In this section various writers will be asked to take a second look at poems they admire and discuss informally what they admire about the work.
Issue 17: “Bilingual Sestina”
A Second Look by Catherine Carter
Some things I have to say aren’t getting said
in this snowy, blonde, blue-eyed, gum chewing English,
dawn’s early light sifting through the persianas closed
the night before by dark-skinned girls whose words
evoke cama, aposento, suenos in nombres
from that first word I can’t translate from Spanish.
Gladys, Rosario, Altagracia—the sounds of Spanish
wash over me like warm island waters as I say
your soothing names: a child again learning the nombres
of things you point to in the world before English
turned sol, tierra, cielo, luna to vocabulary words—
sun, earth, sky, moon—language closed
like the touch-sensitive morivivir, whose leaves closed
when we kids poked them, astonished. Even Spanish
failed us when we realized how frail a word
is when faced with the thing it names. How saying
its name won’t always summon up in Spanish or English
the full blown genii from the bottled nombre.
Gladys, I summon you back with your given nombre
to open up again the house of slatted windows closed
since childhood, where palabras left behind for English
stand dusty and awkward in neglected Spanish.
Rosario, muse of el patio, sing in me and through me say
that world again, begin first with those first words
you put in my mouth as you pointed to the world—
not Adam, not God, but a country girl numbering
the stars, the blades of grass, warming the sun by saying
el sol as the dawn’s light fell through the closed
persianas from the gardens where you sang in Spanish,
Esta son las mananitas, and listening, in bed, no English
yet in my head to confuse me with translations, no English
doubling the world with synonyms, no dizzying array of words,
—the world was simple and intact in Spanish
awash with colores, luz, suenos, as if the nombres
were the outer skin of things, as if words were so close
to the world one left a mist of breath on things by saying
their names, an intimacy I now yearn for in English—
words so close to what I meant that I almost hear my Spanish
blood beating, beating inside what I say en ingles.
Bilingual poetry is a broad phrase; it can cover both poetry in translation, with the original on hand for comparison and discussion of word connotations, and poetry which is actually bilingual—that is, using two or more languages within the same poem. Julia Alvarez’s “Bilingual Sestina” falls into the latter category, and its use of bilingualism to comment on the workings of all language, and of all loss, is nothing short of stunning.
First, its bilingualism widens its potential audience from the initial words, introducing a simultaneous sense of distance and strangeness for readers who don’t speak Spanish and a sense of intimacy and nostalgia for those who do—that sense of intimacy and nostalgia which the poet expresses in this poem. The careful use of bilingual words and phrases is mimetic, creating in bilingual readers the feelings the poet expresses. It also gives monolingual speakers of English a taste of what it’s like to be on the linguistic outside: constantly running up against words whose meanings we don’t know, thwarted, baffled, feeling like a failure.
Alvarez, though, is crafty; she chooses words whose English translations can be inferred from their context, so that while monoglot readers are held at a slight distance, the distance isn’t great enough to drive them from the poem with total incomprehension. Selecting the number and context of these just-enough bilingualisms is an art in itself; it would be fatally easy to go too far one way or the other.
This experience, of course, reflects the content. In the first stanza, the speaker tells us that there are things she needs to say, but can’t say, in English alone, an English which she personifies as snowy, blonde, and gum-chewing: English as a white girl, and not an especially appealing one. The speaker goes on to evoke her central sense of place: the dawn filtering through closed blinds, the images of dark-skinned girls speaking Spanish. She goes on, in subsequent stanzas, to list other things English alone can’t evoke: the musical names of women she’s loved; the musical sounds of Spanish, which she compares to waves on a warm island; the ease of naming things (sun, moon, sky, earth) in our first languages, as compared to the struggle when those names are translated into “vocabulary words” in the second language—or, to put it another way, the ease and freedom of language we learn organically, without the struggle of formal study; the house of her childhood, imagined as a space in which lost words in Spanish stand dusty and awkward, like abandoned furniture; the sounds of Spanish songs; colors, light, dreams, a world “simple and intact”; the intimacy that the speaker knows through Spanish which she doesn’t get in English.
But why can’t English convey these things? For so many reasons, which reveal so much about how languages work overall.
- Because every word in every language (of course) carries its distinct connotations. There’s never a full or a true translation from one language to another—something is always, as they say, “lost in translation.” Even synonyms in English aren’t exact synonyms; run isn’t the same as lope, gallop, trot, jog, or bolt.
- Because the differences between languages also reflect the differences between cultures. The Dominican Republic, where Alvarez was raised though not born, is not the United States. A culture which has salsa and mariachi music and afternoon siestas, where everyone knows how to dance, is not the same as a culture which treats naps as a sign of weakness and where adults don’t routinely dance at parties.
- Because the gaps between languages stand in, for this poet, for the gaps between people, between worlds. When you’re raised one place and then come to live somewhere very different, the struggles of expressing yourself in the new language are a microcosm for all the other struggles of getting used to everything being different.
To make this point, the poem offers a brief meditation on how any word, in any language, sometimes isn’t enough: “how frail a word / is when faced with the thing it names. How saying / its name won’t always summon up in Spanish or English / the full blown genii from the bottled nombre.” These lines ask us to consider how the word “table”, or the word “love”, are inadequate compared to an actual, physical table, or to feelings of love—something every poet knows, but which every reader doesn’t. Indeed, many people believe (or, for rhetorical purposes, choose to say they believe) in the transparency of language—words seamlessly signifying physical things with no gap between the two. The speaker reminds us that even the home language, the intimate, intact language of her childhood, is sometimes inadequate—is dead-alive, closes up when examined too closely, like the morivivir plant.
From stanza 4, the speaker peoples her reimagined house with women from home, Gladys and Rosario. Who are Gladys and Rosario? We don’t know for sure…but do we need to? The speaker “summons” them back by speaking their names, a metaphor of magic or conjuring (for Alvarez, as for any writer, words and names are truly magical—it’s no coincidence that two of Alvarez’s end words are names/nombres and words/palabras. Sestina writers choose their end words even more carefully than all the others. So maybe it’s enough to know these are people she’s left behind, people she loves, people whose memory she conjures by saying their names.
But we do find out more: Alvarez invokes Rosario as a “muse of el patio”, the way Homer or Virgil opens an epic poem (“sing, Muse, of the trials of Odysseus, that man of many turns…”) Alvarez makes the classical gesture of invoking the muse who will allow her to write this poem (it’s very metacognitive.) She asks the absent Rosario to “sing in me and through me say that world again”.
In stanzas 4 and 5, Alvarez avails herself of the sestina writer’s license to change the forms or uses of her end words slightly: she changes her end-word word to world, adding one letter, suggesting that words are something like worlds in themselves. More, though, it makes Rosario, whom we now find out is “a country girl” (maybe a servant?), into an analog for, as the poet says right out, Adam or God in Genesis. As the lost Rosario names the stars and the blades of grass, she’s giving them life and meaning through her words: she “warms” the sun when she calls it el sol, her Spanish names bringing the light of dawn. This is a huge claim for the power of language, and it becomes hugely subversive as it takes the power of naming and creating away from the patriarchal (and probably white) figures of God and Adam, ascribing it instead to one country girl speaking Spanish to a small child. This shift creates intimacy and connection, “as if the nombres / were the outer skin of things, as if words were so close / to the world one left a mist of breath on things by saying // their names…”
Finally, in the envoi, one of the end words again shifts its form, this time from English into Spanish…and the word, of course, is English/ingles. The English word English becomes the Spanish word for English. Beyond the meta-coolness of this move, which the speaker saves for the final line and the final word, the speaker literally changes an English word into a Spanish word—and, again, it’s the word for English, not just any English word. That is, she changes English into Spanish. She claims and exerts her own godlike power over language, a power that she has only because she IS bilingual. The losses and gaps and pangs of bilingualism have given her a power she mightn’t otherwise have.
The act of writing this poem—and, by extension, all other poems—becomes the act of recreating her world—by extension, all worlds. It is achieved by changing one language to another—and it’s hard to imagine a better argument for bilingualism than that.
Issue 16: “Cat Puke and Flies Poem”
A Second Look by Catherine Carter
I encountered Al Zolynas’ “Cat Puke and Flies Poem” for the first time in Steve Kowit’s poetry primer, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet’s Portable Workshop. This is still my favorite poetry manual, 23 years later, and Zolynas’ ode to cat vomit is still one of my favorite poems on earth, one which I teach every time I get the chance.
This is because “Cat Puke and Flies” reads as if Zolynas had sat down to create an exemplar of my favorite things about poetry: unexpected and individual subject matter; the way that words’ connotations and associations carry what, if the poem were an article, we might call its argument; the description, or embodiment, of epiphany in the language of our everyday speech; the funny and the not-so-funny entwined with one another like mating slugs—though without the disturbing denouement which characterizes slug love (go on—look it up. There’s time.) And, most of all, the way it re-makes the world while we watch: as if our eyes had been dirty and someone had washed the glass inside them; as if our vision had been slowly deteriorating and then we were given the right prescription. Suddenly the trees sprout twigs again, and we perceive them, rightly, as marvelous.
I also enjoy teaching this poem because it confounds non-poets’ expectations so dramatically with its initial offering of mild shock. You can write a poem about WHAT? No WAY! It plays particularly well with secondary students, whose willingness to revel in gross-out is the perfect setup for the revelation that if anything’s vile here, it’s not the flies.
In teaching this poem, I like to begin with connotation, once we’ve established the literal level (blessedly easy, thanks to Zolynas’ deadpan voiceover.) This poem makes the most of its words’ multiple connotations: ecstatic, bounty, brothers and sisters, fast, organization, calm, glinting, emerald, purple. And, oh, yes: grace. The religious connotations offer the first clues that there’s more here than a joke, and prepares us for the gradually unveiled view of the world through the lens of Fly.
That world is ecstatic, a word with both sexual and spiritual connotations, thanks in part to the freely given “bounty” of the cat vomit: “there’s obviously always/ enough for everyone in the fly world”, the speaker explains. Imagine, I tell the probably-hungry students, that the floor is made of your favorite food: hot fudge sundae, lemon asparagus, macaroni and cheese with extra cheese. Now imagine that it’s clean enough to suit you: you’re largely immune to disease, you never think about germs, and you can reach down and grab a handful whenever you feel like it.
Nor does this world include any sexual hangups: there’s “plenty of time to get of a quickie / with your neighbor.” What’s that like, students may ask. Imagine some more: everyone you see is appealing, and whenever you choose, you can say, “Hey, baby, how about it?” And the person can say yes, in which case you both get right to it with no fuss and no shame, or no, in which case there’s always someone else. There’s no fear of pregnancy, no performance anxiety, no STDs, no walk of shame…and no rape.
“Wow,” one student memorably remarked at this point. “Are we talking about heaven here?”
Funny you should ask.
Because, lacking famine and frustration and competition for resources, there’s “no fuss, no fighting”. This world without hunger is a world without war—a state we higher life forms haven’t achieved in ten thousand years. Unlike us, the flies are all “brothers and sisters.” This is literally a nod to the facts that the flies all look pretty similar, and that they may well have all hatched from the same clutch of eggs and pupated from the same boil of maggots; but it also invokes the language of religious service to comment on the flies’ pacific nature. These flies are all brethren, and the peace of the flies passes all understanding.
The straightforward narration tells us this; the word selection, though, tells even more. The flies are the recipients, and the embodiments, of grace: not only of physical dexterity, but of the kind of blessing that we can’t earn and can’t deserve, the kind freely given from the infinite generosity of the divine—if you will, out of love. They’re decked in emerald and purple—rare, precious, even royal. Their lives are “fast” (the word is repeated twice, suggesting a complementary reading of the poem as concerned with earthy time), but they are “calm.” If heaven created these flies (a possibility generally ignored in discussions of Creators), it seems to have been lavish with its blessings.
Moreover, the cat vomit is similarly transfigured: one half is in light, one in shadow, “like sunrise / on a volcanic island.” The “island” is volcanic because it’s been spewed from the belly of a force of nature. Marcello (a cat whose very name evokes the haughty white Persian on the Fancy Feast can) has become a volcano, and his vomit lava which cools to form land on the face of the waters: a comparison, both amusing and profound, which fairly begs us to wonder anew about the nature of creation. And the result is beautiful as an island at sunrise. The speaker’s response to this vision is appropriate: he kneels.
Ultimately, this poem opens a wider door, inviting us to reconsider everything human people consider ugly, dirty, scary. A poet who really looks calls into question everything we’ve been told about the world. Short of human cruelty or waste, the poem tells us, not so many things are inherently ugly or awful: their ugliness or awfulness may be in how we look at them. As revolting as it sounds when flies devour a pile of cat vomit, Zolynas is willing to look closer, to recognize that our disgust for flies and germs may be the illusion, his vision the true vision.
Cat Puke and Flies
I feed Marcello a can of Liver and Chicken.
He bolts it down too fast, as usual.
Two minutes later he throws up
on the back patio.
The first fly shows up within seconds,
ecstatic over life’s bounty.
Within minutes, the word’s out
somehow, the brothers and sisters
coming in fast.
The sun creeps along the cement floor.
Pretty soon, half the cat puke is in light,
the other in shadow, like sunrise
on a volcanic island.
At least thirty flies have gathered by now,
walking around and eating
what they’re walking around on.
I move in closer.
Such organization and grace—
no fuss, no fighting. There’s obviously always
enough for everyone in the fly world.
And plenty of time to get off a quickie
with your neighbor.
I’m now on my hands and knees,
my face within inches
of the calm feeding of at least fifty flies
(give or take arrivals and departures).
None seem to notice me,
the sun glinting off their emerald thoraxes
and through their purple wings.
Issue 15: Ode to a Rat
When Elizabeth Acevedo was enrolled in an MFA program, the only person of color in her program, she was asked to write an ode. Her professor scoffed at her notion that she might write a poem about a rat. She was laughed at, told a rat was “not noble enough” to be the subject of a poem. So she decided to write, not just a poem, but an Ode, one of the most elevated forms , a lyric poem of heightened praise, to a rat.
Her poem raises important questions. What is an ode? Who gets to determine the definition of a form? How does form change according to the poet writing it? Can someone writing from outside ‘the canon’ recapture a standard form and make it relevant?
For the Poet Who Told Me Rats Aren’t Noble Enough Creatures for a Poem
Because you are not the admired nightingale.
Because you are not the noble doe.
Because you are not the blackbird,
picturesque ermine, armadillo, or bat.
They’ve been written, and I don’t know their song
the way I know your scuttling between walls.
The scent of your collapsed corpse bloating
beneath floorboards. Your frantic squeals
as you wrestle your own fur from glue traps.
Because in July of ’97, you birthed a legion
on 109th, swarmed from behind dumpsters,
made our street infamous for something
other than crack. We nicknamed you “Cat-
killer,” raced with you through open hydrants,
screeched like you when Siete blasted
aluminum bat into your brethren’s skull—
the sound: slapped down dominoes. You reigned
that summer, Rat; knocked down the viejo’s Heinekens,
your screech erupting with the cry of Capicu!
And even when they sent exterminators,
set flame to garbage, half dead, and on fire, you
Because you may be inelegant, simple,
a mammal bottom-feeder, always fucking famished,
little ugly thing that feasts on what crumbs fall
from the corner of our mouths, but you live
uncuddled, uncoddled, can’t be bought at Petco
and fed to fat snakes because you’re not the maze-rat
of labs: pale, pretty-eyed, trained.
You raise yourself sharp fanged, clawed, scarred,
patched dark—because of this alone they should
love you. So, when they tell you to crawl home
take your gutter, your dirt coat, your underbelly that
scrapes against street, concrete, squeak and filth this
Issue 14: Patrick Kavanagh, The Great Hunger
Patrick Kavanagh grew up a peasant, and in his epic poem The Great Hunger he examines the complex, sophisticated and tragic emotional trajectory of the lives of Irish peasants, men, and to a lesser extent women, who worked the land, honored church and family, but lived an existence several steps darker than Thoreau’s lives of quiet desperation.
Clay is the word and clay is the flesh
Where the potato-gatherers like mechanised scarecrows move
Along the side-fall of the hill – Maguire and his men.
If we watch them an hour is there anything we can prove
Of life as it is broken-backed over the Book
Of Death? Here crows gabble over worms and frogs
And the gulls like old newspapers are blown clear of the hedges, luckily.
Is there some light of imagination in these wet clods?
Or why do we stand here shivering?
The title is taken from the name given the potato famine that devastated Ireland in the 19th century, leaving 1 million dead, and Kavanaugh uses it it to explore what he sees as a different type of famine and death that devastated lives in the mid 20th century.
A dog lying on a torn jacket under a heeled-up cart,
A horse nosing along the posied headland, trailing
A rusty plough. Three heads hanging between wide-apart legs.
October playing a symphony on a slack wire paling.
Maguire watches the drills flattened out
And the flints that lit a candle for him on a June altar
Lucy Collins, writing in an extended remembrance of Kavanaugh in the Irish Times, says “Though the spiritual and sexual deprivation of mid-century Ireland is brought into stark relief in this poem, it is ultimately an expression of thwarted love.”
Like the afterbirth of a cow stretched on a branch in the wind
Life dried in the veins of these women and men:
‘The grey and grief and unloved,
The bones in the backs of their hands,
And the chapel pressing its low ceiling over them.
The poem was published in 1942, and it’s depiction of the life of the peasant moves from lyric beauty to existential despair, from bemusement to horror. It’s a poem that leaves one both in awe, and constantly visited by an ever-deepening sense of a down-circling life lost to others’ expectations.
Like a goat tethered to the stump of a tree –
He circles around and around wondering why it should be.
No crash, No drama.
That was how his life happened.
No mad hooves galloping in the sky,
But the weak, washy way of true tragedy –
A sick horse nosing around the meadow for a clean place to die.
Issue 13: Yusef Komunyakaa, Camouflaging the Chimera
It is hard to make war intimately familiar to those who haven’t been on the front lines. The self-protecting mind tends to wean itself from savage realities or defer to clichés approximating heartfelt empathy. What I love about this poem by Yusef Komunyakaa is that it overwrites both these tendencies, almost surreptitiously. This poem catches me off guard every time, making the poet’s recollection of his experience in the Vietnam War a vivid and urgently personal one for both poet and reader.
Komunyakaa astutely chronicles the smallest details of an imminent ambush interweaving the topography of the soldier’s psyche with the natural environment he or she sneaks through. The we here could be anyone and everyone; it includes even the chameleons and the grass, the mud and light, along with the ghosts of fallen comrades and their widows’ longings. This fugue of muted but omnipresent voices, creatures, sensations, and scrolling intimations, gives the poem the chilling feeling of a live broadcast. The past tense feels all too present and forebodingly prophetic as we, the reader, understand this scene to be the portrait of ongoing human tragedy.
This is a blunt poem of murky boundaries and implications. Distinctions between victim and enemy, nature and man are unclear—both a chimera that must be reckoned with. We are thrust into a place of pulsing portent against the threat of “dark-hearted songbirds.” There is such sadness in that telling and paradoxical depiction, a compassion for the equally bleak predicament of the other.
VC, the one specific reference in the poem, is made all the more stark with the oppositional image of “black silk” struggling to wield iron through grass. The fate of this figure is unknown; he is a fleeting actor in a stalled maelstrom who disappears with the chameleons measuring the passage of time in colors tracing the spines of the soldiers. These mercurial creatures heighten the sensation of invasion, yet they likewise take refuge, camouflaging themselves with the soldiers’ growing foreboding. The human is simultaneously engulfed and salvaged by nature.
What is real and what is not? What are the boundaries of truth and our claims to action or inaction? What does it mean for human nature to be so starkly pitted against the physical environment and yet to depend wholeheartedly upon it? When something as ungraspable as the breeze becomes our buttress and the rocks become jesters, have we surpassed the limits of our mortality or merely succumbed to the fate of a fallible and corrupted humanity that is as fickle and uncompromising as the natural world? These are just some of the many questions this poem poignantly evokes.
To move or to remain when neither is a suitable recourse— this is the vulnerability that war renders all the more insistent. Komunyakaa movingly distills the perilous fact that for some things there is simply no camouflage.
– Anya Russian
Camouflaging the Chimera
We tied branches to our helmets.
We painted our faces & rifles
with mud from a riverbank,
blades of grass hung from the pockets
of our tiger suits. We wove
ourselves into the terrain,
content to be a hummingbird’s target.
We hugged bamboo & leaned
against a breeze off the river,
slow-dragging with ghosts
from Saigon to Bangkok,
with women left in doorways
reaching in from America.
We aimed at dark-hearted songbirds.
In our way station of shadows
rock apes tried to blow our cover,
throwing stones at the sunset. Chameleons
crawled our spines, changing from day
to night: green to gold,
gold to black. But we waited
till the moon touched metal,
till something almost broke
inside us. VC struggled
with the hillside, like black silk
wrestling iron through grass.
We weren’t there. The river ran
through our bones. Small animals took refuge
against our bodies; we held our breath,
ready to spring the L-shaped
ambush, as a world revolved
under each man’s eyelid.
Issue 12: Woman Falling by Franz Wright
It’s so interesting you should suddenly be here, how did that happen? In your favorite place, this witchy old orange orchard, the very spot where it gives the impression of stretching forever in every direction–all those spokes, from where you stand, between the trees, within sight of the three-story house painted the same shade of white and right about the same size as this lone beehive you stand looking down at a moment, no one has lived there for as long as you’ve known it, kept it a secret, parking off the high-way and walking a mile down the nameless dirt road in a windy and shadowy brightness, wind from the sun you would say, in your mind, if I know you, as I do not, and never will now, no one will anymore, you have made sure of that, but I can picture you saying it, I’m not bothering anyone, I don’t even know where it is, that’s the point, no one did, nobody knew how to reach you, in the one vacant room with a mattress you even spent a night sometimes, honeysuckle southern California dawn wind blowing through the glassless windows and over your body, over your hair, maybe God would let you be the wind, but I don’t know what God thinks either, I just like to imagine you all at once finding yourself in that place, walking along, without anyone knowing, that was the haunting, that was always the fun, and stretching before you a whole day of wandering and singing alone in the instant right before the one in which your body meets the earth at last.
The poet opens his eyes to find himself in a dreamlike landscape, “witchy” orange orchard, possibly at a gravesite, slightly astonished to find her(?) there, though it’s her favorite place, her secret place, where she is at the center, spoking out in all directions. She looks down from inside the mythic white house empty of human habitation, at a bee hive, and we begin to wonder – did she jump to her death?
He imagines her parking a mile off, down a dirt road in a “shadowy brightness” which she might consider “the wind from the sun” –
And then the poem turns, as he admits he doesn’t know her enough to suggest what she might think; and no one will anymore, she has “made sure of that.” With its implication of suicide, the poem moves forward with his regret and desire to somehow keep her alive through what he can picture her saying. A process – the act of poetry – he hopes might justify his failure to act in life. “I’m not bothering anyone, I don’t even know where it is, that’s the point, no one did, nobody knew how to reach you.”
The conflation of ‘it’ and ‘her’, the landscape now become the absent person, alone in a vacant room on a mattress. In his poetic imagining Wright grants her the grace of honeysuckle and a visitation from God who would let her be the dawn wind.
But then he doesn’t know what God thinks, either. He’s just imagining that also. So he returns to his own imagining – creating, gifting her “a whole day of wandering and singing” before her body meets the earth “at last.”
Issue 11: “homage to my hips”
One of Lucille Clifton’s best-known poems, “homage to my hips,” appeared in the 1980 collection Two-Headed Woman and the 1987 Good Woman. The poem mythologizes large hips and celebrates the female body, especially the African-American body, as nothing short of magical in its strength and power (sexual and otherwise) and its potential for freedom.
However, despite being regularly reprinted and anthologized, “homage to my hips”—like much of Clifton’s oeuvre—has not received the critical notice it deserves. At best, the poem is treated as “inspirational,” adjuring women to love our bodies even when we don’t meet a narrow patriarchal standard of beauty. Of course, the poem does urge women to love their embodied selves…but in a much more nuanced way than the suggestion that we should wear purple (at least when we’re safely old), or even that we should recognize ourselves as inherently phenomenal women.
homage to my hips
these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
This is generally handled as a light-hearted treatise of love for the body that we’re told to hate and strive to change…if one can call that light-hearted. When I teach this poem, which I seize any excuse to do, we start there: why does Clifton need to offer up a homage to her hips? why wouldn’t women love their hips?
The norm, as portrayed by advertising, media, male commentary, and the women themselves, is that women’s bottoms are almost by definition considered too big. No matter how big they actually are, we’re supposed to want to get rid of them. Buttocks and hips are crammed into jeans and shapewear so tight as to gouge lines into flesh; women literally starve trying to shrink them; the desperate (and affluent) will accept mutilation and risk death to have them cut away. This is how profoundly the female body in America, especially the stereotypically larger African-American female body, is loathed and stigmatized. So Clifton’s poem doesn’t address petty concerns, and while it’s a poem of fierce delight and reclamation, relegating it to the realm of light-hearted inspiration is too glib. We can see this in the “free” in line 6. “Free,” of course, has powerful associations, especially for an African-American woman.
Clifton is known for working in uncapitalized free verse (though she punctuates quite carefully). As Lewis Turco and others have noted, however, good free verse isn’t…and “homage to my hips” is tightly structured and crafted. How many lines in the poem? I ask my students, and which is the longest line? As the careful reader has already noticed, there are fifteen, and the longest line is the central one, line 8 (coincidence? you be the judge).
Then there’s that word in the middle: enslaved. That word is important—it should jar us, to hear the word “enslaved” in a happy poem about loving our butts—and its placement is important too: out there at the end of a line, at the very center of the poem, where it carries real weight. What else might be going on here? Could these hips, big as they may be, represent anything bigger?
Once we ask the question, of course, the answer is obvious. An African-American woman doesn’t use the word enslaved lightly or figuratively. She’s talking about literal slavery, the kind in which children are sold away from their parents, women are raped as a matter of policy, and punishments might include whipping a man five hundred times, rubbing the wounds with salt and pepper, laying the man before a hot fire until the wounds blister, and finally forcing a cat to claw open the blisters.
At this point, there’s usually a pause in the classroom. Whoa, someone might say. Does Clifton really want to compare tight jeans and dieting with THAT?
Oh, hell, yes, she does, because that’s the power of this poem. Despite the hips’ sexual power to attract men and enjoy them, the poem is more than light-hearted, and the hips’ magic and desire are more than flowers and candy. As Zora Neale Hurston remarked—also about race and beauty—real gods require blood. This poem has plenty.
Women, says Clifton—especially Black women—that’s what we’re doing when we accept our hips as too big, needing to be confined or cut away. We’re walking right back into the bullwhip days. We’re crushing and cutting our bodies to fit exploitative standards. We’re enslaving ourselves. And she won’t do it. That’s why her hips can put a spell on a man and spin him like a top: because she insists on their freedom, and ultimately freedom is power, and fulfillment, and joy—irresistible.
But that power doesn’t come cheap. It requires active refusal to fit into “little petty places,” owning the body’s might and the magic in a way that few people really want women to do. It means recognizing beauty standards and the beauty industry as slaveholders getting rich on oppressed bodies, and the skin-tight jeans and cosmetic scalpel as whips in the owner’s hands, and that means pissing off people who are also very powerful. It means valuing our own freedom over a whole system of cultural hegemony, and being hated for it—though also, if we’re lucky, loved too.
Inspirational? How about genuinely radical?
– Catherine Carter
Issue 10: A Refusal to Mourn…
Randall Jarrell defined a poet as someone “who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times,” in which case Dylan Thomas was well toasted, and not only on booze. Of the five or six lightning strikes (and there may well be more) that qualify Thomas as a poet, I will offer one:
A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London
Never until the mankind making
Bird beast and flower
Fathering and all humbling darkness
Tells with silence the last light breaking
And the still hour
Is come of the sea tumbling in harness
And I must enter again the round
Zion of the water bead
And the synagogue of the ear of corn
Shall I let pray the shadow of a sound
Or sow my salt seed
In the least valley of sackcloth to mourn
The majesty and burning of the child’s death.
I shall not murder
The mankind of her going with a grave truth
Nor blaspheme down the stations of the breath
With any further
Elegy of innocence and youth.
Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter,
Robed in the long friends,
The grains beyond age, the dark veins of her mother,
Secret by the unmourning water
Of the riding Thames.
After the first death, there is no other.
Though often baffling, Thomas’s poems are never diffident. This poem, for example, beginning with the grim and seemingly blasphemous title accosts the reader, who has three options: 1) turn away, as one might from a half-crazed street preacher, 2) dismiss it as rank baloney, or 3) consent to its severe, almost archaic and certainly vatic lyricism. Readers who withhold initial judgement and forbear demanding immediate comprehension, might find themselves immersed in the poem’s Gregorian ambience, liturgical rhetoric, and mystery. In fact, Thomas’s poetry seems dithyrambic and improvisatory, a quality that endeared him to the Beat poets. But Thomas labored over his poems, their torqued quality a result of ruthless revisions, composing, or so he claimed, two lines a day, revising them until they satisfied his purpose and the demands of the poem—a scrupulous routine and one hard to reconcile with his supposed chronic alcoholism, all of which ultimately is not pertinent to the merit of his work. However, Thomas’s vision and how his language animated that vision is pertinent. And to understand that it is helpful to consider his craft and the lyric agenda to which it is applied.
“A Refusal to Mourn…” consists of four declarative sentences played out through four sestets, rhyming A B C A B C, except for the last, which rhymes A B A A C A, the A rhymes being all feminine—daughter, mother, water, other—, cumulatively suggest maternity, or, in the context of the poem, death as the mother of the war-murdered daughter. The meter is loose, swinging from tetrameter to dimeter (long over short lines), and the syntax, torqued, dependent, and markedly dithyrambic. Of the eighteen lines comprising the first sentence, seventeen are enjambed. The second sentence covers eight lines, seven of which are enjambed, and the third sentence, five lines, two being enjambed. The forth and concluding sentence is one line. In summary, as the poem progresses, the sentences get shorter, the syntax, less contorted, and enjambment, less pronounced, moving from jagged vehemence to pacific denouement.
But sentences are made of words, and symbolically productive and tonally vibrant word choice (diction), is, alongside prosody and syntax, an aspect of poetic craft, one that Thomas consistently employed, as demonstrated in this poem’s metaphysically suggestive rhymes: making/breaking, darkness/harness, death/breath, daughter/mother/water. The ecclesiastic tenor of diction is furthered enhanced by the seeding of words rich with scriptural significance: mourn, darkness, last light, humbling, salt, seed. Zion, synagogue, grave, and, of course, death.
Dylan Thomas’s craft, what he has describes as “sullen craft”—the torqued, dependent and often inverted, syntax, liberal usage of gerunds and ing participles that frequently follow, a meter chimed with alliteration and studded with spondees—recalls Anglo Saxon Verse, particularly “Caedmon’s Hymn.” Equally revealing, and perhaps more so, is his artistic kinship to Gerald Manley Hopkins, an unlikely poetic progenitor, considering Hopkins’s reticence and humility, as compared to Thomas’s famously transgressive and excessive showmanship, which he knew was largely responsible for his popularity, a distressing realization because it led him to doubt his literary merit. Yet, didn’t Hopkin, too, distrust his literary merit and passion for poetry, finding it contrary to his vows and avocation as a Jesuit priest? Are these not two very different artists, one a devout Christian and converted Roman Catholic, the other a hedonistic shaman poet? I am not so sure. Several scholars have noted seemingly Judeo-Christian elements in several poems by Dylan Thomas’s. Are those Judo Christian elements present in “A Refusal to Mourn…” Possibly, considering the scriptural character of the poem’s diction and its mysterious final line.
Most intriguing to me is Thomas’s appropriation of sprung rhythm from Hopkins, the originator of that poetic. I say poetic because sprung rhythm is not merely a memorable (and sometimes confounding) prosodic technique. Rather, Hopkins developed sprung rhythm as a infinitely flexible objective correlative for “inscape,” which is how Hopkins described the everywhere kinetic indwelling of the Holy Spirit, i.e. the indiscriminate charging (imminence) of “God’s Grandeur” throughout nature. And that was what Hopkins strove represent and praise. But Thomas? I don’t know, but the last paragraph of Dylan’s Thomas’s introduction to his Collected Poem, 1934-1952 reads:
I read somewhere of a shepherd who, when asked why he made, from
fairy rings, ritual observances to the moon to protect his flock, replied
‘I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t. These poems, with all their crudities,
doubts, and confusions, are written for the love of man and in praise
of God, and I’d be a damn fool if they weren’t.
Issue 9: Looking for Songs of Papusza
Looking for Songs of Papusza (Bronisława Wajs)
Gypsy singer-poet Bronisława Wajs (1910-1987), known by her Roma name Papusza (“Doll”), was the first Gypsy known to write down and publish her songs as poems. Papusza’s people were wandering harpists who sang and played at inns, weddings, and fairs. Most were illiterate and disapproved of reading. As a child Papusza stole chickens and traded them to a local shopkeeper in exchange for reading lessons. When she was caught reading she was beaten by her stepfather and the books destroyed, but that did not stop her.
At fifteen Papusza was married to her step-uncle, who accompanied her on harp as she sang and enacted laments of lost love and a yearning for “the long road.” Papusza’s own songs were rooted in Gypsy lore, but she gave voice to her own private imaginings, memories, and desires. She paid a high price for following her own voice—especially for writing down her lyrics.
When the Polish poet Jerzy Ficowski heard Papusza sing in 1949, he said, “You are not singing, you are reciting poetry.” She replied that her songs came to her as they did to mermaids. “I am just a girl from the forest where the moon shines and Gypsies dance in the night.” (The Story of Papusza) Ficowski sent some of her songs to the poet Julian Tuwim, who published them in the journal Problemy in 1950.
When word got back to the tribal elders, Papusza was accused of treason, and a pack of envoys threatened “to pull her apart with horses.” Her sin? She had collaborated with a gadjo. Meanwhile Ficowski was preparing his book The Gypsies in Poland, which included descriptions of Gypsy beliefs and a glossary of terms, along with some “Songs of Papusza.” She wrote to him: “If you print these songs I shall be skinned alive, my people shall be naked against the elements. But who knows, maybe I will grow another skin, maybe one nicer and more noble.” As the threats continued, she traveled to Warsaw to beg representatives of the Writers Union to stop publication. Ficowski was present. After much discussion they proceeded with publication, a decision he later regretted.
Meanwhile the socialist regime seized on Ficowski’s book as a propaganda tool in its campaign to get Gypsies to stop their nomadic ways. Excerpts were distributed among the community, implying that Papusza agreed with the pro-settlement policies. In addition the book contained “unthinkable forbidden words”—words previously known only among Gypsies. The Romi’s highest authority, Baro Shero, had her declared magherdi, unclean: the punishment for revealing Gypsy secrets, known as falorykta, was irreversible exclusion from the group.
Papusza burned all her work—at least 150 poems—and most of her letters from Tuwim and Ficowski. Devastated by the shunning, she fell into a deep depression. She spent the next eight months in a psychiatric hospital and lost all desire to write. She lived the rest of her life in isolation and poverty.
Ficowski never forgave himself for contributing to her fate as an outcast. They remained friends thoughout her life, however. She did write a few poems in the 1960s. Her remaining work consists of about thirty to forty poems and a few sketches of Gypsy life. Songs of Papusza was translated into many languages, but the English translation is out of print.
The documentary Cyganska Poetka Papusza features a discussion between Papusza and Ficowski and excerpts of her poetry (in Polish, no subtitles). At the 30-minute mark you can hear her recite “Land, I Am Your Daughter.” Ficowski translated this poem from Romi into Polish. I am grateful for the following English translation of Ficowski’s translation by Dr. Kinga Kosmala at the University of Chicago’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. Here is an excerpt:
Papusza (Bronisława Wajs)
tłum. na polski Jerzy FicowskiZiemio moja i leśna,
jestem córką twoją.
Lasy śpiewają, ziemia śpiewa;
śpiew ten składamy – rzeka i ja –
w jedną cygańską piosenkę.Pójdę ja w góry,
włożę spódnicę piękną, wspaniałą,
uszytą z kwiatów
i zawołam, ile sił będę miała:
Polska ziemio, czerwona i biała!Ziemio, nikt cię nie odbierze,
ziemio czarnych lasów, dobrych serc i moja,
Jestem twoją córką.Ziemio, w ciebie bardzo wierzę,
kocham wszystko, co na tobie
rośnie i żyje.Ziemio, co blaskiem bijesz w niebo,
jakbyś ze złota była,
ziemio czarnoleśna i moja,
matko wszystkich i moja,
matko piękna, bogata!
Tęskni moje czarne serce
za twoją pieśnią.Ziemio, twoje zżęte pola
wyglądają w słońcu
ziemio, gdzie walczył z wiatrem grom
jak pieśni w moim sercu.
Młot bije w kamień
i staje się ogień wielki.
Ziemio ty moja śliczna!
przypatrują się wielkie gwiazdy,
gadają nocą jak Cyganeczki.
translated into Polish by Jerzy FicowskiMy land, woodland,
I am your daughter.
The forests are singing, the land is singing;
the song we are putting together – the river and I –
into one Gypsy song.I will go into the mountains,
I will put on a beautiful, magnificent skirt
sewn from flowers
and I will call with all my strength:
Polish land, red and white2!Land, no one can take you,
the land of black forests3, of good hearts and of me,
I am your daughter.Land, I believe in you so much,
I love everything that on you
grows and lives.Land, whose shine rises high to the sky
as if you were made of gold,
land blackforesty4 and mine,
the mother of all and of me,
Mother beautiful and rich!
My black heart longs
for your song.Land, your harvested fields
look in the sunshine
land, where the thunder fought with the wind
like the songs in my heart.
A hammer beats on a stone
and a big fire rises.
My land, my beautiful!
At you at night
look great stars,
talk at night like little Gypsy women.
1The Polish word “ziemia” can be translated as land but also as earth. It is worth noting that this noun belongs to the feminine gender, so both land and earth are feminine in Polish.
2White and red are the colors of the Polish flag
3“Czarnolas” (lit. Black Forest) is a town where the most famous Polish Renaissance poet, Jan Kochanowski, lived. Due to his enormous impact on the Polish language and literature any reference calling upon “Czarnolas” indicate poetry and the poetic craft.
4This form of the noun used as an adjective (“czarnoleśmy”) is a direct reference to Kochanowski.
– Deb Kaufman
Issue 8: Crafting the American Ghazal
The American ghazal, modeled after the Urdu ghazal, is written as a string of couplets which are thematically and tonally autonomous, complete units, each with its own climax. The ghazal’s cohesion lies in the sonic rather than thematic elements: its qafia or internal rhyme, and radif or refrain, provide the sonic base from which the ghazal launches into couplets that can cover a variety of subjects and moods. The refrain establishes a sort of loose theme in the opening couplet. With each successive couplet, the reader is primed to receive the refrain with a twist. Each couplet is thus a distant cousin of another. Agha Shahid Ali compares each couplet to a unique gem which enhances the beauty of the ghazal’s necklace but retains its own brilliance outside of it too.
Speakers of Urdu quote couplets from ghazals by Ghalib, Mir and Iqbal on every occasion, in any situation, precisely because these couplets are poetic aphorisms suited for a wide range of situations that provoke an outburst.
(The accompanying film clip shows a Mushaira or poetry reading scene from the court of Bahadur Shah, a gifted nineteenth century poet and the last emperor of Mughal India. Note the stylized performance and the excited audience-participation which is triggered by the anticipation of the ghazal’s refrain).
The two distinguishing features of the ghazal, lyrical intensity and thematic disunity, or in Agha Shahid Ali’s words “Ravishing Disunities” have made unforgettable gems in Urdu poetry. On the flip side, these defining features become problematic when writing a ghazal in English for the contemporary American audience: Intensity can come across as sentimentality or hyperbole. Disunity can be disorienting in this culture where clarity is valued and expected, and there is little tolerance for obfuscation or abstraction compared to Urdu aesthetics.
Let’s consider a ghazal by Grace Schulman and see how she remains true to the ghazal’s form and sensibility while avoiding the pitfalls of sentimentality and absence of conventional cohesion:
Grace Schulman’s Ghazal
Let’s look at the technical aspects first. Grace Schulman’s radif in her ghazal “Prayer” is “ in Jerusalem.” Her qafia rhymes with “bought.” This particular scheme is established in the Matla or the opening of the ghazal:
Yom Kippur: wearing a bride’s dress bought in Jerusalem,
I peer through swamp reeds, my thought in Jerusalem.
Schulman embraces the ghazal’s particular style by selecting a radif that is potentially lofty. The drama of history inherent in the word “Jerusalem” gives it the dynamism that a radif ought to have. Schulman utilizes a radif that carries with it connotations of the “sense of longing” and “intensity of feeling” that characterize the classical ghazal. While she lets the radif do the work of intensity, she brings the poem to a personal level by introducing the “I” in several couplets, thereby reducing the likelihood of being distant, sentimental or artificial. The result is that we witness the larger drama, the tragedies and ironies of Jerusalem not only from the assumed eye of history but from the private window of the poet’s personal experience:
My dress is Arabic: spangles. Blue-green-yellow beads
the shades of mosaics hand-wrought in Jerusalem
Using the “I,” “my” and “you” in the ghazal (as Schulman does in this couplet) has a grounding effect, balancing the loftiness of the radif. It brings the microcosmic, the modest, the small, and the contemporaneous into the larger picture of Jerusalem, contrasting a theme of epic proportions with the immediate, the personal:
Velvet on grass. Odd. But I learned young to keep this day
just as I can, if not as I ought, in Jerusalem.
The blending of the personal and the historical occurs in the entire ghazal and profoundly so in the Maqta or the final couplet:
Here at the bay, I see my face in the shallows
And plumb for the true self our Abraham sought in Jerusalem.
Referring to oneself in a variety of ways is also a typical ghazal gesture. Schulman does this as she refers to herself as a spider weaving a web:
As this spider weaves a web in silence,
may Hebrew and Arabic be woven taut in Jerusalem.
This couplet is emblematic in a way because it uses the traditional language of “prayer” -the title of the poem. But being a ghazal, the poem can and does have multiple couplets as emblems. Schulman explores the theme of being split and united, the paradox that Jerusalem poses for believers, in a form that allows for exactly that sort of poetic duality: desire for the beloved and his absence. Even though each couplet deals with a separate motif (such as Arabic poetry, Jewish spirituality, the landscape of Jerusalem, war, crossing cultures, religious icons) the poem can be said to have “atmospheric cohesion,” even thematic cohesion, thanks to the radif “Jerusalem.” With the exception of an enjambment between couplets 4 and 5, rearranging the sequence of the couplets would make little difference to the poem.
To summarize, Schulman’s ghazal avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality and lack of cohesion by: centering the poem on a radif that allows multiple related themes, thereby allowing various threads to be woven together cohesively, and, by bringing the intimate and vulnerable, the “authentic” instead of merely the assumed into the larger picture of Jerusalem’s drama.
– Shadab Zeest Hashmi
Issue 7: Celebrating Childhood by Adonis
He was born in a farming village in 1930. The village had no electricity, no telephones, no school. But his father immersed him in what Adonis refers to as ‘Old Arab Culture’. Which meant poetry.
He didn’t see a car until he was 13, in 1943, the year Syria gained its independence. He wrote a poem for the new President of Syria, who, impressed, helped him enroll in a French school. Later, he went to Damascus University. He has been imprisoned for his activism, and lived for years in exile in Beirut. He now lives in Paris.
Winner of the first international Nazim Hikmet Award, Adonis is considered one of the greatest Arabic poets.
Translated by Khaled Mattawa
Even the wind wants
to become a cart
pulled by butterflies.
I remember madness
leaning for the first time
on the mind’s pillow.
I was talking to my body then
and my body was an idea
I wrote in red.
Red is the sun’s most beautiful throne
and all the other colors
worship on red rugs.
Night is another candle.
In every branch, an arm,
a message carried in space
echoed by the body of the wind.
The sun insists on dressing itself in fog
when it meets me:
Am I being scolded by the light?
Oh, my past days—
they used to walk in their sleep
and I used to lean on them.
Love and dreams are two parentheses.
Between them I place my body
and discover the world.
I saw the air fly with two grass feet
and the road dance with feet made of air.
My wishes are flowers
staining my days.
I was wounded early,
and early I learned
that wounds made me.
I still follow the child
who still walks inside me.
Now he stands at a staircase made of light
searching for a corner to rest in
and to read the face of night again.
If the moon were a house,
my feet would refuse to touch its doorstep.
They are taken by dust
carrying me to the air of seasons.
one hand in the air,
the other caressing tresses
that I imagine.
A star is also
a pebble in the field of space.
who is joined to the horizon
can build new roads.
A moon, an old man,
his seat is night
and light is his walking stick.
What shall I say to the body I abandoned
in the rubble of the house
in which I was born?
No one can narrate my childhood
except those stars that flicker above it
and that leave footprints
on the evening’s path.
My childhood is still
being born in the palms of a light
whose name I do not know
and who names me.
Out of that river he made a mirror
and asked it about his sorrow.
He made rain out of his grief
and imitated the clouds.
Your childhood is a village.
You will never cross its boundaries
no matter how far you go.
His days are lakes,
his memories floating bodies.
You who are descending
from the mountains of the past,
how can you climb them again,
Time is a door
I cannot open.
My magic is worn,
my chants asleep.
I was born in a village,
small and secretive like a womb.
I never left it.
I love the ocean not the shores.
Adonis, “Celebrating Childhood” from Selected Poems, translated by Khaled Mattawa. Copyright © 2010 by Adonis. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
Issue 6: Looking for my Killer by Thylias Moss
The video poam Looking for my Killer by Thylias Moss, who wrote, arranged, and performed all vocals. The music was performed and composed by Ansted Moss. Although forthcoming in print, for Ms. Moss “the video poam provides context for the print poams. They are meant to work together. The video poam shows the speaker in acts of looking for her killer.”
Moss, after winning a Macarthur Genius Award, began exploring the intersections of music/video/poetry in ways that integrated the various forms in seamless new compositions. Looking for My Killer she conceives as “a twist on women taking back the night(in controversy’s breeding ground) as a public service.”
Issue 5: Requiem by Anna Akhmatova
Requiem by Anna Akhmatova has been called an epic, lament, lyric, elegy –and it’s all of those. Requiem is arguably one of the greatest poems of the 20th Century. Its depiction of the suffering of the Russian people under Stalin is bleak but not without hope. Even as there is a recognition that hope might be elusive.
For some one, somewhere, a fresh wind blows,
For some one, somewhere, wakes up a dawn –
We don’t know, we’re the same here always,
We just hear the key’s squalls, morose,
And the sentry’s heavy step alone;
In this translation, by Yevgeny Bonver, the section Dedication features a repetition and variation of ‘o’ sounds that creates the sensation of standing in the swirl of cold Leningrad winds, which Akhmatova did for 17 months hoping for news of her son, who was incarcerated, apparently, for the crime of being the son of a poet; the hard ‘d’s repulse like the stones of the prison she waited outside daily.
The high crags decline before this woe,
The great river does not flow ahead,
But they’re strong – the locks of a jail, stone,
And behind them – the cells, dark and low,
And the deadly pine is spread.
For some one, somewhere, a fresh wind blows,
For some one, somewhere, wakes up a dawn –
We don’t know, we’re the same here always,
We just hear the key’s squalls, morose,
And the sentry’s heavy step alone;
Got up early, as for Mass by Easter,
Walked the empty capital along
To create the half-dead peoples’ throng.
The sun downed, the Neva got mister,
But our hope sang afar its song.
There’s a sentence… In a trice tears flow…
Now separated, cut from us,
As if they’d pulled out her heart and thrown
Or pushed down her on a street stone –
But she goes… Reels… Alone at once.
Where are now friends unwilling those,
Those friends of my two years, brute?
What they see in the Siberian snows,
In a circle of the moon, exposed?
To them I send my farewell salute.
The full Requiem, consisting of a prose introduction followed by 15 short poems, is on the video. The translator is not named, but as you’ll see this translator made different choices than Bonver.
Issue 4: A Daughter Leads Her Mother Into Sleep
A Daughter Leads Her Mother Into Sleep
translation by Mark Smith-Soto
originally published in Fever Season (Unicorn Press, 2010)
I spoke with the piece of my mother
that didn’t want to die that wouldn’t give…
that was the colt gone wild
and the live nerve severed in the face of death
so fierce the flaming from the sword she wielded
we had to bury her with her hands tied
I managed to speak with that cold jar
of blood that was about to die
I saw a god in pieces I saw a spike
of gunpowder in her breast
and to that small piece of her inner ear
that fluttered like a sacred silk
like the last sail
the final pulse of a flaming splinter
and to that fragment of mother yet remaining
that weighs more than the world
and is the boiling diamond
I bury between my eyes
to that jar of faith handed to me
by the sad, merciful surgeons
I was able to speak
good-by little one
there will be no monsters in the dark.
una hija conduce a su madre hasta el sueño
yo hablé con el pedazo de mi madre
que no quería morir se resistió
fue el potro que pierde la cordura
y es nervio cercenado ante la muerte
por la esgrima de fuego que sostuvo
tuvimos que enterrarla maniatada
yo pude hablar con esa jarra fría
de sangre que se muere
yo vi un dios reventado vi una estaca
de pólvora en su pecho
y a ese trozo de oído que latía
como una seda sacra
como el último barco
como el pulso final de flama de una astilla
a ese tercio de madre que me resta
y pesa más que el mundo
y es el diamante hirviente
que entierro entre mis ojos
a ese frasco de fe que me cedieron
clementes cirujanos desolados
le pude hablar
no habrá bestias feroces entre la oscuridad
The award-winning Costa Rican poet, Ana Istarú, is a rare lyricist whose written verse can stand alone, resonating equally on and off the page. Her poems arrive in three-dimensions; one senses the immediacy of a woman’s life, her pleasures, pains, and poigancy—not merely an insinuation of them. Istarú’s poems arrive fully embodied, always seeming to emerge from something deep and unretractable which could not help but be spoken.
Such is the case with this poem, “A Daughter Leads her Mother into Sleep.” This unsuspecting title is more than ironic. It stands in stark contrast to the litany of conflicting emotions in which the poem and the reader are braced. What’s more, it magnifies the lingering paradox of death: Is it measured in increments of defiance or graceful capitulation? And with whom do you ally yourself? With those resisting defeat or with the loved ones hoping to ease their struggle? And what happens with all of that force- such will to continue living- but the passing of a torch where daughter turns to mother, consoling her in the face of an irrevocable sleep.
Such strong, emotive images inlaid upon this theme might run the risk of exasperating themselves, but in the case of this poem, they hit the mark. Rather than recounting the stories of her mother’s life, Istarú takes us to the closest and most intimate fronteir of her death. We must settle with a mere crescent of a woman who once was, and she blazes all the more vehemently because it contains all that is left.
There is a tautness in this poem. Between cascading images that seem uncontainable, rushing forth to an imminent end, this portrait cranes to freeze: a mother willing to remain intact and a daughter trying to contain her as death advances, body part by body part, line by precipitous line, leaving the daughter with merely a jar of blood, then a jar of faith “that there will be no monsters in the dark.”
Istarú maps deathʼs procession through the physical fragments of her mother that remain: her hands, the piece of her inner ear, her breast; also with images that heave from the explosiveness of “a spike of gunpowder,” a “live nerve severed,” or a flaming sword, into the gentleness of a sacred silk fluttering and a “last sail.” There is no cliche here; no sense of tidy completion, but a sensuality interwoven with a stark combustion — a confrontation of competing destinies that by the final lines forces you into a strange composure, but like the daughter, leaves you empty-handed.
I love the dynamic physicality of this poem: the willpower embodied in symbols of weaponry (sword, spike, splinter, gunpowder, the implication of rope). One experiences death as both a transition into object and formlessness. On this precipice, the mother is slowly converging into those objects she symbolically wields while also drifting into something more archetypal- an animal (“the colt gone wild”), an element (“the boiling diamond”), or the pieces of a god. Istarú succeeds in giving us both a panoramic and intimate experience of death where mother and daughter, speaker and reader merge into the feeling of that final eclipse which nonetheless leaves you wondering whether it can bear the grace of sleep.
Issue 3: Collective Death
“Nearly thirty years ago, Ghassan Zaqtan wrote this haunting poem; it remains haunting; thirty years of repetitions, of collective death.” Fady Joudah.
Evening didn’t come without its darkness
we slept roofless but with cover
and no survivor came in the night
to tell us of the death of others.
The roads kept whistling
and the place was packed with the murdered
who came from the neighboring quarter
whose screams escaped toward us.
We saw and heard
the dead walk on air
tied by the thread of their shock
their rustle pulling our bodies
off our glowing straw mats.
A glistening blade
kept falling over the roads.
The women gave birth only to those who passed
and the women will not give birth
Endless Last Breath: Thoughts on Ghassan Zaqtan’s poem “Collective Death” (Translated from Arabic by Fady Joudah)
This poem rustles — a continuous, self-replicating sheaf collecting last breaths. It portrays massacre not as something that ends life but as a continuum of death. Absence, recorded as time (the evening “that didn’t come…”) and physicality (“roofless”), is the absence not only of those who have now died but the constantly dying survivors who can no longer keep a record: “no survivors came/in the night/to tell us of the death of others.” The poem has a stark immediacy, an uncanny sense of motion in its deathly stillness, which, for a moment locks the reader into the suffocating world of the speaker. What is genocide but death linking death linking more death? The last breath is collective and unending like abandoned, “whistling roads,” abandoned but for the population of ghosts.
Issue 2: Joseph Millar and Walt Whitman
After Listening to a Lecture on Form
I’m afraid of the mountains
in this thin glacial air,
of going to sleep in their shadow,
that the granite inside them
and the threads of bright metal
may not hold once the night comes.
I’m afraid of so many people talking,
the cat smile of the poetry scholar, his ridged skull.
When he spoke of measure
I could feel my wristwatch tighten,
remembered the payments coming due
on my daughter’s tuition.
I went down by the horses.
Birds were walking in the hay
beside the feet of the Appaloosa.
He looked at me sideways
in the swaying dusk.
The wheels of his jawbones,
the great vein in his face.
Sometimes I can hardly breathe.
One thing I have always admired about my husband, is that he can simply write a poem. Another way to say this is that he can write a poem without much “decoration”, fanfare or frill. No extra words, and every word counts. It’s difficult to write a simple poem, a poem of precision, accuracy, depth and breadth. One where each image is necessary to the whole, where the language both sings and means, makes and unmakes. After looking at the construction of this deceptively simple poem for years, I finally see how it works, how dependent it is on diction and word choice, the gravitas achieved through what I’ll call “stately” language.
I find three categories of words in this poem: the stately, the elemental, and the vulnerable. Note the word choices in the opening stanza, words like mountains, glacial, shadow, granite, metal, all trochees, are simple two-syllable words that have balance and heft, as a good knife handle has heft. Millar also uses words like air, sleep, night, soft, one-syllable words that imply the insubstantial world, as well as words such as afraid, thin, threads, hold, that imply the vulnerability and insignificance of the human in relation to the world. The word shadow could be placed in all three categories, depending on its usage: stately, elemental, vulnerable. Here, it’s used as an image: the shadow belongs to the stately mountain, and so that shadow in seen in a more substantial context.
In the second stanza, we note the repetition of the word afraid and the reinforcement of the idea of the human as somewhat trivial, this time almost laughable: people talking, cat smile, “poetry scholar”, his ridged skull seems a nod to the great mountains overshadowing everything, but only in that it makes the poetry scholar seem a buffoon, a man trying to act like a mountain, and for at least this poet, failing. There is also the humor inherent in measure vs. wrist watch, payments, tuition, the diurnal and the the eternal, set against the mundane.
In the third stanza we feel the stark simplicity of the opening assertion as a counter to all that’s been presented: “I went down by the horses.” Birds, hay, dusk, words and images that are elemental, eternal, real. And then the elevation of the horse and the movement toward the mythic, a position beyond mere mortals, diction and image taking over and making the moment as large as the mountain: Appaloosa, wheels, jawbones, vein, face. And then, one perfect word of action: swaying, and one carefully chosen adjective, great. Each word proceeding and unfolding as it should to the final “sentiment”, the slow flush of recognition: “Sometimes I can hardly breathe.” The word breathe here is tied back to the thin air in the second line, so it is both literal as well as a figure that stands in for the emotion the speaker is feeling. I don’t know now who said it, or if this is exactly right, but it was something like “there should be an invisible line at the end of every poem that says, ‘And after that, everything changed.’” We now see the speaker, and ourselves, for who we are, small creatures in a vast landscape, looking for our rightful place, or maybe being reminded of our place in the grand scheme.
The poem balances on the premise of setting the mundane, even the silly, against the grandeur of nature and the human being’s position in it, our natural awe and fear of what’s more powerful than us: the mountains, the metal, the horses, as well as that on which we depend: the air, sleep, even the birds. Our daily concerns, our lofty intellectual exercises, are seen for what they are: transient. The true poet is in all of us who get up and leave the room, as Whitman did in “I Heard the Learned Astronomer”, to simply look out at the stars, allowing the mystery to overwhelm and confound.
When I Heard the Learned Astronomer
—Walt Whitman, 1819 – 1892
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide,
and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with
much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
Whitman’s poem is simple as well, not at all like his abundant, extravagant “Leaves of Grass”. His simple repetition of When, when, when is set against the piling up mathematical language, but stated simply, proofs, figures, charts, diagrams, add/divide. Whitman’s two well-chosen verbs, as in Millar’s poem, are notable, rising, gliding. Then his wonderful wander’d which harkens back to the earlier learn’d. In the penultimate line, Whitman pulls out all the stops to give us the mystical moist night-air, the first overtly poetic line in the poem, though he follows it up with the simplicity of a perfect, metrically balanced, ten syllable line: Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. The mystical moist night air and the perfect silence seem more majestic and substantial than all that has come before.
The commonalities between these poems are evident in their dialectics: Small stories set against a large landscape, what’s known set against the unknown, and diction the vehicle that gets us from there to here. To each poet, these moments were part of an ordinary day or night that somehow became emblematic of a certain kind of purity, things suddenly exactly as they should be, greatness aligned with a quiet joy and true astonishment, pure spirits moving through the world at the very pace they should be moving, like a horse walking, like the stars traveling through the night sky, the world presenting itself to be looked upon with fear and awe and a sense of supplication. In a word, holy, but a secular holiness, devoid of wrath or judgment, the kind of wordless purity essential to the human spirit.
Other writers who do this are James Wright, William Stafford, Jane Hirshfield, Lucille Clifton, Yusef Kommunyakaa, Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg, and the list goes on, but these are a few to look at who work in this vein: simplicity intensified through diction, syntax, pacing, through the use, primarily, of nouns. Small poems that open up into mystery: Blake’s grain of sand through which eternities are seen.
William Giraldi, speaking of H.L. Mencken who implores us to be more demanding and exacting in our modern day criticism, asked, “Why are esthetic matters important? Because without the beauty of language and form, without the depth and dynamism of language, no one who has cultivated the diehard combo of intellect and taste will care a damn about what the writer wants to say.” Yes, the beauty, depth and dynamism of language is what elevates the poem, and without an understanding of how language works on us, the gloriously simple poem, the expansive poem, the poem we will remember, remains merely “simple’, rather than a poem that is more than the sum of its parts.
I admire how these poets can make so much happen when working with so little. I’m not so good at it myself, and even after studying and imitating them, have failed more often than succeeded. But, it’s worth the trying when the rewards can be so great.
Issue 1: Thylias Moss
For this issue, we are looking at Thylias Moss’ ‘poam’ The Glory Prelude(to a widow shrine system. A lot of poets add music, or video, to their readings or online presentations. But to me this is the best example of how to integrate poetry, video, music, images into a complete poetic expression. It combines spoken words, music, abstract and representational images, advertising snippets, morphing photographs, and more into a meditative piece on the forces that form and inform identity, the frameworks we exist within, the effect of the death of a loved one and the prisons we can make by our manner of grieving. You cannot separate the lines of the poem from visual images or the music. It is an integrated piece that establishes its own expression.
About this work, Ms. Moss says “”The Glory Prelude” was never “written down”; was fully composed in the video software –written down on order to be a print “poam” –backwards relationship to conventional writing which, more-or-less, happened at an end of this –still ongoing [this re-publication, for instance, which allows for all manner of “new” interactions –and possibilities [[bifurcations, etc]] from these forming hubs…”
Thylias Moss has published 8 books of poetry and 4 books of prose. Her many honors and awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, Guggenheim Fellowship, NEA grant, a Witter Bynner Poetry Prize, and a Whiting Award. She is known for her work in Limited Fork Theory.