seeing with jennifer met

One of the great pleasures of writing reviews is catching onto things that poems do when they live together in a book. By “things” I mean, of course, the standard fare of themes, symbols, imagery, etc., but also something for which I am learning/discovering the technical terms for. In teaching, I often use the words engine or guiding principle, words that imply the mechanical and structural. Yet, what these words point to in my own use is more in tune with intuition.

galleryIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Met’s compelling chapbook Gallery Withheld (Glass Poetry Press), I center my discussion around two visual poems whose layout on the page become another aspect to explored by reading. Through the visual poem form, one is able to guide text in the same way a spoken word or slam poet is able to command attention via vocal tone and gesture. Because of the presence of visual poems in Met’s collection, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the other poems that were more traditionally lineated. As a reader, these other poems became charged with importance, evoking a number of new questions: How is the vision of the collection different in these non-visual poems versus the visual poems? Where is the line drawn between what is on the surface a visual poem and what is, in my imperfect terms, a more traditionally lineated poem?

In answer to this last question, I present the poem “Collaboration” below whose presence on the page could be said to have a foot in both visual and lineated ideas of poetry. The poem is a complex ekphrastic that sneaks up on you; that is, the speaker goes from contemplating a photograph of the aftermath of an earthquake to the cover of an issue of The New Yorker. This move comes naturally, and what develops in the speaker’s meditation are images of a crack in the ground. These images are evoked, in part, by the visual layout of the lines of the poem. But beyond this, the meditation advances in such a deft manner, that what the reader is left with is not only an image but a way of imaging and imagining. This poem, for me, is at the conceptual heart of the collection because of the way it creates an engine out of seeing with which the reader is invited to see “the flowers float seemingly at random” at the end. These flowers are both an image and a motion. While there is so much seeing done in Gallery Withheld, it is done via poems which invite the reader to “collaborate” in the seeing, an interaction that is its own distinct poetic accomplishment.

Collaboration – Jennifer Met

for Christoph Niemann and Françoise Mouly

When I was young I saw a photograph
of a fence after an earthquake
where its man-made border was interrupted
as one half was heaved forward and
one half was pulled back leaving a large gap
like a warped spring—a latch
that can’t quite be forced close or like someone
painting a line down the right
side of a large and invisible street fell
asleep and when they woke up
they accidentally resumed their drawing
on the left side instead—the width
of a street—a common ground—a public right
of way owned and maintained
by the city—now left unconnected and you
couldn’t see where the earth ground
against itself sliding or where it rippled
like a blanket being shaken
because there wasn’t a mark and wasn’t a rift–
wasn’t a scar in the grass—and I
always associated this image with earthquakes so much
so that now the New Yorker’s cover
illustration reminds me of an earthquake fissure
the leafless cherry branch like lightning
slightly off-centre and striking upon the left-hand
side of the page where trefoils blossom pink
and loose petals drift back and up and I think
how the artist’s editor was right
to change the background color of this dark
crack canyoning up the beautifully clean
white—too obvious—to a new version of a branch
drawn black against black—unseen–

and the flowers float seemingly at random…

*

Happy seeing!

José

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blues, song, & sea: amiri baraka

The distance between the list poem and the ode varies. A list poem, for one, implies attention, if not praise. Yet, the act of listing is the act of making space and placing importance on a subject. Odes, which are made up of mainly attention and praise, also create an empathic space for readers. Whenever I begin to see a list occurring in a poem, I take it as a cue to listen/watch closely: something is being paid attention to in an engaged manner.

In this week’s poem, “Legacy” by Amiri Baraka, what is listed is a series of actions: sleeping, growling, stumbling, frowning, etc. There is a momentum generated in this listing of actions that embodies the tortured tone of the speaker. I call it a “tortured tone” but not a passive one; what this list of actions brings attention to is the act of evocation made possible by song. This speaker goes on to tell us that “(the old songs / lead you to believe)” in the sea. To expand on this logic: Songs, which exist on the air, can create hope, illusion, feelings, etc. out of the very air that holds them.

This poem is dedicated to “Blues People,” and what these people mean to the speaker can be felt through this listing and attention to action. This list itself becomes like the sea, existing in motion as long as the poem is read.

Legacy – Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

from Black Magic (Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)

one more from jennifer maritza mccauley

scar on scar offIn my recent microreview & interview of Jennifer Maritza McCauley’s Scar On / Scar Off (Stalking Horse Press), I noted the recurring themes of witness and presence throughout the poems. These themes are not mutually exclusive in the poems, rather, they exist side by side, creating meaningful friction and nuanced depths. Today’s poem, “Some Advice,” is also from McCauley’s collection and is  a good example of these creative engines at work.

In the poem below, a speaker recounts the “advice” given to them by a man. The move to relate the man’s statement not in his voice via quotes, but instead through the narrative framework of “He says” allows for a distance that disrupts the power of what is said while at the same creating a space in which what is said can be interrogated. The man’s statements, which are charged with danger, threat, gender stereotypes and double standards, are braided with the speaker’s inner responses.

These inner responses trouble the already troubled conceit that these statements are “advice.” The true nature of the man’s statements is unfurled throughout the movements of the poem. From the first stanza’s misguided take on accountability which shames the speaker and their physical presence (“your joyful teeth are enough to / jail you in consequence”), to the admonishment and threat of the last lines, witness and presence work together to evoke the mortal threat this speaker lives under in society and also subverts that threat into a poem that forges awareness out of lived experience.

Some Advice – Jennifer Maritza McCauley

He says you have it coming
because you smile
too-big at the Papis and gals and no matter
the meaning behind that smile, baby,
your joyful teeth are enough to
jail you in consequence.

He says whatever happens
when he releases me into the wet night
after a weird beer or somekinda wine
is my own fault, that I can’t blame my
body-losses on the black city or briny Caribbean
night.

He says that’s your problem –
the happy in your front teeth,
the way your purpl’d hips coil and flick,
it doesn’t matter if you see themboys spirit
before body, themboys don’t see
spirits and yes, babygirl:
they are looking at you.

He says what I should see first
is men-eyes and lusty sweat bundled
on men-foreheads and he says
if I wear shortskirtstightjeans and themboys
reach out and snatch me from red alleys,
that’s on me. And by the way, he says,
if you don’t bite hard enough
when they catch you, baby,
you’re a fucking whore.

*

Scar On / Scar Off can be purchased from Stalking Horse Press.

seeking with lorna dee cervantes

Where last week’s poem by Francisco X. Alarcón evoked ideas of presence, this week’s poem, “Freeway 280” by Lorna Dee Cervantes, is driven by self-exploration and self-seeking. Often these themes are approached in poems in loud ways, in declarative statements and pronouncements. In the poem below, the speaker of the poem meditates on the environment around her.

The listing in the second stanza, in particular, moves in a way that points back to the speaker’s sensibility. Amidst the trees “left standing” in the yards she can see, the speaker observes “viejitas” (old women) who come and collect greens and herbs. This juxtaposition of the natural with the human imbues both with a sense of survival.

apricot-orchard-261479_960_720The self-exploration/seeking takes on a literal turn as the speaker scrambles over a fence to get closer to “los campos extraños de esta ciudad” (the strange fields of this city). Once there, the speaker continues to keep an eye on what is present, and, in doing so, evokes their own presence. That this presence is made up of seeking makes it all the more compelling; at the heart of lyric poetry lies such seeking, such presence.

Freeway 280 – Lorna Dee Cervantes

Las casitas near the gray cannery,
nestled amid wild abrazos of climbing roses
and man-high red geraniums
are gone now. The freeway conceals it
all beneath a raised scar.

But under the fake windsounds of the open lanes,
in the abandoned lots below, new grasses sprout,
wild mustard remembers, old gardens
come back stronger than they were,
trees have been left standing in their yards.
Albaricoqueros, cerezos, nogales . . .
Viejitas come here with paper bags to gather greens.
Espinaca, verdolagas, yerbabuena . . .

I scramble over the wire fence
that would have kept me out.
Once, I wanted out, wanted the rigid lanes
to take me to a place without sun,
without the smell of tomatoes burning
on swing shift in the greasy summer air.

Maybe it’s here
en los campos extraños de esta ciudad
where I’ll find it, that part of me
mown under
like a corpse
or a loose seed.

from Emplumada (University of Pittsburgh Press)

*

Happy seeking!

José

survival & presence: francisco x. alarcón

Last week, I got to participate in an open mic at The Gallery at Ten Oaks in McMinnville. When I got up there, I made a note that it was my open mic in our new city, and that I always made it a point to find the open mics wherever we moved. Open mics are we you get to see the stories and the imagination of a city.

During my slot, I offered up this week’s poem by Francisco X. Alarcón in both English and Spanish. It was important to me to let the words hang in the air in both languages. I mentioned that between hurricanes in the gulf, forest fires here in the west, and the consequences of rescinding DACA, survival has been a constant in my conversations with family and friends.

alarcón4I would have loved to hear what Alarcón would say about our times now. His death almost two years ago now keeps being fresh on my mind as I find myself compelled to engage with the personal and political in my poems for new reasons. Only through such engagement can we reach new understandings. I say “new,” but the new always takes us back to the old, or, as in the poem below, the present. Alarcón’s poem asserts presence as a subversive act; being present with this poem allows me to be present within myself. Such is the gift Alarcón possessed and left for us in his work.

Natural Criminal – Francisco X. Alarcón
translated by Francisco Aragón

I am
a nomad
in a country
of settlers

a drop
of oil
in a glass
of water

a cactus
flowering
where one
can’t and
shouldn’t
flourish

I am
history’s
fresh and
living wound

my crime
has been being
what I’ve been
all my life

*

Naturaleza criminal – Fransico X. Alarcón

soy
un nómada
en un país
de sedentarios

una gota
de aceite
en un vaso
de agua

un nopal
que florece
en donde
no se puede
ni se debe
florecer

soy
una herida
todavía viva
de la historia

mi crimen
ha sido ser
lo que he sido
toda mi vida

from From the Other Side of the Night/del otro lado de la noche: New and Selected Poems

*

Happy naturalezando!

José

hoping with rossy evelin lima

lima coverIn my recent microreview & interview of Migrare Mutare ~ Migrate Mutate (artepoética press) by Rossy Evenlin Lima, I wrote about the nuanced way the collection takes on the title’s themes and presents  poems that evoke distinct variations of presence and place. This is poetry at its most direct and evocative; a lyric voice runs through the collection like lightning, illuminating the corners and depths of migration/mutation.

The poem below, “Si hay futuro (If There is a Future),” is from the “Mutate” section of the collection. Here, the speaker takes the premise of the title and imagines a future scene where she herself is referenced in the past tense as “la abuela (Grandma),” a move that implies her absence. The lyric narrative then circles around this absence, the speaker stating that in this future scene she’ll “be seated / in the cooing of the branches.” From this position of “watching over them,” the speaker goes on to “mutate,” stating that she will be “the serpent, the quetzal, / the jaguar and the axolotl” and on through a list of creatures who carry a strong significance in Mexican mythology and legend.

Presence is created in this poem via metaphor. In creating and expanding upon a hypothetical, the poem is able to create a space that acknowledges possibility. From this space, the poem then evokes the act of reading; that “these women of my futures” can “read” the speaker’s presence through her absence in the world around them mirrors what this poem houses and holds up to be read: a voice that hopes for such a future, and a hope that voices itself through poetry.

Si hay futuro – Rossy Evelin Lima

Dentro de varias décadas
estarán dos niñas observando el paisaje,
una le dirá a la otra
-de aquí salió la abuela. ¿Pero cómo pudo
irse? yo en su lugar, jamás
me hubiera marchado.

Yo estaré sentada
en el arrullo de las ramas,
les susurraré que el secreto está
en enterrar el corazón bajo un árbol
y hacer en el aire un nido.

Yo estaré cuidándolas,
las mujeres de mis futuros,
y seré la serpiente, el quetzal,
jaguar y axolotl,
seré la tortuga y el coyote
seré la mariposa.

Hoy les enseño las oraciones
con las que podran revivirme.

*

If There is a Future – Rossy Evelin Lima, translated by Don Cellini

In a few decades,
two little girls will observe the landscape
and one will say to the other
“Grandma left from here. How could she
leave? If I were in her place
I never would have left.”

I’ll be seated
in the cooing of the branches,
and I’ll whisper that the secret
is to bury your heart beneath a tree
and make a nest in the air.

I’ll be watching over them,
these women of my futures,
and I’ll be the serpent, the quetzal,
the jaguar and the axolotl,
I’ll be the turtle and coyote,
I’ll be the butterfly.

Today I teach them the prayers
so that they’ll have the power to bring me back.

*

Happy futuro-ing!

José

in the air with iskandar haggarty

This week’s poem “Flutter” by Iskandar Haggarty comes from his online chapbook There Are No Women In Our House (Praxis Magazine) and is a great example of how a lyric sequence can range in dynamic both conceptually and structurally. In terms of concept, Haggarty keeps the imagery “in the air,” so to speak, across the three sections of the sequence, charging the poem with the flutter of “sparrows” and “fireflies” as well as the expansiveness of a sky that includes moon, planets, and constellations.

This in the air work is furthered in terms of structure by the use of three line stanzas, or tercets, throughout. The sequence goes from four tercets in the first section, to three in the second, and two in the last. This consistency varies within each section by having a single line conclude each one.

Ursa_major_-_MercatorThis structural work creates a visual shape that has the eye “flutter” along with the concept, both moving the reader through the poem’s lyric narrative. The result is a poem that surprises by what it can evoke through its turns and images. From awe to “morning sadness” to finally wonder, this lyric sequence creates its intimacy in an indirect yet vivid manner.

Flutter – Iskandar Haggarty

I.

Your mother had
sparrows
tangled in her hair

and fireflies
trapped inside
her vocal cords.

Every morning, she’d
awaken before the moon
had slumber in its eye

and lightly brush your
snoring father’s
head full of Saturn

with her lips.

II.

Your mother was made
of ashes and was married
to the stars.

Each night, she’d rain down
from Ursa Major,
sprinkling the edges

of thunderbolts
and canopies,
fertilizing the soil

with morning sadness.

III.

Your mother was
the daughter of
Jupiter.

Really? I asked,
my eyes full of
crescents.

The butterflies in Grandpa’s eyelids smiled.

*

Happy fluttering!

José

Goodreads Book GiveawaySmall Fires by Jose Angel Araguz

Small Fires

by Jose Angel Araguz

Giveaway ends August 10, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

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