their partner. The tension between the necessity of the speaker’s act and the combined judgment of the partner plus the other work waiting for the speaker at home is anchored in the final line by the image of poems feeling “heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.”

Station – Sharon Olds

Coming in off the dock after writing,
I approached the house,
and saw your long grandee face
in the light of a lamp with a parchment shade
the color of flame.

An elegant hand on your beard. Your tapered
eyes found me on the lawn. You looked
as the lord looks down from a narrow window
and you are descended from lords. Calmly, with no
hint of shyness you examined me,
the wife who runs out on the dock to write
as soon as one child is in bed,
leaving the other to you.
Your long
mouth, flexible as an archer’s bow,
did not curve. We spent a long moment
in the truth of our situation, the poems
heavy as poached game hanging from my hands.

from Satan Says (University of Pittsburgh Press)