climbing with lucille clifton

I recently read an insightful essay by Lisa Knopp on the idea of “perhapsing” as found in creative nonfiction. Perhapsing is a move that allows a writer to speculate in the face of the facts; that is, not make things up, but to come to terms with the limits of what is known, and to reflect on what is known around it and, perhaps, beyond it.

I see a similar gesture in the poem “climbing” by lucille clifton below. Within her classic and ever-surprising lyric mode, clifton begins a narrative of following another woman in climbing a long rope. The poem then begins a series of “maybe”s, each a glimpse at a decision the speaker contemplates in hindsight. This listing of maybe’s and should’s creates a lyric suspension, placing the reader alongside the speaker in a speculative space.

grey braided rope on wooden plank

The metaphor of climbing returns in the third to last line to cut off this speculation, moving the narrative back to action. The poem ends where it started, in the act of climbing, but the act itself is charged with the energy of speculation and a sense of its meaning.

climbing – lucille clifton

a woman precedes me up the long rope,
her dangling braids the color of rain.
maybe i should have had braids.
maybe i should have kept the body i started,
slim and possible as a boy’s bone.
maybe i should have wanted less.
maybe i should have ignored the bowl in me
burning to be filled.
maybe i should have wanted less.
the woman passes the notch in the rope
marked Sixty.      i rise toward it, struggling,
hand over hungry hand.

from The Book of Light (Copper Canyon Press)

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microreview & interview – it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado

review by José Angel Araguz

 

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Early in his essay-turned-chapbook it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado (Orison Books), poet Ilya Kaminsky speaks of Adélia Prado’s work as being in the mystic tradition. He then promptly delves into the questions and assumptions that come along with references to mysticism. Noting that “the term mystic may mislead or intimidate,” Kaminsky goes on to argue that mystical experience, far from being something “attainable only by a few human beings,” is actually “always available, and to anyone.”

This opening note on mysticism’s accessibility and ubiquity quickly frames his analysis on Prado’s work within an argument that feels familiar within poetry circles. Replace the word mystic with poetry in the above statements and one finds the divide to be similar; both mysticism and poetry are regarded with mistrust by some non-practitioners (not to say non-believers), a mistrust that ranges from veiled skepticism regarding the respective value of each, to outright dismissal. To push this comparison further, mystics and poets are equally defined by practice: a mystic is only a mystic when voicing their spiritual truth, and a poet can only be called so via the creation of a poem. Or, to put it another way, the poet is by no means an embodiment of poetry any more than a mystic is the embodiment of truth: both are fingers pointing to the moon.

Navigating this fine line between the ineffable and the practical is not only the work of the mystic and poet, but also of the critic. Kaminsky does a great job throughout this short essay of establishing a sense of the traditions Prado’s work is in line with, both mystically and poetically. On the mystical side, the references range from the philosophical (Emil Cioran) to the spiritual (Paul Tillich; Martin Buber); on the poetry side, a reference to Czeslaw Milosz leads to references to Whitman as well as Mayakovsky, Anna Swir, Allen Ginsberg, and a number of other singular poetic sensibilities. This diverse catalog of associations is handled in a way that places them in the reader’s grasp; Kaminsky eschews any kind of intellectual name-dropping by inviting the reader into what informs his own personal reading of Prado’s work and the stakes such reading creates.

This engaged meditation on the mystical and the poetic serves not only to make clear Kaminsky’s own take on the work, but also provides a lively introduction to Prado’s work. If, according to W. H. Auden, the real gift of a critic is not what they say but the excerpts of another’s work they curate for a reader, the excerpts chosen by Kaminsky do a great job of speaking for themselves:

With me it’s wild parties
or strict piety.
I didn’t deserve to be born,
to eat with a mouth, walk on two feet
and carry inside me twenty-five feet of guts.

(“The Third Way”)

Here is but a glimpse into Prado’s sensibility. In these five lines, one immediately senses the reckoning that infuses Prado’s work, a reckoning that would be light except for its underlying awareness of mortality. To add to Kaminsky’s analysis, I would argue that Prado’s work can be considered mystical for the way it lives vulnerably and exuberantly between life and death. It’s the kind of lyricism that cannot be taught, but rather caught and lucked up on.

Reading through this essay, I got the sense that Kaminsky has a clear idea of the precarious nature of this register of lyricism. His notes have the tone of a writer honoring the work of another not by arguing for it, but by speaking alongside it. It is in this spirit that the response below to the question “What are challenges in writing about Adélia Prado?” should be read.

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Influence Question: What are challenges in writing about Adelia Prado?

Ilya Kaminsky: Spiritual thinker is someone who believes in the impossible.

Poet is someone who believes in the impossible via words that stun.

What’s the danger of spiritual thinker? Demagoguery.

What saves A. Prado for that? A sense of humor.

Challenge in writing about it? Showcasing her sense of humor without making her sound glib.

On the page, Prado’s writing is elemental. It is straight out of earth, stars, water, lungs.

The challenge with elemental writing is to address it in kind.

So, the piece is a series of brief pieces connected by a bit of wind.

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Special thanks to Ilya Kaminsky for participating! To learn more about Kaminsky’s work, check out his site! Copies of it’s the soul that’s erotic: an essay on adélia prado can be purchased from Orison Books.

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Ilya Kaminsky is the author of Dancing in Odessa (Tupelo Press) and Deaf Republic (Graywolf Press, forthcoming in March 2019). He is also the editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry (Harper Collins). With Jean Valentine, he has translated the poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Dark Elderberry Branch (Alice James Books).

new review of Until We Are Level Again

Just a quick post to share the most recent review of my book Until We Are Level Again (Mongrel Empire Press) by Valerie Duff-Strautmann over at Salamander. Duff-Strautmann reviews my book alongside Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Copper Canyon Press). Please check it out!

Thank you to Valerie Duff-Strautmann for spending time with my work and for all the support throughout the years!

See y’all Friday!

José

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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)

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)

microreview & interview: Hannah Cohen’s Bad Anatomy

-review by José Angel Araguz

anatomy

There’s a sense of recklessness that feels natural to poetry. By recklessness, I mean less Robin Williams standing on a desk shouting a Whitman poem in Dead Poets Society and more the honesty and nerve involved in trusting language to carry what you mean. It is this latter recklessness that runs through Hannah Cohen’s chapbook, Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press). In poems that show the lyric self pulsing between various modes of suspension and isolation, Cohen engages language in a way that invites the reader to experience the plummet into language we call poetry.

The collection opens with “Aubade Inverse,” a poem that subverts the traditional aubade with its focus on lovers reluctantly departing and grounds it in feelings of threat and danger:

I left scuffmarks
on white doors. I wish
I could break. I left
my legs in bed.
I left you
before you, left wet
knives in the knife block.

The emphatic “I” statements here create both a presence and momentum that charge the poem with the panicked feeling of someone checking for their car keys in the dark. Yet, despite this feeling, or perhaps because of it, the aubade’s theme of love is still invoked in the poem’s ending line: “I leave / nothing.” These three words point outward in a few directions. They can be read as the speaker implying that they “leave / nothing” meaning no trace; but they can also be read as refuting the departure implied in the aubade form, the speaker adamantly making it clear that they “leave / nothing” behind, suspending what they can through the act of the poem.

Or perhaps both meanings are meant: The way ambiguity works here and throughout these poems shows a poetic sensibility awake to the subtleties of line break and evocation. This next set of three lines from the middle of the poem serve as another example of this sensibility:

I am drinking. I drive
so fast I kill
the moon.

Here, the clipped enjambment creates an opportunity to dwell on the meaning of each turn. Between “drinking” and “drive,” there is recklessness; when we get to “kill” there’s a heightened sense of danger, a sense that is pivoted into surreality by the time we get to “moon.” The juxtaposition of action, voice, and image in these lines evokes not a swagger or false bravado (see my earlier reference to Dead Poets Society) but a clear, suspended feeling. This moment works in a way that is instructive and illuminating; dwelling on these lines brings out what the speaker means as the reader understands it. In the middle of a poem that ends with “I leave / nothing,” these lines point to ways in which meaning can be followed as it leaves from word to word.

This ability to navigate across ambiguity and voice is present throughout the world of the poems in Bad Anatomy. In “Like Someone Driving Away From Her Problems” we find that:

even god doesn’t believe
in the rusty jesus-saves
signs       can’t save her
from living
without landmark
or companion       the road a black snake
beheaded

Here, isolation is depicted as a space that even god can passively inhabit, joining the speaker in disbelief. The apt break between the words “can’t save her” and “from living” do similar work as in the opening poem, creating a space where mortality itself is glimpsed for a moment as a threat before moving on with the narrative. This reckoning with mortality is found again in “Upon Starting My Period After The Election” as the speaker reflects:

Even my body knew it was wrong to begin
again. What’s different between this cycle

and a hundred ones before? Is this my god-
given right to be less every time?

Here, the interiority and isolation found in other poems is given a more outward, public turn. Yet, the poem engages with the outside world on its own terms, framing this meditation on the political climate within the workings of the speaker’s body. The purposeful break on “my god-” sets up the gravity of the following line; together they evoke a personal and public bleakness. When the speaker notes at the end of the poem that she “can’t stop the betrayal,” the speaker’s menstruating body parallels the more public feeling of betrayal felt by most since the last election.

By tempering lyric recklessness with vulnerability and honesty, the poems of Bad Anatomy deliver reading experiences that reward nuanced and repeated readings. These poems are filled with the insight and thrill of overhearing someone tell a story at a bar, or reading someone’s lost love letters. And like great stories and love letters, these poems are compelling because of their unabashed mix of light and dark. What I mean can be seen in the final lines of “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal” (printed in full below):

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

What keeps me reading and re-reading these poems are the flashes of lyric self like this one; they occur in moments braided from voice and imagery, but are executed with raw soul.

Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal – Hannah Cohen

This shitty cocktail is more insightful than I am.
Unfilled, I count all the secret valleys in my rib cage.

Even the universe lets me down. I’m drunk, awake.
Is this how to feel? Next morning’s sunk in my rib cage.

There’s something romantic about a building condemned.
All that space. All the never-smashed ribs in my rib cage.

Call it a tendency to forget. I like things false
and true. Can’t pray for what isn’t there in my rib cage.

I keep returning from the dead. What a masochist.
Don’t, don’t, don’t — that self-defeating heart in my rib cage.

Inhabiting a body is easy. But living
in one? Can I be more than the bones in my rib cage?

Just fuck me up. I love how pure bourbon is. I’m not
Hannah tonight. She’s only the crow in my rib cage.

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Influence Question: How would you say this collection reflects your idea of what poetry is/can be?

Hannah Cohen: I have a few tangential thoughts for this question:

– At its best and even at its worst, poetry is a community. An ever-changing, populous community of thoughts that manifest into words. With this in mind, Bad Anatomy represents everything about being a person with depression, anxiety, and an unhealthy sense of self-deprecating humor. These traits interact with each other like passersby on a street, or rowdy drunks in a bar. However, there’s always that thread of hope that weaves itself throughout the chapbook’s pages, and I fully believe that for a poem or set of poems to fully succeed for the reader and its author, there must be that “break.”

– Poetry can be short and terse, with gaping spaces of images that sometimes don’t make sense the first time. The ending poem “[and the deer flash guernica]” serves as a soft echo to the chapbook’s opening poem, with a one-act scene of some deer at night juxtaposed to the multiple “I” scenes in “Aubade Inverse.”

– Accessibility is important. I want to believe people can emotionally and mentally relate to the poems in Bad Anatomy. Even if they can’t always see where the poems are coming from, they can understand the content at least.

Influence Question: What were the challenges in writing these poems and how did you work through them?

Hannah Cohen: These poems are like my own piercing arrows in that they’re tangible problems I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with in my life. While obviously not 100% autobiographical, several poems from Bad Anatomy sprouted from real situations and feelings. “2 a.m.,” for example, was made up of several moments where I was driving home in the dark. I suffer from pressure headaches and take Excedrin mainly for the placebo effect. I put all these things together and gave it that title to emphasize the aimlessness I was experiencing in my early twenties. Other poems have painful content (see “Sad Girl’s Drinking Ghazal”) that was eventually tamed by either its form or presentation.

Another challenge was the actual order of the poems. I did not want an obvious A to Z narrative, nor did I want poems to merely be mirrors to each other. I am thankful that one of my blurbers, Emilia Phillips, was able to offer some valuable advice about how to arrange Bad Anatomy for the most emotional impact. “Saturnism” was a frustrating poem to work into the chapbook, because it’s based on Vincent van Gogh and is the oldest poem. I almost removed it entirely. However, because it’s bookended by two short-ish poems about either separation or moving on, it seemed to finally work as its own entity, allowing me and the reader to inhabit a different mental space.

In the end, I’m happy with the final result. At some point, you just have to save the Word document and send it off to your publisher because if you keep nitpicking or changing up the order or a poem’s line, it won’t ever be done. Poems aren’t this finite object – you can always change it up at a reading or any future reprints.

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Special thanks to Hannah Cohen for participating! To learn more about Cohen’s work, check out her site! Copies of Bad Anatomy can be purchased from Glass Poetry Press.

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Hannah Cohen received her MFA from Queens University of Charlotte and lives in Virginia. Hannah is the author of the chapbook Bad Anatomy (Glass Poetry Press, 2018). She is a contributing editor for Platypus Press and co-edits the online journal Cotton Xenomorph. Recent and forthcoming publications include Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Noble/Gas Qtrly, Cosmonauts Avenue, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, and Gravel. She’s received Best of the Net and Pushcart Prize nominations.