Second Look

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 30: Yusef Komunyakaa

A Second Look by Tina Barr

I first began reading Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry in about 1996, and this poem, originally published in Magic City, but subsequently in Pleasure Dome: New and Collected Poems, copyright 2004 (Wesleyan University Press), has haunted me for years.

The narrator is a five-year-old boy, and we easily imagine it is the voice of Komunyakaa himself, who grew up in Bogalusa, Louisiana. But the child narrator’s observations are superseded by its specific details, which are overlaid onto the child’s voice, and come from an adult awareness. The narrator announces himself in the first line, “I am five, / Wading out into deep / Sunny grass / Unmindful of snakes / & yellowjackets, out / To the yellow flowers / Quivering in the sluggish heat.” As with so many of Komunyakaa’s poems, there is a fusion of beauty and danger, which we call the sublime. The Venus’s flytraps are, indeed, flowers, but a particularly threatening kind, because their open sticky shells trap flies. This threat is compounded by the reference to “snakes,” and “yellowjackets,” about which the boy claims he is oblivious. And the flowers, which are vaginal in their shape, “quiver.” This is the first use of connotative language which brings us to the sexual. The narrator’s voice is colloquial, “Don’t mess with me / ‘Cause I have my Lone Ranger / Six-shooter. I can hurt / You with questions / Like silver bullets.” This reference to the television show that ran from 1949 to 1957 locates the reader within a specific period of time, well before the Civil Rights Act. A silver bullet is a solution to a difficult problem, but here those questions are a threat.

As Venus’s Flytraps continues, with its brief, “stepped” lines, revealing its secrets in increments, the poem states, “The tall flowers in my dreams are / Big as the First State Bank” and we understand how large this building would have appeared to a small boy, in likely a small town, and the flowers have “mouths like where / Babies come from. I am five.” For a small child to understand where “babies come from” suggests a precocious figure, but also, a boy who is aware of sexuality, either through observation or by overhearing references.

The poem shifts a few lines further on, when the young boy admits “I don’t supposed to be / This close to the tracks. / One afternoon I saw / What a train did to a cow. / Sometimes I stand so close / I can see the eyes / Of men hiding in boxcars. We are transported to a rural setting, also a time and place where men ride boxcars, and the railroad has always been an acute reference in African-American poetry, representing a way out, a way north, and we think of the “underground railroad,” the slaves’ paths north. As is typical for a child, he laughs “When trains make the dogs / Howl. Their ears hurt.” A child will laugh, when an adult has a different perspective. But the poem gradually creates its setting though the story of its imagery. The juxtaposition of the lush rural setting and the crushed cow, which must be a graphic and terrible image, is never enunciated. We imagine what the boy saw. As the poem progresses it continues to return to relations between men and women, “I wonder why Daddy / Calls Mama honey.” This section of the poem is focused on bees and their need for flowers, and how the bees “Live in little white houses / Except the ones in these flowers / All sticky and sweet inside.” Again, Komunyakaa’s poem works through images which convey meaning without “telling” the reader its intention, but by insinuation and circumnavigation. The juxtapositions between sex and death alternate. Any insects caught in the trap of the flowers must die, and the “sticky and sweet,” elicits a sexual reference in such an offhand way, the boy doesn’t know what he conveys in his depiction. But he wonders “what death tastes like.” This use of synesthesia compounds the elision of sweetness with smell (the smell of a dead cow) and the references back to literal honey, which he has tasted. Only a child would “toss the butterflies / Back into the air,” because while he is aware of death and even sexuality, he wouldn’t consider this play a way of killing butterflies. The poem is so dense that revelations follow hard one after the other.

The poem reflects an interiority that is in high contrast to the boy toying with the butterflies. He says he wishes he knew why “The music in my head / Makes me scared.” This sentence seems to present us, as readers, with an awareness, even then, of the speaker’s sensitivity and introspection, which is incongruent with the consciousness of a child, but the child feels intensely. And the poem appears to reveal the adult poet’s reflection, admitting the boy knows things “I don’t supposed to know.” He states “I could start walking / & never stop. / These yellow flowers / go on forever. / Almost to Detroit.” And in the other direction, “Almost to the sea.” Situated between the northern edge of his world, the city of Detroit, and the southern edge of Louisiana, where it meets the ocean, the child reveals a map of his world, a realm between South and North. Detroit was one of the final stops on the underground railroad. The interwoven imagery vacillates between perceptions of a wider world and the actutely personal. “My Mama says I’m a mistake. / That I made her a bad girl. / My playhouse is underneath / Our house, & I hear people / Telling each other secrets.”

The little boy is illegitimate, but doesn’t yet understand such implications, and he lives between one world, of childhood, and that of the adults who tell each other secrets. The doubling of the two “houses,” is the coda for this relentlessly truthful and devastatingly revealing poem. The boy sees with two levels of perception, that of a child and that of the future adult poet, who will create a poem of forceful, disturbing and relentless observation.


by Yusef Komunyakaa

I am five,
Wading out into deep
Sunny grass,

Unmindful of snakes
& yellowjackets, out
To the yellow flowers

Quivering in sluggish heat.
Don’t mess with me
‘Cause I have my Lone Ranger

Six-shooter. I can hurt
You with questions
Like silver bullets.

The tall flowers in my dreams are
Big as the First State Bank,
& they eat all the people

Except the ones I love.
They have women’s names,
With mouths like where

Babies come from. I am five.
I’ll dance for you
If you close your eyes. No

Peeping through your fingers.
I don’t supposed to be
This close to the tracks.

One afternoon I saw
What a train did to a cow.
Sometimes I stand so close

I can see the eyes
Of men hiding in boxcars.
Sometimes they wave

& holler for me to get back. I laugh
When trains make the dogs
Howl. Their ears hurt.

I also know bees
Can’t live without flowers.
I wonder why Daddy

Calls Mama honey.
All the bees in the world
Live in little white houses

Except the ones in these flowers.
All sticky & sweet inside.
I wonder what death tastes like.

Sometimes I toss the butterflies
Back into the air.
I wish I knew why

The music in my head
Makes me scared.
But I know things

I don’t supposed to know.
I could start walking
& never stop.

These yellow flowers
Go on forever.
Almost to Detroit.

Almost to the sea.
My mama says I’m a mistake.
That I made her a bad girl.

My playhouse is underneath
Our house, & I hear people
Telling each other secrets.


“Venus’s-Flytraps” by Yusef Komunyakaa from PLEASURE DOME: NEW AND COLLECTED POEMS © 2004 Yusef Komunyakaa. Used by permission of Wesleyan University Press.




Issue 29: Mosab Abu Toha

A Second Look by Kathryn Levy

Leaving Childhood Behind

When I left, I left my childhood in the drawer
and on the kitchen table. I left my toy horse
in its plastic bag.
I left without looking at the clock.
I forget whether it was noon or evening.

Our horse spent the night alone,
no water, no grains for dinner.
It must have thought we’d left to cook a meal
for late guests or to make a cake
for my sister’s tenth birthday.

I walked with my sister, down our road with no end.
We sang a birthday song.
The warplanes echoed across the heavens.
My tired parents walked behind,
my father clutching to his chest
the keys to our house and to the stable.

We arrived at a rescue station.
News of the airstrikes roared on the radio.
I hated death, but I hated life, too,
when we had to walk to our drawn-out death,
reciting our never-ending ode.


The experience of perpetual loss and exile has been at the heart of Palestinian poetry for the past 75 years. In his resonant first book, Things You May Find Hidden in My Ear, Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha delves into the disorienting reality of being exiled, not just from a country, but from essential aspects of the self, even from any hope for a future.

Nowhere is that exile more acute than in its effect on children. In this quiet and yet devastating poem, “Leaving Childhood Behind,” Abu Toha charts the loss of childhood itself, the time we like to think of as realm of innocence and boundless imagination.

Although written in the first person, “Leaving Childhood Behind” necessarily works on many levels, embodying the point of view of the child and the point of view of the adult remembering the child. It begins with a family fleeing from their home—there is the concrete detail of the boy’s toy horse left in its plastic bag, but also the vivid imagination the boy brings to that toy, contemplating its hunger and loneliness.

But this world of toys and fantasy is shadowed by inescapable facts. The boy and his sister sing a “birthday song,” even as family walks down “our road with no end” and the warplanes echo “across the heavens.” Of course this isn’t the vocabulary of a child but of the adult poet/witness who must live in the past, present, and future.

Abu Toha seamlessly negotiates that time travel, bringing us back from the elevated language of the warplanes echoing across the heavens to the quotidian details of the exhausted family trudging down the road, the father clutching the keys to their house, and a deserted stable, no longer simply a world of toys.

But where is the family going? That is the question answered by the stunning last stanza, with its wide tonal range, beginning with the quiet first line, “We arrived at a rescue station,” which can’t truly be a place of rescue. Even in the place of supposed shelter there is the roar of the airstrikes on the radio and the overarching question of how to keep living in the face of constant destruction.

The stark line “I hated death, but I hated life, too,” represents a dramatic shift in language, in response to a desperate reality—the boy and the poet caught in the vise of history and perpetual flight. And yet, as frequently happens in Abu Toha’s work, that harsh world also has a lyric beauty. The family is walking to their “drawn-out death,” but as they do they recite their “never-ending ode.”

That “never-ending ode” does not represent redemption but a complex territory in which beauty and terror are inextricable. In this haunting work Abu Toha brings to life the refugee’s incessant longing and the poet’s inexhaustible search for the true language of his journey, a journey of one child and far too many children still struggling down that ashen road. Although “Leaving Childhood Behind” was published in 2022, sadly this poem of forced displacement and devastated childhood is now more relevant than ever.


Issue 28: Leslie Norris

A Second Look by Jon D. Lee

Hudson’s Geese

. . . I have, from time to time,
related some incident of my boyhood,
and these are contained in various
chapters in The Naturalist in La
Plata, Birds and Man, Adventures
among Birds . . . .”
—W. H. Hudson, in Far Away And Long Ago

Hudson tells us of them,
the two migrating geese,
she hurt in the wing
indomitably walking
the length of a continent,
and he circling above
calling his distress.
They could not have lived.
Already I see her wing
scraped past the bone
as she drags it through rubble.
A fox, maybe, took her
in his snap jaws. And what
would he do, the point of his wheeling gone?
The wilderness of his cry
falling through an air
turned instantly to winter
would warn the guns of him.
If a fowler dropped him,
let it have been quick,
pellets hitting brain
and heart so his weight
came down senseless,
and nothing but his body
to enter the dog’s mouth.

—Leslie Norris


One of the greater challenges a poet can face is the love poem. The potential for clichés, overly precious phrasing, and abstractions is perhaps larger here than in any other type of poem, which is why a common exercise for beginning poets is to write a love poem without using the word “love.” One way to deal with this potential is to accept and play on the abstractions and clichés, as in the opening to Marvin Bell’s “To Dorothy”: “You are not beautiful, exactly. / You are beautiful, inexactly.” Another, used here in unparalleled excellence by the late Welsh poet Leslie Norris, is to employ metaphor—or, to be more precise, a poetic conceit—and allow the emotions a place in a separate set of images that allow the poem freedom to move in new and interesting directions while still developing a central theme.

Metaphor is of course not new to poetry, but its successful application is one of the markers of the masters. It is impossible to carefully read e. e. cumming’s “She being Brand” without realizing that the poem is actually about sex (and not cars, as the poem suggests on its surface); equally, Elizabeth Bishop’s elegantly humble “The Fish” is obviously about much more than fishing. And so “Hudson’s Geese” is clearly a love poem without ever needing to say so. (And, having had the privilege of hearing Norris read this poem before his death at age 84 in 2006, it was impossible for the audience to not realize this was a poem about his wife of several decades.)

The poem admittedly assumes the reader is aware that geese mate for life, but even without that knowledge the emotions are profound: the migrating female unable to fly, the male unable to leave her, and the possibility of loss too weighty to allow a solitary existence. Recalling the tale of Philemon and Baucis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses—an elderly married couple who, as a reward for their honorability, were granted a wish by the gods and chose only to die together so one would not have to live without the other—the poem’s speaker can only imagine that the death of both geese would be better than the death of just one.

Despite such a sophisticated conceit, much of the power in this poem comes from its elegant simplicity and plainness of language: only the word “indomitably” sticks out as weighty among what are largely monosyllables, as if to emphasize the monumental nature of the task, and the sheer brevity of the line/sentence “They could not have lived” is breath-stopping in its directness. Yet there is simultaneously an obvious control, each line tight in length save for “would he do, the point of his wheeling gone?” which juts out as if the poem could not contain its power, as if nothing will be the same after. So too the multiple connotations obviously intended in words such as “winter” and “heart,” the former referencing not only the cold season but also death and sorrow, and the latter describing the literal organ but clearly chosen for that organ’s association with love.

In the end, however, it is the image that centers the poem and makes the conceit successful: the geese, the rifle, the body in the dog’s mouth. These are made the more powerful by the near-complete avoidance of abstract nouns in favor of concrete ones, with multiple lines furthermore ending in image: geese, wing, bone, rubble, brain, body, mouth. So clear and precise are these images that the poem does not need to unravel or explain the metaphor—does not need to yell out how it is a love poem from husband to wife. It trusts itself to be so obvious, and us to understand on our own.

Here’s a link to Norris reading from his work.


Issue 27: Faiz Ahmed Faiz


A Second Look by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Walk the Market in Shackles Today

Not enough the eye
welling up—
The squall inside.
Not enough to bear blame—
Love hidden away.

Walk the market in shackles today

Walk wild
brandishing hands,
walk crazed, go frolic!
Go with dust-laden head, bloodied shirt
The city of the beloved aches for a glimpse— go!

The king, the crowd of commoners too
The arrow of accusation, the stone of abuse too
The morning of sorrow, day of failure too
Who lives side by side with these, but I?

Who, in the city of the beloved, is pure of heart anymore?
Who, left worthy of the executioner’s hand anymore?
Ready yourself for the journey of the heart, wounded ones, let’s go.

Let us go, friends, let us then go
to our beheading.

—Faiz Ahmed Faiz, Translated from the Urdu by Shadab Zeest Hashmi


One of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s most popular lyric poems, “Walk the Market in Shackles Today” celebrates the spirit of speaking truth to power, no matter the price. Faiz combines the classical Urdu trope of the beloved—embracing all manner of travail for love’s sake—to frame the struggle of common people. In employing a highbrow metaphor to convey what may appear to be lowbrow concerns, Faiz breathed a new life into the traditional metaphor itself. Thanks to Faiz, the notion of the “beloved” moved beyond the romantic and mystical and came to symbolize revolution in the modern sense of the word.

The story behind the composition of this poem is as remarkable as the poem itself. Following one of Faiz’s many arrests for political dissent, he was being taken to jail when the police car broke down and stalled. The poet—handcuffed—was transferred to a tonga, a horse-drawn carriage, a plebian mode of transportation in which the passenger faces the street, sitting with his back to the tonga-driver. Faiz, the “people’s poet,” taking in the quotidian sights and sounds he cared about so deeply, felt as if he himself was part of the scene, and on display. This sense of being inadvertently “staged” in handcuffs as the tonga rode through the streets—a spectacle among the scenes of “shahr e janan” (“the city of the beloved”)—becomes the poem’s primary lyric gesture.

This poem champions the spirit of struggle which not only rises above the indignity of punishment but shines as a consequence. “Aaj Bazaar Mein” has become a sort of anthem for social change over the decades, sung in protest rallies as a slogan against oppressive systems of power. “Not enough to bear blame—Love hidden away/ Walk the market in shackles today;” the poem not only embodies a declaration against the silencing perpetrated by the establishment but also against self-censorship. Faiz glorifies the revolutionary spirit, which, despite a looming sense of fatalism, takes pride in fighting against injustice, remaining forever faithful to the beloved—the domain of the dispossessed.


Issue 26: Jean Valentine


A Second Look by Deborah Bogen

My Political Poet — Jean Valentine

Here’s a small poem, no, here’s a large poem, well, here’s a Valentine poem.

September 1963

We’ve been at home four years, in a kind of peace,
A kind of kingdom: brushing our yellow hair
At the tower’s small window,
Playing hop-scotch on the grass.

With twenty other Gullivers
I hover at the door.
Watch you shy through this riddle of primary colors,
The howling razzle-dazzle of your peers.

Tears, stay with me, stay with me, tears.
Dearest, go: this is what
School is, what the world is.
Have I sewed my hand to yours?

Five minutes later in the eye of God
You and Kate and Jeremy are dancing.

Glad, derelict, I find a park bench, read
Birmingham, Birmingham, Birmingham.
White tears on the white ground.
White world going on, white hand in hand,
World without end.


Valentine opens with an image of a small paradise: “four years, in a kind of peace/a kind of kingdom: brushing our yellow hair.” This kingdom of the young family will be recognizable to many. Baby-rearing, while tiring, can be a wonderful break from the larger world’s problems. When the baby cries someone needs to pick it up. The small world of the family feels like a whole world, where children can be kept safe and parents are the absolute authority. So, this first bit is easy to get – then Valentine shifts to the first day of nursery school, a bevy of uncertain parents dropping off their treasured offspring. Expected tears are followed by a less expected picture of the children dancing. A small but perfect description of everything going right. Perhaps the kingdom of home and heaven can be extended to include this school.

But all heavens have parameters, and Valentine is the master of the sudden shift that smacks us upside the head with the boundary of this paradise. The lucky “derelict” mom, having finally found the time, sits on a park bench to read the paper. And there it is: “Birmingham. Birmingham. Birmingham.” We are faced not with the world of Valentine’s lucky child, her safe child. This is the world of Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley, the girls who died when Ku Klux Klan members planted dynamite inside the 16th Street Baptist Church. The reading mother suffers a palpable shock. And the poet Valentine refuses to see this as just another “news item.” She doesn’t flinch and she doesn’t pull her punch. Reading the three devastating last lines the reader feels suddenly complicit:


White tears on the white ground.
White world going on, white hand in hand,
World without end.


There’s so much craft in the way the poet creates this moment. Take a look at the syllable count in these lines. 15 one syllable words. (Valentine’s use of single syllable words could be the subject of a long class.) With these sharp short words she creates a rat-a-tat-tat, tapping the damning words into our skulls.

Finally, Valentine’s use of the Gloria Patri reference as the closer, and her decision to deprive us of the “amen” that normally follows “world without end,” is a brilliant blasphemy. How dare we think that the world as it stands is a good thing? How dare we praise this world where the golden-haired darlings are dancing “in the eye of God” while Addie and Denise and Carole and Cynthia lie dead in the rubble.


Issue 25: Motown Crown by Patrica Smith

A Second Look by Alison Stone

I am in awe of Patricia’s Smith’s “Motown Crown.” Often poets who write in traditional forms lose the natural-feeling language of free verse. Sometimes it seems to be a choice between from-the-gut emotion and craft. This jeweled sonnet crown flawlessly executes a difficult form while also speaking to the body and heart of the reader. And it addresses the complex relationship young women often have with music made by men.


The Temps, all swerve and pivot, conjured schemes
that had us skipping school, made us forget
how mamas schooled us hard against the threat
of five-part harmony and sharkskin seams.
We spent our schooldays balanced on the beams
of moon we wished upon, the needled jetblack
45s that spun and hadn’t yet
become the dizzy spinning of our dreams.
Sugar Pie, Honey Bun, oh you
loved our nappy hair and rusty knees.
Marvin Gaye slowed down while we gave chase
and then he was our smokin’ fine taboo.
We hungered for the anguished screech of Please
inside our chests—relentless, booming bass.


When reading contemporary poems in form, I ask myself, Do these seem like the best words to express what the writer is trying to say, or were they forced into a rhyme scheme? The words in this poem would have been ideal even if the poem had been free verse. In addition, the strict rhyme scheme of the traditional sonnet form, along with the repetition of a crown, mimic the structure of the Motown songs Smith writes about. Form and content blend seamlessly.

Another strength of Motown Crown is its ability to capture a particular speaker in a particular time period, while reaching across all those details into universality. The speaker is a Black girl listening to Motown; the longing and insecurity of adolescence and the erotic charge of music are equally applicable to girls of any race listening to any genre. While teen boys have a similar connection to music, until recently, dreams were channeled into very different paths. Boys were supposed to yearn to be the men performing, girls, to date them.

While a series of linking sonnets is challenging enough, Smith goes the extra mile by making this a jeweled crown, adding a fifteenth sonnet made from the first lines of the previous fourteen. Smith’s skill is obvious by how natural and unforced this last sonnet seems as it sums up and brings home what came before.


The Temps, all swirl and pivot, conjured schemes
inside our chests, relentless booming bass
then silk where throats should be. Much growling grace
from open window, ’neath the door, pipe dreams—
that soul beneath the vinyl. The Supremes
used to stockpile extra sequins just in case
Diana’s Negro hips required more space,
while Smokey penned a lyric dripping cream.
Ask any colored girl, and she will moan,
remembering how love had lied so loud.
I whimpered while the downbeat dangled bait
and taught myself to slow drag, all alone.
Less than perfect love was not allowed
and every song they sang told me to wait.


Motown Crown is a career highlight for Smith and hopefully will convince other poets that formal verse can have as much Duende and straightforwardness as free verse. She may never have gotten to date a Motown star, but her music rivals theirs.


Issue 24: Stephen Dunn

Poet Stephen Dunn died on June 24, on his 82nd birthday.


Stephen Dunn’s poem “Impediment” from Whereas

The loneliness thing is overdone.
— Edward Hopper, about responses to his work

Except for shoes
the young woman is naked,
in a chair, looking out
a fully-opened window,
her face obscured
by dark brown hair.
Apartment? Hotel?
Outside, the obdurate gloom
of city buildings.

It’s 11 A.M.
Hopper’s title says,
time for her to have dressed
a hundred times.
It’s the shoes which hint
of her desire to dress,
and of some great impediment.

Elbows on knees. Hands clasped.
The window she’s leaning toward
is curtainless.
There’s no sense she cares
she might be seen, or
that she wishes to show herself.


A Second Look by Deborah Bogen

Stephen Dunn’s quietly assertive voice is easy to recognize in “Impediment.” The simple phrasing, a sort of plain speech, is at work in many of Dunn’s poems and the payoff for the poet is that we are not put-off. He’s a calm man giving us his thoughts. He does not seem scary. Or offensive. Or overly dramatic. He’s a thoughtful man we’d enjoy having at our dinner table, and he’s thinking about the human experience in way we feel we should all think of it.

Dunn’s underlying angst about how human beings live with each other, the ways we connect or fail to connect, befriend or betray, become salient to anyone spending time with his many books of poems. As Joel Brouwer said in a New York Times review of Dunn’s What Goes On, “the speaker of Dunn’s recent poems is a regular guy cursed with an understanding of human nature more subtle than he’d prefer.” Dunn has written poems with titles like “Kindness, “Loneliness,” and “Happiness,” as well as poems titled “Honesty,” “A Secret Life,” and “What They Wanted.”

In this poem, “Impediment,” Dunn makes use of Hopper’s famous painting, “Eleven A.M.” to think and talk about the difficulties that can arise as we try to know and understand each other. He describes the painting as if he’s translating Hopper’s subject, his shapes and colors, into Dunn’s native form of expression: words. The woman, he tells us, is naked “except for shoes.” Her face is “obscured/ by dark brown hair.” He sees her as “looking out” a fully opened window,” although I see her staring without seeing. Dunn describes the scene: “Outside the obdurate gloom of city buildings.” I’d argue “gloom” is too strong. There’s a lot of light both outside and in.

And this is where the two art forms diverge. In the word-framed interpretation a position (looking? staring?) is taken. The painting doesn’t do that. It simply presents the scene, refusing to elaborate. I might stretch that analysis further — claiming the poem takes a didactic position, Dunn describing what he believes we should see. Hopper provides an image that may suggest a number of scenarios to viewers.

But the one thing Dunn is reaching for in this poem, the thing I think he most wants us to see, is the woman’s apparent indifference to the rest of the world. Everything he’s written leads up to “There’s no sense she cares/she might be seen, or/that she wishes to show herself.” This closing line is a quiet, simple statement. But its meaning is potentially powerful, and Dunn’s take on this aspect of painting seems exactly right. The solemnity (is there a weariness?) expressed in her solitude, her oddly incomplete nakedness, even her stillness, suggests she is, for whatever reason, beyond caring about the norms we usually live within.

Hopper’s painting hints at a compelling but missing backstory, and that’s what I think captured Dunn’s attention. Dunn’s own work often focuses on something that has gone right or more often gone wrong between people, giving us the sense that relationships are rife with unspoken backstories. In Hopper’s “Eleven A.M.” there is a sense that something has happened to this woman. Although no other person is depicted, it’s hard not to feel that someone else must have been involved in whatever brought her to sit in this chair, in this room, unclothed but unconcerned with her nakedness. She could be viewed as stranded and lonely, but taking my cue from Hopper, I think she might be experiencing a certain kind of freedom the kind that can visit us at difficult and even desperate moments, when what is usual, acceptable and normal is exposed as artifice. As window-dressing — which Dunn’s poem reminds us is not present in Hopper’s painting.


Issue 23: City That Does Not Sleep

(Night Song of Brooklyn Bridge)


In the sky there is nobody asleep. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
The creatures of the moon sniff and prowl about their cabins.
The living iguanas will come and bite the men who do not dream,
and the man who rushes out with his spirit broken will meet on the street corner
the unbelievable alligator quiet beneath the tender protest of the stars.

Nobody is asleep on earth. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is asleep.
In a graveyard far off there is a corpse
who has moaned for three years
because of a dry countryside on his knee;
and that boy they buried this morning cried so much
it was necessary to call out the dogs to keep him quiet.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!
We fall down the stairs in order to eat the moist earth
or we climb to the knife edge of the snow with the voices of the dead dahlias.
But forgetfulness does not exist, dreams do not exist;
flesh exists. Kisses tie our mouths
in a thicket of new veins,
and whoever his pain pains will feel that pain forever
and whoever is afraid of death will carry it on his shoulders.

One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows.

Another day
we will watch the preserved butterflies rise from the dead
and still walking through a country of gray sponges and silent boats
we will watch our ring flash and roses spring from our tongue.
Careful! Be careful! Be careful!
The men who still have marks of the claw and the thunderstorm,
and that boy who cries because he has never heard of the invention of the bridge,
or that dead man who possesses now only his head and a shoe,
we must carry them to the wall where the iguanas and the snakes are waiting,
where the bear’s teeth are waiting,
where the mummified hand of the boy is waiting,
and the hair of the camel stands on end with a violent blue shudder.

Nobody is sleeping in the sky. Nobody, nobody.
Nobody is sleeping.
If someone does close his eyes,
a whip, boys, a whip!
Let there be a landscape of open eyes
and bitter wounds on fire.
No one is sleeping in this world. No one, no one.
I have said it before.

No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.


A Second Look by Simon Anton Diego Baena

The year 2020 up to the present, where I am writing this, can be summed up by Federico Garcia Lorca’s powerful nightmarish poem, The City That Does Not Sleep (Nightsong of Brooklyn Bridge) superbly translated by Robert Bly. Fellow poets familiar with his oeuvre understand that Federico Garcia Lorca is one of the greatest, or perhaps the greatest Spanish poet, even surpassing the venerable Luis De Gongora himself. Lorca, a poet of vision and anguish, was able to foresee the predicament and complexity and fragility of our cities represented by the City of New York: its inhuman geometry, its flood of human frustrations and desires, and its logic of profit and exploitation of the natural world. From The Great Depression to the 9/11 attacks and to the horrors of our current Covid-19 crisis, nothing is more clear.

Federico Garcia Lorca was born in Fuente Vaqueros, a small town west of Granada. A member of the Generation of 27, a group of poets associated with surrealism and the avant-garde, committed to Spain’s renewal by breaking with the past.

No piece is more apt and honest with what he experienced and saw in that metropolis during The Great Depression. The scale of human suffering being played out. Federico Garcia Lorca’s haunting poem (like T.S. Eliot’s, The Wasteland) remains as a totem, a talisman, a beacon and lens to man’s impulse of destruction.

Life is not a dream. Careful! Careful! Careful!”

The Duende, that playful trickster, summoned from the depths—and you can hear it in the ambulance sirens, in every weeping household visited by Death, as summer exists only in memory, as danger is ever-present, as funerals do day and night—

One day
the horses will live in the saloons
and the enraged ants
will throw themselves on the yellow skies that take refuge in the eyes of cows

Federico Garcia Lorca was murdered by Franco’s fascists in 1936. Until now no one knows where he was buried.

No one is sleeping.
But if someone grows too much moss on his temples during the night,
open the stage trapdoors so he can see in the moonlight
the lying goblets, and the poison, and the skull of the theaters.

Often I read Federico Garcia Lorca’s City That Does Not Sleep before going to bed at night. A perfect substitute for prayers. When reciting the poem I hear his voice in the swinging pendulum of the clock and in the creaking wood. I always feel him staring from the grave—I cover my mouth so my eyes see clearly in his dark.


Issue 22: Parable by Louise Gluck


First divesting ourselves of worldly goods, as St. Francis teaches,
in order that our souls not be distracted
by gain and loss, and in order also
that our bodies be free to move
easily at the mountain passes, we had then to discuss
whither or where we might travel, with the second question being
should we have a purpose, against which
many of us argued fiercely that such purpose
corresponded to worldly goods, meaning a limitation or constriction,
whereas others said it was by this word we were consecrated
pilgrims rather than wanderers: in our minds, the word translated as
a dream, a something-sought, so that by concentrating we might see it
glimmering among the stones, and not
pass blindly by; each
further issue we debated equally fully, the arguments going back and forth,
so that we grew, some said, less flexible and more resigned,
like soldiers in a useless war. And snow fell upon us, and wind blew,
which in time abated — where the snow had been, many flowers appeared,
and where the stars had shone, the sun rose over the tree line
so that we had shadows again; many times this happened.
Also rain, also flooding sometimes, also avalanches, in which
some of us were lost, and periodically we would seem
to have achieved an agreement; our canteens
hoisted upon our shoulders, but always that moment passed, so
(after many years) we were still at that first stage, still
preparing to begin a journey, but we were changed nevertheless;
we could see this in one another; we had changed although
we never moved, and one said, ah, behold how we have aged, traveling
from day to night only, neither forward nor sideward, and this seemed
in a strange way miraculous. And those who believed we should have a purpose
believed this was the purpose, and those who felt we must remain free
in order to encounter truth, felt it had been revealed.


A Second Look by Thylias Moss

Winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, Louise Glück’s “Parable” strikes me as a poem for all of us to read and memorize, this shedding of worldly pursuits in favor of something more lasting, a lightness of being so that we can almost literally float, and see more above it all: the destruction, torments, and desecrations  we impose on each other and on the planet itself, as if the whole thing, even space itself in which our orb sits as vulnerable as any other space object, of a world so close to the paradisiacal, as if it all can just regenerate itself, this arm of star galaxy, a milky way, not lactating with health but loss of its milk of life, magnesium, —Humans once had Eden or its close approximation, an earth full of what everyone needed, possible to live off the land that now is under extreme desecration and annihilation, greed above all, as in my early report cards, a grade for “works and plays well with others” countries of Earth have earned Grade F for failure, as we are as divided as we have ever been, politics and ideologies abound, earth has been milked, exploited, fleeced, sucked dry, deforested, natural resources depleted; we have not paid enough attention to purpose of all, and an obvious interdependence, essential contributions of everything, even storms can clear the air, at least temporarily. obviously, sincere possibilities are in order, as there need to be healings of suffering pockets of the world, purifying our spaces with a return to purpose; it is still possible,  overlooking stunning consequences of every reaction, this indeed our parable, consequences of everything done; still preparing for journey back to purpose, but we have lost the way, misunderstanding that all was made with purpose, and eradication is not always best solution. Relearning how all parts of mosaic of existence fit together each part offering something special and good for the larger health system of the plane. We are killing the killer whales.  Chinook salmon was so plentiful, possible to cross Elwha River by walking on their backs, never getting your feet wet. A more perfect crossing, better and joyful dancing, chinook partnering with golding dance stepping lightly, zero emissions.


Issue 21: Quarantine

Eavan Boland – September 24, 1944 — April 27, 2020

In the worst hour of the worst season
of the worst year of a whole people
a man set out from the workhouse with his wife.
He was walking—they were both walking—north.

She was sick with famine fever and could not keep up.
He lifted her and put her on his back.
He walked like that west and west and north.
Until at nightfall under freezing stars they arrived.

In the morning they were both found dead.
Of cold. Of hunger. Of the toxins of a whole history.
But her feet were held against his breastbone.
The last heat of his flesh was his last gift to her.

Let no love poem ever come to this threshold.
There is no place here for the inexact
praise of the easy graces and sensuality of the body.
There is only time for this merciless inventory:

Their death together in the winter of 1847.
Also what they suffered. How they lived.
And what there is between a man and woman.
And in which darkness it can best be proved.

from the Irish Times obituary –

Eavan Boland, the outstanding Irish poet and academic, has died suddenly following a stroke. Boland, who was professor of English and humanities and director of the creative writing programme at Stanford University, broke the mould of Irish poetry – and drew new audiences to the form – by making women’s experiences central to her poems.

She was the author of more than 10 poetry collections, an award-winning essay collection, prose writings and an anthology of German women poets (Princeton, 2004). Boland’s collections, In Her Own Image (1980), Nightfeed (1982), Outside History (1990) and Domestic Violence (2007) explore historical and contemporary female identity.

Her collection, In a Time of Violence (1994) which merged political and private realities, won the Lannan Literary Award for Poetry and was shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize. Her collection, Against Love Poetry (2001), was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and her heartbreaking poem about Ireland’s 1847 famine, Quarantine, was one of the 10 poems shortlisted for RTÉ’s selection of Ireland’s favourite poems of the last 100 years.


Issue 20: Negritude


Leopold Senghor

Here is the Sun
Which tightens the breasts of the virgins
Who makes the old men smile on the green benches
Who would awaken the dead under a maternal earth.
I hear the sound of cannon—is it from Irun?
They put flowers on tombs and warm the Unknown Soldier.
You my dark brothers, no one appoints you.
Five hundred thousand of your children are promised glory
of the future deaths, they thank them in advance, future
dark dead.

Die Schwarze Schande!

Listen to me, Senegalese Riflemen, in the solitude of
black earth and death
In your solitude without eyes without ears, more than
I in my dark skin at the depths of the Province,
Without even the warmth of your comrades lying close to
you, as in the trenches in
the village palavers long ago,
Listen to me, black skin Riflemen, well without
ears and eyes in your threefold chamber
at night.
We have not borrowed mourners, nor
tears from your former wives
—They only remember your
fury and prefer the stench of the living.
The mourners’ laments come too clear,
Too quickly drying up the cheeks of your wives, as
in the Fouta streams in the dry season,
The warmest tears too clear and too quickly
drunk from the corners of the forgetful lips.
We bring you, listen to us, we who epilate
your names in the months of your death,
We, in these days of fear without memory, we bring
you the friendship of your comrades
Ah! May I, one day, in a voice glowing like embers,
may I sing
The friendship of the comrades fervent as bowels
and delicate as entrails, strong as tendons.
Listen to us, Dead in the deep water
plains of the northern and the eastern fields.
Receive this red soil, under a summer sun this redden soil
blood of the white hosts
Receive the salute of your black comrades, Senegalese
Tours, 1938

A Second Look by Rasaq Malik

Widely known as the first president of Senegal, a patriotic statesman, and a global poet, Leopold Senghor’s life was shaped by his artistic relevance and relentless pursuit of Black Nationalism. The term Negritude, first deployed by Aimé Césaire in his poem, captures the revolutionary attempt to criticize and deconstruct French policy of Assimilation that trapped Africans in the web of French colonialism. Black poets and writers like Leopold Senghor, David Diop, Birago Diop, staged a Black Renaissance, replicating the Harlem Renaissance that celebrated African American artists and writers in the 1920s. Under the banner of Negritude movement, Senghor and others critically wrote against white supremacy, the disappearing light of their homeland, and the overwhelming discrimination against black people. They celebrated their blackness, their ideologies, their dreams, and everything that signifies hope for African people. Notable among those who enjoyed the educational opportunities in France, Senghor defied all odds to paint in his poems the traumatic images of black people, enslaved and tortured, mentally and physically. The colonial abuse and experiences reflect in his poems and others who catalyzed the movement.

In Senghor’s poetry, the spirit of patriotism to homeland is germane. Growing up in Iseyin, his poem titled “I Will Pronounce Your Name, Naett” became a chant in the four walls of my classroom. In the poem, Senghor presents Naett as a symbolic representation of Africa. The African aesthetics manifests in his adornment of Naett, through indelible imageries and instances of glorification.

Apart from his commitment to celebrating Africa, Senghor’s involvement in war is documented in his poems. During German Invasion of France, he was captured as a prisoner of war. He spent two years in German camps. He had firsthand experiences of how black soldiers were offered as sacrificial lambs at the warfront. In “To The Senegalese Riflemen Who Died for France,” he chronicles the deaths of Senegalese Sharpshooters during World War 1. These riflemen were not honored, immortalized, in spite of their sacrifices to France. These tragic experiences culminated in the birth of this poem and others that were written solely to convey the grimness of war and the losses of the African soldiers during war. In the poem, Senghor recounts the war by projecting the casualties of war, the forgotten ones, the ones rendered eternally silent by massacre. The difference between this poem and other war poems is not far-fetched; however, the injustice melted on African soldiers seems to be a focal point for Senghor. The violence of war becomes acutely disturbing, as the victims of war, their loved ones and families, remain anonymous, deprived of remembrance. This poem reminds me of J.P. Clark’s “The Casualties”. The casualties of war are always unnumbered, because there are more to every war than figures. Immortalizing the Senegalese Rifflemen and criticizing the mass murder and erasure that befell them, Senghor, in stanza one, writes:

“I hear the sound of cannon—is it from Irun?
They put flowers on tombs and warm the Unknown Soldier.
You my dark brothers, no one appoints you.
Five hundred thousand of your children are promised glory
of the future deaths, they thank them in advance, future
dark dead.”

In this excerpt, Senghor depicts the macabre images of war. Before the war, people hung themselves, after hearing that they were going to war. After the war, “dark brothers”—the Black Soldiers— were denied of honor, despite their sacrifice at the warfront. France refused to claim responsibility of the massacre that put the Senegalese Sharpshooters on the line of death. In the last lines, the children of war-victims are not spared from the future occurrences of death. The word “Die Schwarze Schande!” is symbolic—a discriminatory and demeaning phrase that denotes the withdrawal of black troops from the Rhineland. In another stanza, Senghor writes:

“Listen to me, Senegalese Riflemen, in the solitude of
black earth and death
In your solitude without eyes without ears, more than
I in my dark skin at the depths of the Province,
Without even the warmth of your comrades lying close to
you, as in the trenches in
the village palavers long ago,
Listen to me, black skin Riflemen, well without
ears and eyes in your threefold chamber
at night.
We have not borrowed mourners, nor
tears from your former wives
—They only remember your
fury and prefer the stench of the living.”

In this stanza, Senghor furthers in his invocation of the grief-stricken memories of the black soldiers. The dead Senegalese Riflemen are brought into limelight, celebrated and glorified by the poet persona. Their struggles are proclaimed, acknowledged, and honored, albeit through this poem and others written posthumously. The imperative use of “Listen” shows the poet persona addressing them—the dead soldiers. Even when they neither see nor hear the words of the poet persona, their memories remain inerasable. Also, the last four lines in this stanza hint at the loyalty of the Africans to the plights of the dead black soldiers. Mourning them, remains unforced. They died heroically, and they were mourned, by their country people. In the remaining verses in the poem, Senghor devotes his time to paying homage and offering his respect to these soldiers who were brutally wiped, their wives left as widows, their children as fatherless. Similar to every war poem, “The Dining Table” by Gbanabom Hallowell narrates the haunting experiences of the people during a war in Sierra Leone. In the final lines in the poem, Senghor venerates the soldiers and offers them a comradeship salute.


Issue 19: Daddy


Sylvia Plath

You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe
In which I have lived like a foot
For thirty years, poor and white,
Barely daring to breathe or Achoo.

Daddy, I have had to kill you.
You died before I had time—
Marble-heavy, a bag full of God,
Ghastly statue with one gray toe
Big as a Frisco seal

And a head in the freakish Atlantic
Where it pours bean green over blue
In the waters off beautiful Nauset.
I used to pray to recover you.
Ach, du.

In the German tongue, in the Polish town
Scraped flat by the roller
Of wars, wars, wars.
But the name of the town is common.
My Polack friend

Says there are a dozen or two.
So I never could tell where you
Put your foot, your root,
I never could talk to you.
The tongue stuck in my jaw.

It stuck in a barb wire snare.
Ich, ich, ich, ich,
I could hardly speak.
I thought every German was you.
And the language obscene

An engine, an engine
Chuffing me off like a Jew.
A Jew to Dachau, Auschwitz, Belsen.
I began to talk like a Jew.
I think I may well be a Jew.

The snows of the Tyrol, the clear beer of Vienna
Are not very pure or true.
With my gipsy ancestress and my weird luck
And my Taroc pack and my Taroc pack
I may be a bit of a Jew.

I have always been scared of you,
With your Luftwaffe, your gobbledygoo.
And your neat mustache
And your Aryan eye, bright blue.
Panzer-man, panzer-man, O You—

Not God but a swastika
So black no sky could squeak through.
Every woman adores a Fascist,
The boot in the face, the brute
Brute heart of a brute like you.

You stand at the blackboard, daddy,
In the picture I have of you,
A cleft in your chin instead of your foot
But no less a devil for that, no not
Any less the black man who

Bit my pretty red heart in two.
I was ten when they buried you.
At twenty I tried to die
And get back, back, back to you.
I thought even the bones would do.

But they pulled me out of the sack,
And they stuck me together with glue.
And then I knew what to do.
I made a model of you,
A man in black with a Meinkampf look

And a love of the rack and the screw.
And I said I do, I do.
So daddy, I’m finally through.
The black telephone’s off at the root,
The voices just can’t worm through.

If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two—
The vampire who said he was you
And drank my blood for a year,
Seven years, if you want to know.
Daddy, you can lie back now.

There’s a stake in your fat black heart
And the villagers never liked you.
They are dancing and stamping on you.
They always knew it was you.
Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.

A Second Look by Natalie Patterson

Written not long before her death and published posthumously in Ariel, Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” is a quintessential example of confessional poetry and Plath’s dextrous treatment of the personal. It is a poem that consistently resurfaces in discussions of poetry by women as well as a classic of the previous century that remains in our collective consciousness. The tone is complex, the rhyme entrancing, the words at home on the tongue. Unable to speak directly to her dead father, she must speak to him in a poem, killing him again—how achingly appropriate, how poetically perfect.

Plath is known for her brash and grotesquely beautiful (or perhaps beautifully grotesque) treatment of mental illness, womanhood, motherhood, and other subjects that would have made many critics and readers flinch during the first half of the twentieth century. It’s obvious why we love this poem: it’s inventive and personal, evocative and uniquely confessional. Her use of the “I” pronoun is bold and genuine, guiding her intensely honest, ostensibly taboo subjects—she addresses her father and the hurt he wrought on her, the “vampire” (and not the only one, as Plath arguably alludes to her husband as well) who fed on her, who wore her down: “If I’ve killed one man, I’ve killed two— / The vampire who said he was you / And drank my blood for a year….”

Plath’s revelation of the personal within the confines of the poem’s structure, form, and use of metaphor make it a poetic triumph in and of itself. Indeed, a critic might explore the technical successes of the poem’s form and symbolism and proclaim it close to perfect: the multiplicity of tone, the close attention to sound and language, the voice that is at once that of a beaten-down child and a jaded woman denouncing Daddy in one mouth, who proclaims, “Daddy, you can lie back now. // There’s a stake in your fat black heart / And the villagers never liked you.”

While its success as a confessional poem must be almost universally lauded, the overwhelming extended metaphor of her father as a Nazi and herself as a Jew must enter these discussions as well. Plath’s comparisons are drastic: we flinch, burned by the disturbing imagery and her mention of concentration camps; we are caught off-guard by the frankness of her comparisons. She speaks with the stung and occasionally slyly sardonic voice of a victim: “Every woman adores a Fascist. / The boot in the face, the brute / Brute heart of a brute like you.” But is this voice hers to employ?

Here, contemplation of the confessional flirts with identity poetics: would it be acceptable for a modern poet who is also a Gentile to adopt this convention? If not, then how do we discuss “Daddy,” a twentieth-century poem, through a modern lens? With ever-changing sociocultural contexts, continual critical discussion of the poetry we love is absolutely necessary.

Despite, or perhaps because of, these conventions which the modern reader may (and perhaps should) find distasteful, her confessional poem is uniquely successful. When we take a second look, it is important to remember that even as we revere beloved poems and poets, our collective sense of critical thinking as readers must never leave the room. Celebration only does a poem justice if we continue to think analytically about what we are reading—and truly, “Daddy” is worth celebrating.

As we know, there are many reasons for readers’ perennial love of Sylvia Plath. Perhaps the best example of her prowess in this particular poem lies in the venom and resignation of the final line, which compels the reader, like a spell, to speak it aloud: “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through.”


Issue 18: We Shall See

We Shall See

Faiz Ahmed Faiz

We shall see

we too
will see

Will see
that day
promised to us
The one written
on eternity’s tablet

We shall see

When the mountains of tyranny
will up and float
like cotton-wool

And this earth tremor
Under the feet
of us enslaved ones

And over the heads of rulers
lightning crackle

We shall see

from the ka’aba of this sacred earth
all idols are removed
We the pure of heart—
damned by puritans—
will be elevated

When all crowns are tossed in the air
and all thrones overturned
Only God’s name will remain
Mystery and manifest
The viewer and the scene

When the anthem of “ana al Haqq” (“I am the truth”) is raised—
(which I am, and you are too)
And the people of God will rule
(which I am, and you are too)
We shall see
certainly we, too, will see
We shall see
We shall see

(Translation from the Urdu by Shadab Zeest Hashmi)

A Second Look by Shadab Zeest Hashmi

Faiz Ahmed Faiz is the foremost “people’s poet” of Urdu literature and this poem is one of his best loved poems of resistance. It employs some of the tropes of a generic anthem (such as the use of the first person plural and a morale-boosting theme), but its purpose is not to praise nationalistic sentiment or take pride in the established order, rather it is to elevate the common man in relation to authority—political, social, and especially religious authority.

Faiz was a prominent political activist and a journalist motivated by Marxist beliefs, but he was also a poet whose work honors Islamic heritage in its spirit and aesthetics. In this poem Faiz brilliantly employs imagery from the Qur’an (such as mountains floating like cotton-wool) to make the point that those who appropriate religion to control and oppress the masses are the ones that will face the ultimate accountability on judgement day—divine scrutiny and punishment. The ordinary, unorthodox, oppressed, the true “pure-of-heart” are Allah’s beloved people who will be favored over the oppressors.

The refrain (“we shall see”) is simple but loaded; it is inclusive, empowering, and voices a shared passion for reclaiming the power that rightfully belongs to the people. As with other political poems, this poem has been appropriated by various political parties over the decades and diminished in its scale and scope by readers with heavy political biases—It is ironic that appropriation is the very thing the poem challenges, and scale is its primary gesture, as it defies those that claim authority and ownership of “the truth,” the supreme balance being the divine scale and the awe-inspiring spectacle of the day of judgment. The greatest quality of the poem is not the populist appeal of the refrain; it is the subversion of rigid, dictatorial religious orthodoxy (as well as all other hierarchies and power structures), using tropes that themselves originate from the sacred—from the Qur’an and from Sufi literature.

The most daring verse, in my opinion, is “the anthem of ana al Haqq rising”—the Sufi concept of God residing within, the concept which is ultimately egalitarian to Faiz: elevating ordinary people to the highest stature. This is where the poem really plays with fire, provoking orthodoxy by recalling Hallaj’s controversial, mystical statement “I am the Truth.”


Issue 17: “Bilingual Sestina”

Julia Alvarez

A Second Look by Catherine Carter

Bilingual Sestina

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”

Al Zolynas

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
pushed on.

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
page, Rat.


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
Lucille Clifton

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)

Ziemio moja, jestem córką twoją
tłum. na polski Jerzy Ficowski
Ziemio moja i leśna,
jestem córką twoją.
Lasy śpiewają, ziemia śpiewa;
śpiew ten składamy – rzeka i ja –
w jedną cygańską piosenkę.Pójdę ja w góry,
góry wysokie,
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
jak złoto,
ziemio, gdzie walczył z wiatrem gromjak pieśni w moim sercu.
Młot bije w kamień
i staje się ogień wielki.Ziemio ty moja śliczna!
Tobie nocami
przypatrują się wielkie gwiazdy,
gadają nocą jak Cyganeczki.
Land1, I am your daughter
translated into Polish by Jerzy Ficowski
My 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,
high 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
like gold,
land, where the thunder fought with the windlike 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.

Celebrating Childhood

By Adonis
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.

Many times
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.

I walk,
one hand in the air,
the other caressing tresses
that I imagine.

A star is also
a pebble in the field of space.

He alone
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,
and why?

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
to say

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

adiós pequeña
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 cliché 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.

Anya Russian


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.

Collective Death

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.

Shadab Hashmi


Issue 2: Joseph Millar and Walt Whitman

After Listening to a Lecture on Form

—Joseph Millar

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.

—Dorianne Laux


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.