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Last week saw the release of my latest digital chapbook Naos Explains Everything Via Crumbs published by the good people at Right Hand Pointing. Part of Naos’ latest meditation / treatise / mixtape ideas had him ruminating on the figure of Atlas, the Titan condemned to carry the earth for eternity:

the ant is Atlas under a crumb —
Atlas carries the crumb of the earth —

I believe what Naos might be getting at is that it’s all about perspective.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA similar theme arises in this week’s poem in which the late great lucille clifton takes on the story of Atlas. In clifton’s poem, the speaker is Atlas himself detailing how he has gotten “used to the heft of it.” Two things in particular move about this interpretation of the mythological figure. First, how, through the details of “forest,” “sea,” and “odor of flesh,” clifton’s Atlas conveys a familiarity and endearment for the human earth.

The other thing I keep finding compelling is the absence of a specific word for “it.” Due to the title, the informed reader picks up on who the speaker is, and what his role is in myth. The absence of a specific word – “planet,” perhaps or “earth” – points to clifton’s overall ambition, which is to present this mythological figure in distinct human terms. It is a human voice that speaks in terms of “it,” and the human voice of her other poems adds further depth to the story of Atlas.

atlas – lucille clifton

i am used to the heft of it
sitting against my rib,
used to the ridges of forest,
used to the way my thumb
slips into the sea as i pull
it tight. something is sweet
in the thick odor of flesh
burning and sweating and bearing young.
i have learned to carry it
the way a poor man learns
to carry everything.

*

Happy Atlas-ing!

José

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Just a quick post to share 3 recent publications of new work:

.) Check out three new octaves in the latest issue of The Inflectionist Review. These poems come from a new sequence that expands upon the syllabic craft concepts explored in my chapbook Corpus Christi Octaves (Flutter Press, 2014). Special thanks to John Sibley Williams & A. Molotkov for including me in this issue along with CL Bledsoe, Devon Balwit, and other fine writers!

.) Also, the latest issue of Shantih Journal includes “Nada Takes Stock” from my series The Nada Poems. Thank you to David L. White and everyone at SL for putting together such a fine issue!

.) Lastly, I am proud to have my prose poems “Mist Song” and “Creature Song” be a part of the inaugural issue of Scryptic Magazine. Special thanks to Chase Gagnon and Lori A Minor for including my work! Read more about the vision of this magazine here.

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See you Friday!

José

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* naos to meet you *

* naos to see you again *

Just a quick note to share the release of my latest digital chapbook: Naos Explains Everything Via Crumbs published by Right Hand Pointing.

You may remember the persona, Naos, from my first digital chapbook with RHP, Naos: an introduction.

This time my cursi philosopher Naos (a mix of Aesop, Diogenes, & Walter Mercado) takes his habit of explaining to epic proportions.

Or rather, micro-epic proportions, as his focus is on crumbs.

Here are two excerpts from the sequence:

(ix)

the ant is Atlas under a crumb—

Atlas carries the crumb of the earth—

*

(x)

Poetry as a matter of crumbs:
hinting at the food of experience

from what little
falls behind.

*

Check out the rest of the digital chapbook here.

Happy crumbing!

José

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In my recent microreview & interview of Michael J. Wilson’s A Child of Storm (Stalking Horse Press), I focused my review on ideas of ambition, how the poems in the collection sought to explore their subject from various angles and depths. The poem below, also from the same collection, is an example of this lyric ambition on more intimate grounds.

While the poem’s narrative develops out of ideas of taste and scene, what makes the poem compelling is the work the reader is left to engage with through reading. Much like Philip Larkin’s idea of a poem being an explosive set off by the reader’s reading of it, Wilson’s poem here works through lines that involve the reader’s imagination directly. Rather than guiding or describing, the poem evolves through fruitful ambiguity. As the poem’s ending words are read, one is prompted to simultaneously listen, observe, and feel.

cherry birch

Cherry Birch – Michael J. Wilson

You tell me to chew a birch twig and it tastes like wintergreen and I’m shocked by the numbing : that wooden thing in my mouth — Even in December I can tell that you are hot under your clothes that you have the itch to get naked : I won’t stop you there is an empty spot on the desk : fold them there : Sheets are hissing :

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Happy birching!

José

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I’m always surprised when a poem turns around and offers me something that opens up a whole other personal meditation. In this week’s poem “What I Understood” by Katha Pollitt, the moment happens in two lines before the end:

people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.

These two lines follow a meditation on childhood memories of “futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment” and answer that brief yet heavy list with the list of things noticed “sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.” It’s the kind of move that leaves me asking myself what things “save” me in everyday life.

Having just moved back to Oregon, Ani and I are surrounded by a whole new set of things to notice. On the walk to work, for example, there is a brief dip down a long stretch of road, the brief steepness leading to a small bridge that crosses a creek, a creek that one can only hear and smell and see if one is on the side of the road by foot, a creek that gives me moments so much like being inside a cathedral, or reading a poem, moments turned over, silent while not silent, alone yet not alone. This brief pocket of woods and water save me.

Also saving us these days is a California scrub jay who has a route by our new home. While it’s likely more than one bird passing through, we have gotten to calling each one we see “Leonard.” He passes the tree in the front yard then lands on the fence beside the house like so:20170521_172852-1.jpg

Here’s to what you may notice today and in the days to come. Like the speaker in the poem below, we may be left not understanding what we notice, but it may save us nonetheless.

What I Understood – Katha Pollitt**

When I was a child I understood everything
about, for example, futility. Standing for hours
on the hot asphalt outfield, trudging for balls
I’d ask myself, how many times will I have to perform
this pointless task, and all the others? I knew
about snobbery, too, and cruelty—for children
are snobbish and cruel—and loneliness: in restaurants
the dignity and shame of solitary diners
disabled me, and when my grandmother
screamed at me, “Someday you’ll know what it’s like!”
I knew she was right, the way I knew
about the single rooms my teachers went home to,
the pictures on the dresser, the hoard of chocolates,
and that there was no God, and that I would die.
All this I understood, no one needed to tell me.
the only thing I didn’t understand
was how in a world whose predominant characteristics
are futility, cruelty, loneliness, disappointment
people are saved every day
by a sparrow, a foghorn, a grassblade, a tablecloth.
This year I’ll be
thirty-nine, and I still don’t understand it.

*

Happy noticing!

José

**from The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 2009)

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carstensen chapAs I noted in my recent microreview & interview of Robin Carstensen’s In the Temple of Shining Mercy, one of the things that moved me was the use of empathy as a kind of engine for poetry throughout the collection. The close and true listening required of this kind of writing is instructive and illuminating. Instructive in that it focuses attention on ways to simply be there via poetry; illuminating because of the way the there is unpacked and explored.

An example of what I mean can be found in “Rogues on the Heath,” another poem from Carstensen’s book. Here, the speaker develops a narrative involving tomcats in their life, a narrative that quickly cascades into a meditation on the nature of connecting with others, either through letters or touch. By the end, the speaker presents their own sudden understanding of a need as “feral” and innate as those of the tomcats.

Rogues on the Heath – Robin Carstensen

Tomcats crying on the porch
beneath the bludgeoning sun
will lunge at the bowl
so fiercely the thin blonde one
will knock the food out
as if he’s up to bat when I stoop
to pour. A thousand tiny saws
rattle their throats to stir me
awake, for it is nearly noonday,
and the night was long
and treacherous. I should
ease their abscessed faces,
put their limp bodies down,
should have done the deed
months ago, but both are warm
against my hand, and I am
a cowardly god. An orphaned
one, come down, swung low,
swing low sweet chariot. Here
is morning’s sumptuous hope
on the wane around my ankles,
crawling through feral eyes,
as if my emergence was a letter
like all the letters I’d written
to the one I didn’t love
to death but cared for — the colors
of tulips I’d mentioned but not
their fragrance blooming inside
my coral spring, how I’d saved them
for love, and how the one starving
for it would gnaw my sternum
to shreds, suckle my veins
into brittle twine, because nothing
matters more than the barren stretch
between words in all their bounty
pressing our warm ribs — bowls
and bowls of touch achingly
unable to fill the vast moors of us.

*

Happy rogue-ing!

José

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carstensen chap
review by José Angel Araguz

Stray – Robin Carstensen

She came howling for food
on the porch in June — tufts
of gray-white hair sprung from her
birdlike strut — huffing a claim
for herself, as if she could
conjure the rain in this brown
drought-struck town, boarded up
houses marked Foreclosed.
On this small plot of land
I’d come back to save, books
in my heart with my name on them,
on these sun-baked planks
on this yellow-scabbed yard,
I’d watched her streak across
the street, tomcat tearing up
her dust. Her screech had stiffened
the humid night. She’d come
for three seasons, gulp my leftovers
beneath the red hibiscus, swish
her smoky plume of tail, brush
by me like a petal, be gone.
In early April, I found her
under the moonlight, her right eye
gouged and black-encrusted,
draining green as if the moon
had wept. Hard news struck
morning: the vet showed a pellet
lodged in her thin neck,
the entrance wound — her blown
eye. As I buried her that night,
children played in the yard
next door. Her milk had been dry.
The litter likely starved to death.
I couldn’t hear myself think
about them. Just the children’s
voices scratching the hot air,
loud and bored, my turn, my turn,
bouncing on the trampoline,
their big, thin skulls bobbing
on their string-bean bodies
soon to be loose on the planet,
roaming beneath the faint
moon bearing earthshine.

*

One of the things that immediately struck me about the poems in Robin Carstensen’s chapbook In the Temple of Shining Mercy, is the way poetic language is placed at the service of empathy. In “Stray,” for example, the speaker meditates on the final days of a stray cat whose life is cut short due to an act of violence. The speaker’s tone throughout conveys a sober wistfulness, able to lay out the details in a direct manner. The phrasing of “as if she could / conjure the rain in this brown / drought-struck town” both paints a picture of the speaker’s surroundings but also implies a certain hope.

This dual turn of imagery and phrasing occurs again at the end of the poem in the imagery of children on a trampoline. As a pellet was found to be the cause of the stray’s death, there’s a slight implication the cat was shot by neighborhood kids. This implication is furthered by the phrasing of “their big, thin skulls bobbing / on their string-bean bodies / soon to be loose on the planet.” The use of the word “loose” is crucial here: there is the loosing of the possible threat the children could grow up to be, but also the loosing from the safety of home and childhood, of children growing up and becoming strays themselves “roaming beneath the faint / moon bearing earthshine.” The poem ultimately empathizes with the speaker’s understanding of mortality, that all — stray cat, children, and self — are loosed awaiting their mortal “turn.”

Throughout the chapbook, Carstensen shows herself as able to lift everyday experience and evoke a bit of the mystery beyond it. From a magazine advertisement imploring the would-be consumer to “Explore This,” to a game of poker, the range of material Carstensen writes about is given the same multivalent empathy and consideration, each subject seen for what they are and what they mean and might mean. In this work, the poet is less mystic and more like the envisioned gardener of “The Master” (below). In this poem, the speaker describes growing a “garden in my next life” where:

My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves.

Instead of this human interrogation, the speaker’s imagined neighbor will:

offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun. 

This exchange of one kind of wisdom is rich with meaning, namely that of moving through the world in a way that helps others become themselves. Part of that work seems to be learning how to approach things (aim for the roots) or seeing them for how they work. The purpose of this work and consideration is evident in a final scene between the neighbor and the speaker:

Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.

The phrasing of this “no small occasion” reflects the lessons learned from this “master.” Being able to show consideration and empathy for other beings can teach one how to be considerate to one’s self. Yet, the poem is masterful in its own right in that it avoids speaking in the high terms I speak of it; that is to say, in handling the narrative through direct details, the poem develops such meanings subtly, so that both reader and speaker simultaneously experience the revelation of seeing the “tender things” before them in a clear light.

The Master – Robin Carstensen

I want to grow a garden in my next life
and watch a spotted toad beneath the rain.
My next-door neighbor will be a woman
who will not ask me to confess
my failures, nor by tongue, eye, sleight-
of-hand, ask whom I’ve betrayed or who
betrays me and themselves. Nor will she
insinuate how on Earth do I not know
how to trim a rosebush. She’ll know
I’ve learned perfectly well how to ask
such questions of myself. Behind her
fence, she’ll offer cuttings, give easy
watering tips: aim for the roots
on lamb’s ears, not the leaves, or they wilt.
The fire witch like their drink in the morning;
Astoria soak the live-long day in sun.
My neighbor won’t ask me over for tea,
so I will never be late or anxious
about presentation. She won’t press
her weight over the fence or plant
herself in my yard inch by inch, tell me
wistful stories of sons who never call
or of poor souls besodden, stricken down.
I won’t tell her how I blew it again at work,
let someone get my goat. All that meditation,
awareness of ego, and for what? I won’t
tell her how I try to wean it, though it keeps
me up at night, how I’ve been too kind
or not kind enough, how much I know
about a womb and the way it can embody
hollowness, the way it echoes fears, mothers’
and daughters’ fears and envies and more fears.
My neighbor will observe these shadows
and leave them wordlessly to ebb and flow.
We’ll revel in the lizard, the red-tailed
hawk, the pink-fleshed mice they both devour,
and my face lit up upon the green shoot
in my garden, my first seed come to light.
Behind her rosebush, beneath her straw hat,
she will wave to me, no small occasion
tender things, our radiance, and our laugh.

*

Robin.Nov.2016.Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them? What do you feel poetry can do/be?

Robin Carstensen: Restraint  is one of my biggest challenges. It took many years reading, studying, and practicing poetry’s craft to learn this fine art of suspension and release. For this, I’m grateful for my graduate experience with such teachers as Lisa Lewis and the late Ai. While I needed encouragement and validation, I also needed someone willing to tell me to hold back, to work harder at precision and clarity as I ventured with the reader into uncharted territory. My early drafts are often journal entries over-steeped in the sensory, emotional world. I work to chisel the poem down to the sharpest, most resounding images and sounds. I want to cut but not drown the reader or myself. I’m thinking of my poem, “Stray,” for example, my outrage at the violence perpetrated against a neighborhood cat. The challenge in this and so many poems was to express the outrage, to question unnecessary violence, to discover its connection to all of human violence, without the overbearing polemics or the sermonizing that surely makes the reader run for the hills.

I enjoy the long adventure, the slow promenade. Perhaps this mirrors how I move my body in my daily life—I hate to rush. The challenge for me in life as in the poem is to bring the reader along with me, to hold steady at my pace and length, to trust we’ll arrive somewhere, if not spectacular and breathless, perhaps intriguing or quietly special. I discovered help and pleasure in received forms and the innovation of form in containing and shaping ambling, cumbersome drafts.  In particular, the incantatory ghazal and villanelle as well as the sonnet’s iambic beats help me hold the reader in a mutual descent or ascent into terror, ecstasy, meditation and all the valleys and rivers between. The question remains: How can I keep the reader with me—my companion, my lover, and my friend—as we reach into human violence, loneliness, or the depths of eros and love? The first reader, friend, lover is myself, and if I can be very still and honest with myself, the poem might expand to invite others to hold the tension with me. In the stillness, the imagery, sound, and form radiate and bubble forth.

Like James Baldwin in his writing habits, I found the stillness for writing most of these poems long after everyone else had gone to bed. Whether living alone or with someone, I mean a kind of quiet when the world and all our clamoring subsides. In her dialogue with Jane Hirschfeld and Juan Filipe Herrera on the “Poet’s Civic Responsibility,” Naomi Shihab Nye refers to this “muchness” we are all experiencing. We’re living among heightened, intersecting tensions locally and globally, as well as increased demands personally and professionally. While technology and social media offer more avenues to connect, imagine, and share, we are inundated with stimuli, information, private lives overshared and overexposed. Writing and reading a poem is an opportunity to bring us into stillness and the depths of feeling, thought, connection we hunger for. It’s one of my greatest challenges and pleasures to write poetry that reaches for this depth and for the impossible beauty between mystery and revelation.

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Special thanks to Robin Carstensen for participating! To find out more about Carstensen check out this announcement by Iron Horse Literary Review. In the Temple of Shining Mercy can be purchased from IHLR here.

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