unraveling with Gregory Orr

One thing I’m always reminding myself to do when revising a poem is to open up to what’s already there on the page and push beyond what I see to what else could be there. Usually I’ll write a list of images or words that the language of the draft as-is inspires. While I have no insight into how this week’s poem – “Song: Early Death of the Mother” by Gregory Orr – got written, reading it is a lesson in a similar unraveling of thought and lyric.

Briar_Rose_prickles_(3438080014)From the image of the “last tear” made of glass, the speaker begins an inventory of comparison images, each with its own metaphoric charge. The glass tear becomes “ice” that “doesn’t thaw”; then becomes a tooth; and so on. The eleven lines in which these images travel through pass by with such urgent enjambment, one is shook at the end by the rush of meaning and significance. This rush and tumble evokes the emotional tumult beginning for the boy in the poem, who himself is having to catch up with what has passed.

Song: Early Death of the Mother – Gregory Orr

The last tear turns
to glass on her cheek.
It isn’t ice because
squeezed in the boy’s hot
fist, it doesn’t thaw.
It’s a tooth with nothing
to gnaw; then a magical
thorn: prick yourself
with it, thrust it in soil:
an entire briary
kingdom is born.

from The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press)

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tremoring with Mona Van Duyn

One of my favorite happenings in a poem is when something seemingly distant from our personal lives is brought closer. This week’s poem, “Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri” by Mona Van Duyn, is a profound meditation of a far-off quake deemed “nothing personal.” The speaker in this poem pushes against this assertion and interrogates the possible meanings of the tremors felt. The poem becomes a space for lingering and dwelling, the most exquisite moments of which happen in the second stanza:

But the earth said last night that what I feel,
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me.
One small, sensuous catastrophe
makes inklings letters, spelled in a worldly tremble.

milky wayHere, I’m moved by the turn from the outside world to the inner workings between two people. Not only is the natural occurrence put in terms of a relationship, it becomes conspiratorial. When the speaker notes “what secretly moves you, moves me” and makes it a suggestion from the earth itself, the far-off motion of a quake is juxtaposed with desire. Suddenly what is privately known is, for a moment, potentially exposed.

That the form of the poem is a sonnet further adds to the conspiratorial argument. In fourteen lines of rhymed and nuanced pacing, we are invited into the tremors of another’s thoughts.

Earth Tremors Felt in Missouri – Mona Van Duyn

The quake last night was nothing personal,
you told me this morning. I think one always wonders,
unless, of course, something is visible: tremors
that take us, private and willy-nilly, are usual.

But the earth said last night that what I feel,
you feel; what secretly moves you, moves me.
One small, sensuous catastrophe
makes inklings letters, spelled in a worldly tremble.

The earth, with others on it, turns in its course
as we turn toward each other, less than ourselves, gross,
mindless, more than we were. Pebbles, we swell
to planets, nearing the universal roll,
in our conceit even comprehending the sun,
whose bright ordeal leaves cool men woebegone.

from Selected Poems (Knopf 2003)

poetry feature: two poems by German Dario

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

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One of my favorite quotes to go back to when talking about poetry is W. H. Auden’s idea that a poem is an individual’s version of reality. He said this specifically in terms of poets dealing with rejection; whereas the novelist may have a set of characters, a plot, and a whole world of complex narrative between themselves and the reader, the poet has only the scaffolding of a few lines, an image, perhaps a wisp of memory, all to evoke a feeling and experience. While rejection is felt strongly by all writers, for poets the experience is especially jarring; it is, in Auden’s mind, a rejection of their sense of reality.

I mention this notion of “poems-as-individual-versions-of-reality” because the work of this week’s featured poet – German Dario – carries itself into a reader’s reality in an undeniable way.

The first poem “Pan y Vino” has a speaker detailing childhood memories of a religious grandmother. The narrative develops first through the senses: the smell of “cigarettes, / coffee, / her” leads into a “Bible / size of a minivan.” These larger-than-life impressions help develop a logic founded on childhood memory and imagination, marking a distinction between the two. This distinction is experienced in the flow of lines from “With her voice / she painted / childhood pictures” to the ending’s admission of the speaker’s imagination helping to stray from the hold of these “pictures.” This break in affection and memory is subtle but powerful; it is not rebellion, but rather the inevitable break of an identity forming itself.

This attention to emotional nuances can be found in the second poem below, “evanescent.” Here, the speaker’s meditation on two separate memories, one of watching fireworks and one of a watching a comet, presents a parallel set of images. Fleeting light and fire pass through lines working to evoke memory; as the images pass, so does the gravity of the following moment during the fireworks memory:

that night my Dad said
“you know where you are
exactly
in the world right now”
Mom agreed
I
was never
so grounded again
none of us were

cometThis moment mid-poem has a two-fold effect: it first presents the speaker’s realization after the fact of what was actually happening during the fireworks. There’s the awe of the fireworks; but also the awe (tinged with wonder and sadness) of what was said. This awe resonates further as the comet imagery develops later in the poem.

In a way, the passage of time between memories becomes a third passing of light and fire; we realize along with the speaker that what strikes awe in us in moments like these is not the sights alone, but the fact of these sights, which is the fact of our lives essentially.

Dario’s poems, in this way, evoke reality’s ephemeral nature – something we try to reject, but also something that poems like these teach us to accept.

Pan y Vino – German Dario

Abuela’s religion was good,

It smelled of cigarettes,
coffee,
her.

Bible
size of a minivan,
an opened
flower garden,
Abuela led me
by the hand
of spoken word,
weaving story,
parable, fantasy,
real life.

We only judged
Abuelo’s religion,
she joked.
While he
manned the store
we ate pork.

With her voice
she painted
childhood pictures
so vivid,

I wanted to be a priest,

until my imagination
began to paint,
other pictures.

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evanescent – German Dario

it happened
on a fourth of july
three lost souls
sitting
alone
on the hood of a car
watching fireworks

shooting up
whole
together
burning bright
breaking up
the brightest transient life

that night my Dad said
“you know where you are
exactly
in the world right now”
Mom agreed
I
was never
so grounded again
none of us were

in the arms of a lover
in a rainy day
under a favorite blanket

never again

maybe
close
when three of us
a different three of us
sat on the hood
of another car
under the same stars
watching a comet
fly by in a hurry

to our human eyes
with our mortal time
it sat still
in the black
star littered canvas
so we could marvel
at our insignificance

the tips of our cigarettes
lit up the empty desert night
like the stars above
watching us
ash falling off
like the pieces
of the comet
marking its tail
leaving its trail

why was it always
three of us
together
right before
we broke apart

all we have left
are memories
folded petals
in long lost books
good enough to hoard

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55*

German Dario resides in Tempe, Arizona with wife, two sons, two dogs and sometimes a fish. His poems are about everyday life moments through the eye of an immigrant. Earlier poems were published in the 1990’s in Anthology magazine. More recently published in the Blue Collar Review Summer 2017 issue.

Follow German on Twitter: @German_Colores
(photo credit: Amanda Nelson)

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.

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

idioma-ing with Rhina P. Espaillat

Reflecting upon my first year here of teaching at the faculty level, I find myself valuing the concept of visibility. I have been moved by students who have reached out to me and thanked me for bringing in poems that are in English and Spanish, or for having made the space to discuss issues of Latinx identity and marginalized communities in general. These interactions reaffirm what I feel is one of my responsibilities as both an educator and Latinx poet, that of being a visible presence of where I come from, who I am, and what I believe in.

I feel I have been doing this kind of work in my poetry for years. Since I could first sonnet and haiku, I’ve been mixing my two languages, letting them knock into each other on the page similarly to how they knock around in me day to day. I feel the experience of writing in two languages, often in the same poem, charges the written work with a further gesture of presence and visibility.

pexels-photo-69004Finding this week’s poem, “Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina P. Espaillat, was an experience filled with this charge and gesture that I speak of. Espaillat is a formidable formalist (pun intended) and what she accomplishes in this poem is a prime example of her virtuosity. In this poem, she takes on the heroic couplet, and strings a number of them down, rhyming the whole way, while also braiding together a dual narrative of language and family. The result is a reading experience that resonates with the precious human qualities that lyric poetry singularly evokes.

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Bilingual/Bilingüe – Rhina P. Espaillat

My father liked them separate, one there,
one here (allá y aquí), as if aware

that words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(el corazón) and lock the alien part

to what he was—his memory, his name
(su nombre)—with a key he could not claim.

“English outside this door, Spanish inside,”
he said, “y basta.” But who can divide

the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from
any child? I knew how to be dumb

and stubborn (testaruda); late, in bed,
I hoarded secret syllables I read

until my tongue (mi lengua) learned to run
where his stumbled. And still the heart was one.

I like to think he knew that, even when,
proud (orgulloso) of his daughter’s pen,

he stood outside mis versos, half in fear
of words he loved but wanted not to hear.

from Where Horizons Go (New Odyssey Press, 1998)

John Yau’s “Overnight”

A friend of mine shared this week’s poem – “Overnight” by John Yau – printed off Poets.org’s poem-a-day series (a great resource for poetry for those unfamiliar). I had the distinct of experiencing this poem by first reading it aloud in the coffeeshop where we meet.

[If you’d like to try this out at home – which I highly recommend – scroll down and read the poem, then come back to check out my breakdown]

As I read through it, I immediately engaged with the strict, end-stopped lines. Each line hangs like a mysterious non-sequitur and blurs into the next, echoing the humor and depth found in the spirit of Paul Violi’s own work (to whom the poem is dedicated). The ambiguity in the poem evokes the “red herrings” mentioned in the poem, each line seeming to point somewhere and nowhere all at once.

donkeysAs I continued reading, I quickly began to take note that the choice to have the poem progress in couplets delayed the realization of how Yau repeats lines. About a third of the way, I realized that the poem was a pantoum (typically written in four line stanzas) in open disguise. Near simultaneously as this realization occurred, I began to be struck by the ways the repeated lines began to change the second time around. In particular, the lines, “The shield you were given as a child did not protect you” and “One by one the words leave you, even this one” swing around the second time in a surprising manner.

What I felt when I finished reading to the end of the poem is that I had just read an elegy that tangoed and fenced and pliéd around being an elegy, side-stepping direct somberness and letting the form and purposeful ambiguity of the lines emphasize mortality. As happens sometimes when I read a good poem, I had to catch my breath.

Overnight – John Yau

In memory of Paul Violi (1944-2011)

I did not realize that you were fading from sight
I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition

You most likely would have made a joke of it
Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft

I don’t believe I could have helped with the transition
The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open

Did you hear about the two donkeys stuck in an airshaft
You might call this the first of many red herrings

The doorway leading to the valleys of dust is always open
The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream

You might call this the first of many red herrings
The shield you were given as a child did not protect you

The window overlooking the sea is part of the dream
One by one the words leave you, even this one

The shield you were given as a child did not protect you
The sword is made of air before you knew it

One by one the words leave you, even this one
I did not realize that you were fading from sight

The sword is made of air before you knew it
You most likely would have made a joke of it

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Check out this link to read more of John Yau’s work.

clarity with Chuck Wachtel

I’ve been revising in an odd style lately, keep writing notes to myself like: more of this Objectivist vibe, or: you’re not Williams, sorry. A lot of the poems I’m working on in this way are written in short lines, with close enjambment, definitely in the style of the Objectivists, a group which includes George Oppen, Charles Reznikoff, and Lorine Niedecker. William Carlos Williams (the Williams of my earlier note) is loosely related to the group, his no ideas but in things influencing this group via the work of the Imagists.

I share the above to do two things: 1) To share a bit of the histories/traditions with which I sit down at the page with; and 2) To introduce this week’s poem, “Old Sycamore” by Chuck Wachtel, a poem that takes after Williams’ style in an instructive and illuminating manner.

SycamoreReading Wachtel’s poem is an exercise in focus; in its own distinct fashion, the poem moves forward in its short lines with a surprising use of enjambment. While the poem’s meditation is straightforward, the enjambment draws the reader’s attention closer to the words in such a way that the meaning builds and blurs alongside the clarity of what’s being said. It’s a favorite poem of mine because the language creates exactly what the speaker fears is unattainable. Lyric glimpses like this one, of possibility and meaning, are a gift.

Old Sycamore – Chuck Wachtel

in memory of Joel Oppenheimer, 1930-88

The slender young
sycamores of Rutherford,
New Jersey, are fat

now, trunks
scarred, half-dead,
no longer

there. The poems
Williams left

behind, always new
in themselves,

are old
too. What I fear
is that our
language,

possessed
of so much

light that it
has filled
the world with

things
we must be
told of,

now
battered by
decades of
persuasion,

can no longer
make a thing
so clear I am

overwhelmed by
its clarity, can

no longer make
a thing into
a word spoken

once and within
that single
utterance

repeated over
and over, until
it reaches, then

exceeds its own
self-meaning
and we lose

sight
of it, begin
to see instead
everything around

it – a whole
world of new

things made from
an old thing
brought into

being in one
single beat

of existence
— the offering,
then, of a

thing
left behind.

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from Visiting Doctor Williams: Poems Inspired by the Life and Work of William Carlos Williams