Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Jorie Graham

I have been reading Jorie Graham's Swarm. In this collection, Graham uses a lot of white space, sentence fragments, single, separated words, and parentheses. The poems look like pictures on the pages, and beg to be read aloud.

Here is an excerpt from "Daphne" on page 44:


Pick     a card.

Wrong again.

Interrupt belief.

Write down hope.

Move lips in sleep.



Be less.

Be found.

Be muzzled.

Say write hard answers on me.

Bear down make clear.

The moon rises.

Will never be perfect.

Be good open mouth.

Don't scream.

This poem reads as a list of imperatives. An unseen speaker instructs Daphne--the nymph who was changed into a laurel tree while fleeing Apollo's unwanted attention--on how to escape the love-struck god. She must become an object, something that is "less" than fully human, something "found," and "muzzled;" something that is acted upon--"write hard answers on me"--rather than the actor, the one who used to run and hunt and enjoy the riches of nature.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Tom Daley

Here's another one from the current issue of 32 Poems by Boston's own Tom Daley:


In the stairwell of the airport parking garage
a dragonfly lies without rebuke,
inert and dessicated,
papery fossil of an extinguished grace.
Its blue-black head droops,
knobby and askew.

What a darting was here,
what whirled profusion--
mylar wings ribbed with veins
hammering a downdraft,
hinged between water tension
and the weight of the sky.

Tom Daley

In the previous post, I mentioned that memory, to a poet, can be just as tangible and present as anything going on in the "real" world at that moment. In this poem, the speaker describes not a memory of the dragonfly, but an imagining of the energy and life that once existed in the now "inert and dessicated" corpse. S/he creates this description out of previous experience with dragonflies--how they move, their speed, their lightness--and pure imagination.

As poets, we spend a great deal of time trying to describe something--a feeling, an object, a thought, a philosophy, etc. We want to properly convey the experience through words. We want to be accurate, but artisitic and original. I think that the imagination can never be overestimated in crafting a poem. If it's a feeling we want to describe, how might that feeling be reflected in nature? How might an object be described if it were an animal? How might the color red smell? Or, as the speaker imagines, how might an already dead dragonfly exist if it were still alive?

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's The Leaf and the Cloud is both a pondering and a questioning of how the poem can be used as a reflection of the natural world. As the speaker says in "From The Book of Time" on page 17, "maybe the world, without us, / is the real poem."

If you love to read descriptions of the natural world and consider what our role is as both inhabiters and observers of nature, get this book. It is a startling and beautiful rendering of how a poem can use the sensuality of nature to explore emotion, circumstance, and philosophical questioning. Great stuff.

Here is an excerpt from "Work," a lengthy segment in which the speaker muses over the nature and purpose of writing poetry.


All day I have been pining for the past.
That's when the big dog, Luke, breathed at my side.
Then she dashed away then she returned
in and out of the swales, in and out of the creeks,
her dark eyes snapping.
Then she broke, slowly,
in the rising arc of a fever.

And now she's nothing
except for mornings when I take a handful of words
and throw them into the air
so that she dashes up again out of the darkness,

like this--

this is the world.

Mary Oliver

The speaker is describing the process of writing memory into poetry. By throwing a "handful of words...into the air," she conjures her dog Luke to her side. "This is the world," the speaker states; not just what we can actively touch and see and hear, but also that which we create from our own minds. To the poet, memory can be as tangible and present as the world rushing around right outside the door.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Julianna Baggott on Marie Curie

When I was a kid, Marie Curie was my greatest idol. I wanted to be a physicist for years, and I loved reading biographies of Curie, fascinated by her intelligence, drive, and passion for nuclear physics.

A Polish woman who lived most of her life in France, Curie (born Marie Sklodowska) had two children with husband Pierre Curie, also an eminent scientist. Pierre was killed in 1906 when a horse-drawn carriage ran him down, crushing his head.

The following poem is in the current issue of 32 Poems (Vol. 3 No. 1) on page 22:

Marie Curie Gives Advice to her
Daughter Irene Before her Wedding

I remember this moment--the pram distilled,
its sediment was an infant,
no longer something born from me,
not residue, not pitchblende,
but its own particle,
an open mouth, a cry,
within its head, a mind wrestling with thoughts
--my motherland could be there,
driven into the skull,
some ancient homing.
Years I have soaked
in radium.
I've begun to bleed light.
I see your father again
crossing streets in rain--
the doors are locked,
his umbrella fills with wind,
the horses approach,
hauling a wagon of soldier's uniforms--
something to dress the dead--
it's come to crush him.
My navy suit with solid stitching crushes me.
And since then I've begun to confuse
the glowing test tubes
with wicks of the moon, a dazing field of stars,
my own soul, and a moment goes by
when I forget the brutish charm of work.
My hope, daughter, is that
what you love doesn't come to kill you,
eye by eye, ear by ear, bone by radiant bone.

Julianna Baggott

Marie Curie died from complications of radiation poisoning, although it is unclear whether in 1926--the year of Irene's wedding--she was aware that her ill health was due to radiaton. The first physicists who worked with these elements were mostly ignorant of the connection between their later ill health and radiation, which seems shocking to us today. What is especially poignant is that Irene goes on to become one of the most revered scientists in France, like her mother also wins the Nobel Prize (along with her husband), and later dies of leukemia contracted from exposure to radium.

Both of these women worked in an exciting, difficult, and deadly field, but before they left the earth, they made remarkable accomplishments for science and for women. They lived lives of dedication and passion.

Marie Curie photo found here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Mark Wunderlich

I have participated in two workshops with Mark Wunderlich at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and it's about time I posted one of his very fine poems. He has two volumes of poetry: The Anchorage and Voluntary Servitude.

Here is one of his poems on poemhunter.com:

The Bruise Of This

The night I woke to find the sheets wet from you,
like a man cast up on the beach,
I hurried you off to the shower to cool you down,

dressed you, the garments strict and awkward in my hands,
and got you into a taxi to the hospital,
the driver eyeing us from his rearview mirror--

The blue tone of the paging bell,
the green smocks, metal beds,
plastic chairs linked

in a childhood diagram of infection,
and when they wheeled you by
there was a needle in your arm,

the bruise of this
already showing itself,
and rather than watch gloved doctors handle you

in their startling white coats and loose ties,
I took a seat outside and waited,
time yawning, thick and static--

and made clear to me in the bright light of speculation
was time's obstacle in the body,
and those things I could do that might cushion it.

Mark Wunderlich

No matter what kind of poetry you like to write--whether you prefer free verse, traditional, postmodern, romantic, or whatever--you can never go wrong using clear, strong, carefully crafted imagery. This poem is a fantastic example. Every stanza brings a new, powerful image to the poem and carries the reader through the experience.

Someone with night sweats this severe is very ill. The speaker attends to this person with careful urgency--perhaps this is not their first trip to the emergency room. Every space these two occupy is painted for us: In the bed, we see someone "cast up on a beach." In the taxi, we see the furtive glances of the driver in the mirror. In the hospital we see "greens smocks," even a "blue" bell. We see the needle and the bruise it has caused. We even see time, "thick and static."

The speaker is made aware, within the frightening arena of an emergency room and the lack of control a patient's relative has, of "time's obstacle in the body." A fascinating way to end the poem, in that it is somewhat cryptic in a poem of such clear imagery and chronology. It has something to do with this illness--perhaps illness is the obstacle to time in the body, i.e. time is inhibited by the illness. The speaker wonders what can be done to "cushion" the obstacle--make it less powerful--thereby giving time a better chance. The "bruise" can be seen as the emotional scar left on the speaker by loving and caring for someone with a dangerous disease. It is very urgent and sad poem, but not without hope.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

"Spare Change" Poetry

Those of us who are city-dwellers are familiar with "Spare Change," a newspaper sold on the streets by homeless, or formerly homeless people, to provide them with a source of income. I picked up a copy a couple days ago. Did you know there is a poetry section?

Here's one I like. It's on page 6 of the August 4 issue:

After the Crash

people light candles
in a small town,
wrap yellow ribbons
around street posts
and trees. Stores
close. Friends
wander in a daze
stand in small
circles. One reads
from a letter the
victim wrote the
day before: "summer
has been great,
between performing
at Carnegie Hall
(I got roses) and
attempting to get my driver's license,
pedestrians beware."

Lyn Lifshin

I am compelled to read this poem over and over because of that last cryptic line. What does it mean? Was the "victim" killed as a pedestrian by a driver, thus making the line a poignant ironic statement? Or was s/he a driver? Was anyone else involved? We are given just enough information to understand the town's grief over the loss of a talented, young person, and that's it. This short poem successfully captures the emotion of loss and grief simply by painting an image.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Grace Paley

At FAWC, I had the pleasure of hearing Grace Paley read to a packed audience. There were people sitting in chairs outside in the dark humidity, being bitten by mosquitos, just to hear her. She is a short story writer and poet. I found the following poem in the plagiarist poetry archive:

This Life

My friend tells me
a man in my house jumped off the roof
the roof is the eighth floor of this building
the roof door was locked how did he manage?
his girlfriend had said goodbye I'm leaving
he was 22
his mother and father were hurrying
at that very moment
from upstate to help him move out of Brooklyn
they had heard about the girl

the people who usually look up
and call jump jump did not see him
the life savers who creep around the back staircases
and reach the roof's edge just in time
never got their chance he meant it he wanted
only one person to know

did he imagine that she would grieve
all her young life away tell everyone
this boy I kind of lived with last year
he died on account of me

my friend was not interested he said you're always
inventing stuff what I want to know how could he throw
his life away how do these guys do it
just like that and here I am fighting this
ferocious insane vindictive virus day and
night day and night and for what? for only
one thing this life this life

Grace Paley

Wow, what can I say about this? Those of us who struggle with illness will always be frustrated by those who take their health for granted; imagine the reaction of someone fighting to stay alive hearing about a healthy, young life thrown away for no real reason.

And yet, there was a reason. His heart was broken, but more than that, he had come to a psychological state where dying seemed the logical course of action.

What I find so effective about this poem is Paley's working in of urgency, of an almost-rescued feeling, with the parents "hurrying... from upstate" to help him out, even speculating about the actions of witnesses and rescuers who weren't there. It feels as if the young man was almost saved, but in fact, he carried out his death in secret seclusion.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Joshua Weiner

Just returned from a week at the FAWC in P-town, and I tell you I did not want to come back. Poetry workshop in the morning, afternoons on the beach reading and writing, evenings listening to readings and watching slide shows of visual artists. I heard the stories of Grace Paley, the poetry of Joshua Weiner and Robert Pinsky, the fiction of Julia Glass, and saw slides of block prints by Peik Larsen. Others who read during the week were Norman Mailer, Mark Wunderlich (my workshop leader), and Mary Oliver. Can you imagine such a lineup? What a week. And I have several new drafts of poems to work on.

I'm going to feature a few poems by the writers who were at FAWC this week, starting with Joshua Weiner. This poem is from his book The World's Room, University of Chicago press, p. 61:

Bruno's Night

Up the hill of snoring
The father climbs in dream,
The mother sinks in silence
And baby sucks its thumb.

But struggling next door
Boy Bruno smells the dawn
While the sick, the sad, the torn
Apart quiet their song.

Dropped curtains hide the night's
Inspired fantastic pomp
That liquidates with light--
Don't oversleep--Wake up!

Run to the grimy window,
Press your nose to the dirt.
Under the dawn: you follow
The mass of gathering earth.

This is the last poem in the book, and it ends on such a poignant, and somewhat ambiguous, note. I imagine this boy in a home of persistent struggle and sadness, perhaps even brutality and/or poverty. The father "climbs" only in dreams, the mother "sinks," and the ungendered baby shares their room. Bruno's window is "grimy" and dirty. He is a boy of amazing sensitivity--he can smell dawn breaking--and he forces himself to wake up so he won't miss it. He ignores the dirt on the window, putting his nose right in it, so he can watch not the dawn itself, but the earth as it pulls together under the rising light.

This boy finds beauty in a world full of cramped struggle, and he finds it not in the transcendent faraway sky, but down on the earth itself. He can find joy in a world that so far has forced him to look for it. I wonder about the future for Bruno. His sensitivity is what allows him to uncover the world's wonder, but it is also what will make him vulnerable to its brutality.