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)

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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)

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?

new review at Poetry International!

Just a quick post to share my review of Zeina Hashem Beck’s latest poetry collection, Louder than Hearts (Bauhan Publishing, LLC, 2017) up now at Poetry International!

In this review, I go into Beck’s own engagement with the work of Pablo Neruda and how her singular braiding of political awareness and personal intimacy creates compelling and necessary poetry. Check it out here.

Thank you to editor Ilya Kaminsky for the opportunity!

— José

one more from Steven Sanchez

phantomtongue7In my recent microreview & interview of Phantom Tongue (Sundress Publications) by Steven Sanchez, I spoke about Sanchez’s gift for poetic empathy. In the same way that a poem is never alive until somebody reads it, so is empathy unable to be present unless another does the work of listening to someone’s trouble and making room for it. This making room for empathy – for acknowledgment and listening – is something that poetry lends itself to naturally. What Sanchez does  is present poems that help us think, rather than think for us.

In the poem below, “Past Tense,” also from Phantom Tongue, we see the nuance with which Sanchez does this work. Now, depending on who you talk to, one of the clichés of Latinx poetry is the abuelita/grandma poem. When I first hear this type of poem called out, I had the natural reaction to go out and write ten abuelita poems, just to show’em. I also began to pay extra attention when I ran across one, seeing if I would be given an example of the grave “sin” I’d been warned against. While Sanchez’s poem does take as its subject a childhood relationship with a grandmother, he avoids cliché through lyricism that invites empathy.

Stanza by stanza, we get an inventory of direct memories, from “a bottle of chocolate / syrup next to her recliner” to her taking insulin and watching novelas. What is compelling is how each detail is shifted just enough so that there is an emotional charge that builds throughout the poem. From the grandma winking as she takes her insulin, to the detail of having novelas translated so that “every betrayal was in English,” the poem moves in a way that nudges the reader to do the work of picking up on the deeper meanings of each scene. And where other poems use difficulty and ambiguity as the field to be crossed toward deeper meanings, this poem has a hard-won clarity in each phrase. What is asked of the reader, then, is to listen and acknowledge as the speaker listens and acknowledges the nuances of his memories. In this way, the speaker’s admission at the end of “learning to speak” is aptly phrased; in both English and Spanish, the language being learned is that of witness and memory.

Past Tense – Steven Sanchez

My grandma kept a bottle of chocolate
syrup next to her recliner. Each time
I spent the night, she bought a sleeve
of vanilla ice cream cups from the store.

She’d grab one, take her insulin, and wink.
I’d ask her to translate her novelas
whenever someone cried, meaning
every betrayal was in English.

At 10:30, we’d brush our teeth, rinse
our mouths, and she’d sing in Spanish
until I closed my eyes, imagining
small pigeons flying from her tongue,

carrying rolled R’s like small parcels
I’ve never been able to unwrap.
Sometimes, I dream she’s still here
sleeping next to me and I whisper

an apology for releasing her canary
when I was little. She never clipped
his wings, thought he might need them.
Now, I’m learning to speak, to tell

the difference between the preterit
and imperfect, escapó and escapaba,
between ella cantó and memory.

*

To find out more about Steven Sanchez’s work, check out his site.
Copies of Phantom Tongue can be purchased from Sundress Publications.

new work at Sugar House Review!

Happy to share that my work is being included in this Sneak Peek of the latest issue of Sugar House Review!

Check out the text and audio of my poem “On the Times I Don’t Remember the Right Words for Things!”

This sneak peek includes work by Emma Aylor, Craig Blais, and Tamara L. Panici among other fine writers.

Thank you to the editors of Sugar House Review for the work they do in supporting and showcasing their contributors!

See y’all Friday!

José