Monday, July 24, 2006

Martha Rhodes

This week at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, I am in a workshop with the poet Martha Rhodes, who is the author of Mother Quiet, Perfect Disappearance, and At the Gate. She is encouraging us to experiment with the way we revise our poetry by playing with tenses, structure, line breaks, and sequencing.

According to Rhodes, there are four aspects that feed into the creation of a poem: music, imagination, narrative, and structure. They are not mutually exclusive, but it is helpful to know which, as a poet, is one's dominant way into a poem, or way of reading a poem. It is clear to me, after working with Vijay Seshadri and now with Rhodes, how much my poetry is informed by my musical ear.

This poem by Rhodes is posted online at AGNI Magazine:

The Hose

A hose ran through our house, used
to wash our windows down; to keep
us teenagers in line; to dilute Father’s
martoonis; “to make life a little more
exciting,” Mother said.

When Mother turned 70 and renamed us
“Enormous One,” and
“One Who Walks Bare on Rug,”
and “One Who Hideously Shares My Bed,”
and “Which One”

we hosed her into the corner of her dressing room—
Strong Medicine.
Clean out the cobwebs.
Cold showers are a cure-all.
Shock therapy.

Mother would giggle herself silly when we’d towel her dry,
dust her with powder, pull the bedrails up.

Martha Rhodes

The mother in this poem, although claiming that the hose makes life "a little more / exciting," actually uses the hose to control her family: it keeps the windows clean, monitors the kids' behavior, and prevents the father from getting drunk. Her family has learned this; so when illness leaves their mother in a frenetic, uncontrolled state, they hose her "into the corner of her dressing room" to regain order. Even then, she "giggles" when washed with cold water, and rails are needed to pen her in.

This is a very sad and powerful poem, and what I admire about it is how an extensive, emotional story is compacted into 17 lines. We get a sense of the entire family dynamic very quickly (nobody says martoonis unless they drink a lot of them), and the inevitable fall of the mother into an uncontrolled state, despite her attempts to always control her environment. Maybe that is the unltimate conflict here: that she could gain control over her environment, but not over her internal self.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Jean Valentine

The artist Danny Sillada and I have been discussing short poems and what is uniquely challenging about writing a poem that is complete in its language and emotional arc, but brief in its number of lines. Yesterday, the poet Vijay Seshadri suggested I look up the poet Jean Valentine, who is a writer of short poems. I found this poem on her site:


Once there was a woodcutter,
when he asked me to marry him
the woman in the grocery store said
You look like you lost your last friend.
First love!
When we broke up
it was as if the last egg in the house
got dropped on the broken floor.
This world is everywhere! The woman said,
You won’t go unsampled!

Jean Valentine

This poem is replete with the energy of love and despair and, finally, hope. The interaction between the two women--one young and dealing with the loss of her first love, and one older and wiser and knowledgable in the world--is sweet and totally believable. My favorite lines are the last two: "This world is everywhere! The woman said, / You won't go unsampled!" She assures the young woman, in the most joyful, encouraging, way, that "there are more fish in the sea," and that, like the morsels of food in her grcoery store, the young women will surely be "tasted" by others.

I cannot escape, however, the older woman's characterization of the younger woman as object in the sentence, that she will "be sampled" by others rather than "sample" others herself. It is a complicated ending to me, as I'm not sure that the young woman has gained any power through her experience. I would prefer that she go out and discover the "everywhere-ness" of the world and taste it through her own will; but perhaps that ending would be too easy. Perhaps there is a prescience in the grocer's words about the younger woman's fate.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Kay Ryan

In my workshop this week, there are a few of us who tend to fashion shorter, more compact poems. Someone brought up the poet Kay Ryan as a wonderful model to study for short, powerful poems, so I took some time to look her up. I found this poem by her on the site for Blue Flower Arts:


Extreme exertion
isolates a person
from help,
discovered Atlas.
Once a certain
ratio collapses,
there is so little
others can do:
they can't
lend a hand
with Brazil
and not stand
on Peru.

Kay Ryan

Ryan catches our attention with what appears to be a simple assertion; but the "discovered Atlas" grounds this found knowledge in a particular character. Atlas supporting the earth is an effective image here, because we can all identify with the feeling of burden; how cares can pile up on us until we reach a breaking point. The speaker implies that taking all of our burdens on ourselves actually alienates us from those who might offer relief; to wait too long is to risk collapsing into a crisis, when it may be too late for help.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

P-town: Day 3

Last night I attended a reading with the poets Vijay Seshadri and Rebecca Seiferle. I recommend the work of both of these poets, because of their mastery of language coupled with their unflinching observations of self and environment. Both of them produce work that is accessible yet complex. The following poem is one Rebecca Seiferle read, and can also be found on the Ploughshares site:

Fire in a Jar

Some plucked from flight by sweep of net
or grasp of hand, immediately darken
and flicker out. A drift of stars becomes
mere green beetles scraping the glass bottom
of a jar. Other kinds go on flashing, ardent
no matter how captive they are, lighting
up even the smallest heaven. And still
others make a haze of their own longing,
dispersing themselves into a diffuse haze,
becoming a drop of sexual sunlight falling
upon the transparent world. Glass eye,
glass heart, glass jar, in which we try and keep
our flickering selves, all the light in us is sexual,
a luminous persistence—a heaven or a hell.

Rebecca Seiferle

Remember catching fireflies as a kid? Do kids still do that? They were magic to me when I was a little girl. I didn't know how they created that light, and I never thought to ask. I loved it.

The narrator in this poem observes the various ways caught fireflies respond. Some become "mere green beetles," others "go on flashing," and others "make a haze of their own longing." She compares the variations of this captive energy to human sexual energy, and observes that "we try and keep / our flickering selves" inside glass--to contain it, perhaps, to control it, to have it be seen and recognized but still protected. How we respond to our "caught" sexuality can create in us either "a heaven or a hell." Either way, this sexuality is an energy of light, an energy that insists on being seen and dealt with.

Monday, July 17, 2006

P-town: Day 2 at FAWC

Today was our first day of workshopping with the poet Vijay Seshadri. Read his work here and here. A few points Seshadri brought about about poetry:

--A poem is not a represenation of an idea; it is a "dramatic act"
--The meter, rhythm, and voice of a poem is determined by a poet's own physiology
--The tension inherent in a poem's structure is created by the horizontal nature of the line, since the experience of prose text is primarily vertical

I am not stating these as truisms, only as ideas Seshadri brought up. I find them fascinating and wonderful starting places for discussions about the quality and funtion of poetry. What do you think?

Although I have generally viewed poetry as artifice, as a medium through which to communicate emotion, ideas, and experience, I also, in the process of writing, have been greatly moved; so I must admit that there is a "dramatic act" going on. I cannot, however, pass on that experience unfiltered to the reader. I can only offer the poem, and the poem itself is not the experience.

Let's remember that this kind of discussion is abstract, although fascinating. The most important thing is that we read and write poetry, no matter how we define those processes.

Before I go: a plug for Cicchetti's Espresso bar at 353 Commercial Street in P-town. The best espresso in town, easily. Yummy treats, friendly service, consistently great espresso.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

In P-town

This is how I know I'm in P-town and not in Boston: when I got my henna tattoos at the West End Salon, the artist asked if I "would like some glitter on those." I said, "hell yeah I want some glitter." Now I have a long, gorgeous snake on my left arm and a sun with curly rays on my right hand, both sprinkled with the prettiest purple glitter I ever saw. It makes me happy.

I have wireless access not only at the Fine Arts Work Center, not only at the lovely P-town libary across the street from me, but also in my little studio rental on Commercial St. It's great--I can get so much done just by hanging out.

Tonight we have our first mini-session with the poet Vijay Seshadri. I'll be in a workshop with him all week. I included his poem "Survivor" in my previous post; do yourself a favor and read three of his poems over at three candles press. They are wonderful.

I brought a picture of Cleo with me to put by my bed. I brought two poems about her to workshop, if I can gather my courage to do so. I miss her.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Fine Arts Work Center

I cannot properly express how grateful I am for all of your kind, thoughtful responses to the loss of my dog, Cleo. I can see that I am not the only person who is familiar with this experience, and who has felt it so keenly. I am genuinely moved by how much kindness can be found in the world.

I wasn't sure for a while if I would be able to make my yearly trek to Provincetown because Cleo was so ill; and after she died, I wasn't sure I wanted to. But I have decided to forge on. Tomorrow I take the ferry to P-town for two weeks of poetry and beach time. I am taking two workshops this year, one with Vijay Seshadri and the other with Martha Rhodes.

Here is one of Vijay Seshadri's poems, entitled "Survivor," which can be found at the Academy of American Poets site:


We hold it against you that you survived.
People better than you are dead,
but you still punch the clock.
Your body has wizened but has not bled

its substance out on the killing floor
or flatlined in intensive care
or vanished after school
or stepped off the ledge in despair.

Of all those you started with,
only you are still around;
only you have not been listed with
the defeated and the drowned.

So how could you ever win our respect?--
you, who had the sense to duck,
you, with your strength almost intact
and all your good luck.

Vijay Seshadri

This is the other side of survivor's guilt, the point of view of those who observe and judge. The speaker resents the subject's survival because he reminds everyone of their losses. His presence brings to mind everyone who "bled" or "flatlined" or "vanished" or "stepped off the ledge." Regardless of if he had "sense" or "strength" or just plain "good luck"--qualities that are normally admired, but are derided here--the speaker believes he does not deserve to still be "punch[ing] the clock."

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Goodbye, Cleo

Have you ever read A Prayer for Owen Meany? At the end, John is giving an elegy at a funeral for his great friend whom he dearly loved. During his elegy, in the midst of his grief, he calls to god, "Give him back."

That has always struck me as the truest response to the death of a loved one, and it is more true now than ever. On Thursday, at about 1:30 pm, my dog Cleo died. That's Cleo in the picture being walked by my husband in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

She had been battling hepatitis for a few weeks, and was severely underweight. Her spirit never wavered, and we had hopes she would have some time left; but during the night, she began having pain in her leg and couldn't stand. We took her to the emergency vet, and it turned out she had developed a blood clot in her leg. She had already lost circulation in that leg by the time we brought her there. It was evident after a few hours that only the most painful and invasive treatment might bring her relief, and it was quite likely she wouldn't survive it given her already critically ill state.

We decided, agreeing with the vet, that her time had come. She was in a lot of pain despite a great deal of pain meds. We were present as she passed, and it was very quick. The experience was much, much more difficult than I anticipated, despite knowing it would be tough. I found it almost impossible to grasp her death, even though her body was right in front of me.

In my still raw state, I find it tremedously unfair that she had to die when she so clearly wanted to live; but her body had taken as much as it could take.

I love Cleo and I miss her so much. I want her back.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Update: Cleo Rallies

Look closely at the bed in this picture. You'll see Cleo stretched luxuriously across the width of the bed, enjoying time away from the cats. We took this picture last year at the Nine Zero hotel in Boston, a dog-friendly boutique hotel.

Cleo has rallied. When we took her home from the hospital, we didn't think she would last through the week. She wouldn't eat, and I had to administer subcutaneous fluids every day, because she hardly drinks any water. She went from a lean 15 1/2 pounds to about 11 pounds. She was listless, fatigued, and couldn't even chase the cats.

After a few days, we could take her off the pain medication. Apparently she isn't finished with life yet. Despite a diagnosis of severe end-stage hepatitis, with a liver that is small, very inflamed, and scarred, and a lengthy scar running from her stomach down to her abdomen, she is very close to her old self. SHe still needs the IV fluids, and she is too weak to take a real walk, but my husband carries her to the Common and lets her walk around in the grass. She loves it. We discovered the one thing she'll eat: boiled chicken, which took a while for two strict vegetarians to discover. I'm hoping she'll eat it with a little rice, just for a little balance. Hell, I'll cook an elk for her if she'll eat it. She is definitely living the best-case scenario with this disease.

So Cleo lives on, and I wanted to say thank you, thank you, thank you for all of the kind words and encouragement. It means a great deal to me and has helped tremedously. Danny, your poem is touching and wonderful. I'm going to print it out as a keepsake. I can't say thank you enough.

I promise, when things stabilize, I will get back to poetry and all of your wonderful blogs. I will be in Provincetown workshopping at FAWC from July 15-29; let me know if any of you will be there. Also, I'm signing up for a Writers in the Round retreat in September. Check it out here. If you feel like a few days on a lovely island off of the New Hampshire coast, this could be the thing. The poetry instructor is Tom Daley, a very talented Boston area poet.

Sunday, June 11, 2006


Cleo is a sixteen-year-old terrier mix, about 15 pounds. We adopted her from the pound when she was four. For the last few days, she has been in the hospital, undergoing and recovering from a surgerical biopsy on her liver and intestines. The news, so far, is not too good.

We visited her yesterday, and saw the stitched wound in her abdomen, the I.V. in her foreleg, and the shaved area for medicine patches on her side. We talked to the vet; he says there are abnormalities in her intestine and liver; he kept using the word "hepatitis," although the biopsy results are not in yet. He says we can give her medications orally, so when she starts eating again, we can take her home. He says, with proper treatment, we can enjoy "whatever time we have left with her."

These are tough words to hear. The vet is clearly trying to prepare us for something. I don't want to be prepared. I don't want to steel myself for losing the pet we adopted in our first year of marriage. It's hard for me to imagine being with Chris without being with Cleo.

I was wondering why I didn't feel like blogging this week, and I realized thinking about Cleo was taking up my energy. But I missed the blog, too. So I'll just blog about her.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Erasure Poem

I was perusing the Big Window blog and found a post about creating your own erasure poetry online at Erasures, a site sponsored by Wave Books. I found it strangely inspiring. Here's the poem I wrote, created from "A Book of Operas" by Henry Edward Krehbiel:

In the third house
night sings a dream and
transcribes it with bits of
when sung
as impulse

Go write your own erasure poem, then come back and post what you wrote in the comments section. I'm headed to Disney World for a week, and I will be without my trusty iBook; I'll read them when I get back!

Take care.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Abalone Moon Journal

Abalone Moon is a "journal of the poetry and the arts" and worth checking out. The current issue features the work of Brendan Constantine. You can also read his interview with Velene Campbell.

No Guessing

I keep reading how destiny laughs at chance, how the man who said so
was ahead of his time, but he was seventy when he died, had a beard
like a white Persian cat devouring his considerable face. I bet he
didn’t go willingly.
I bet he didn’t say “Honey, would you hold my pen, it’s my
to die.” I bet someone had to pry the bedsheets from his hands. And
they wrote him into the ground, his beard went on growing, grew until
had arms and legs, a tail and teeth. I bet it prowls the cemetery
still, a huge and muscled
snow leopard, the old man’s skeleton still caught in its
There’s no telling if you’d ever see it and if you did, no guessing if
it might
tear you apart like a bedroom. Destiny can laugh all it wants about
but chance is on the floor about destiny. It’s knocked over the table
with the candles and the goldfish. The carpet is ruined, the party is ruined,
the night is ruined,
it can never be cleaned.

Brendan Constantine

The beard of this deceased seventy-year-old can be seen as a metaphor for the human desire to live. It sprouts "arms and legs, a tail and teeth." It "prowls the cemetery" refusing to rest or move on; it is stuck and angry and threatening. It is clinging to life; it is a stuck and angry life, but still a life.

Last week, I was helping a friend who has been depressed for a long time and was starting to have suicidal thoughts. Although she wasn't sure if she wanted to live, I know if her life were threatened by an intruder or a disease or a car barrelling toward her, she would fight tooth and nail to survive. It's strange how that instinct kicks in. When we have the leisure to contemplate our lives, it is so easy to judge them, to criticize ourselves for how little we think we do or how far we are from reaching our goals. We might wonder if our lives matter. But when our life is threatened, we are wired to fight for it with everything we have. Destiny carries no relevance when you just want to live.

Monday, May 22, 2006

New Issue of eratio

The Spring 2006 issue of eratio postmodern poetry was released today: go check it out! Meanwhile, here's an example of what you will find there:

Evening Moths, Morning Anchor

i'm so unfamiliar with painting
wrinkles on my restless skin.
why don't you stir me with kindness?
be good to the woven
muscle on my shoulders,
put the tips of your middling
fingers on my bony spine,
shake the dirt from my vertebrae,
tear it from my back,
mend it with your hands,
spend the evening
making me whole again.

or is it the plucking of strings
that I'm so unfamiliar with?
why don't you raise hands
to me and flick digits across
my cheeks making them into
waves of fleshy ocean.
pull out the sides of my mouth
and reach down deep for
the dim lamp light of a soul.
sift through piles of antiques.
an old heart, a soiled liver,
smoky lungs—an umbrella
lodged in my stomach!
grab it quick and open it fast
to hold you in the clear from
a family of moths who have been
feeding on my woman parts.
they will swarm into your open plane
because your light is bright.
I am drawn to you and anchored
to your hip while you spend the evening
pouring kerosene down the drain.

is it the settling colors on your face
that are so unfamiliar?
reds and rusts about my clavicle
blend like bleeding sunset pigments.
why don't you wash me with your hair?
smear the stain across my breasts,
ripen me with hue at my navel,
float me on the surface of the lake,
spend the evening dyeing the water.

Nubia Hassan

I love the sensual ferocity of this poem. The subject is yearning to be undone, unmade, even ripped open, by someone who will be willing to put her back together again, to "tear" her spine from her back and "spend the evening" making her "whole again." The experience of physical connection with another human is so "unfamiliar" to her; we can infer that she has felt solitary for a long time, given the "family of moths who have been / feeding" on her "woman parts." She is ready, even desperate, for connection; willing to be reached into, grabbed, and pulled apart.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Au Revoir, Stanley Kunitz

"Death and life are inextricably bound to each other. One of my feelings about working the land is that I am celebrating a ritual of death and resurrection."
Stanley Kunitz

It's a tough thing to wake up one morning and find that the one hundred-year-old mainstay of American poetry has died. Stanley Kunitz was a founder and great supporter of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, a place where I have completed several writing workshops. The common room is named after him. He had a house in P-town, where he spent a great deal of time in his beloved garden. I heard that if you walked to his place to say hello, he would greet you kindly and with no pretension. I wish now I had mustered the chutzpah to do it last year, when I had the chance.

In tribute to this great poet, I'm posting a poem from his 1930 collection called Intellectual Things. Au revoir, Mr. Kunitz. See you on the other side, where we poets will gather to drink good wine, talk of love and beauty, and laugh at all our former confusion.

Deciduous Branch

Winter, that coils in the thickets now,
Will glide from the fields; the swinging rain
Be knotted with flowers; on every bough
A bird will meditate again.

Lord, in the night if I should die,
Who entertained your thrilling worm,
Corruption wastes more than the eye
Can pick from the perfect form.

I lie awake, hearing the drip
Upon my sill; thinking, the sun
Has not been promised; we who strip
Summer to seed shall be undone.

Now, while the antler of the eaves
Liquefies, drop by drop, I brood
On a Christian thing: unless the leaves
Perish, the tree is not renewed.

If all our perishable stuff
Be nourished to its rot, we clean
Our trunk of death, and in our tough
And final growth are evergreen.

Stanley Kunitz

Photo found at

Monday, May 08, 2006

Louis McKee in Rattle

You can find the following poem by Louis McKee in the current issue of Rattle, vol. 11, no.2, p. 47:


When I was young I left
my new kid gloves on a bus
coming home from school,
said they must have fallen
from my pockets--my mother
didn't want to hear that
I hated gloves, that I liked cold
hands, fingers, and pockets
they fit into better. I had a cap;
this was years later--I wore it
everywhere, and one day walking
down the avenue, for no reason
at all, I took it off and threw it
into the open window of a bus
that was passing by. I cursed,
later, its being missing,
but that was all part of it,
preparing for loss. Everything,
sooner or later, goes--
finding a bus heading somewhere.

Louis McKee

I find it very poignant how the child in this poem prefers the feeling of "cold hands, fingers" to the security of warm gloves. He already has a sense at this young age that he can't get attached to them, because sooner or later they will be lost. So he beats fate to the punch and leaves them on the bus, perhaps feeling that if he controls the loss--if he chooses when they will be gone--then the loss will be less painful.

As an adult, the narrator still tries to trump fate by purposely tossing away his hat, again choosing a bus. He regrets it and curses "its being missing," but still prefers to be in a state of dealing with loss than to be simply waiting for loss to take him by surprise.

This feeling of the "untrustworthiness" of life is familiar to me, and perhaps many of us can relate to the narrator's desire to sieze some small control over his circumstances. Sometimes we end relationships because we can see the end coming, but it is too painful to let the final days play out. Perhaps we quit a job we like because we see the pink slips coming, and we want to avoid the experience of a lay-off. My brother loves computer games, but he often won't finish them because he can't bear for them to be over.

Loss is inevitable, but painful. Surely it is not possible to prevent it. Is it futile to try to control the tiny losses we see coming?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Bernard Henrie in Shampoo

This poem by Bernard Henrie is in the current issue of the online poetry journal Shampoo:

Chinese Movies (Part III)

Chen paints with her face held
very close to the canvas,
like a woman at the mirror
with a contact lens.

Her eyes, purple as plums,
peer into her watercolor;
a fisherman seeking perch.

A Mandarin when she works,
her oversize smock and sleeves
look like petals. I expect rice fans
to appear for shade, gifts from
her village in rural China.

Once finished, she takes blossoms
from her work table to the garden
and decorates the birdbath. “The birds will drink
and see that their
love songs
have been answered.”

Her painting dry and bamboo
brushes wrapped, she prepares
to bathe, pausing to peel
a fat persimmon, the juice drips
and forms a glistening drop
on her gold thigh:

“Look, another water color.”

Bernard Henrie

Lovely, isn't it? Sensual, with colors, flavors, and shifting perspective. I like the fluidity of surfaces in this poem. The canvas is likened to a mirror, then to the surface of water. The water in the birdbath becomes Chen's next canvas; finally, her thigh becomes the surface for "another water color" when the persimmon juice drips.

This poem is full of liquid movement: the paint, the water in the birdbath and in her own bath, and the juice. Chen herself seems to flow from canvas to canvas, creating art both consciously and unintentionally.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Spare Change Poetry

From the latest issue of Spare Change, which I bought from the guy in the middle of Winter Street:

The Slow Dance

every morning in good weather
he is there
on the square of concrete
that holds the park bench
moving two steps forward
two steps back
looking straight ahead at nothing
something is holding him
like a partner
moving him
moving with him
both of them slowed
because it is the song about
never-ending love
and how smoke gets in your eyes
and the lights are dim now
because it is the last dance
every moment of his day.

Mary P. Chatfield

The depiction of boundaries is the first thing I noticed about this poem: the "square of concrete" lined by a park bench and the subject's precise movement of "two steps forward / two steps back." His world is this space, and his movement is guided by an imaginary partner. He is living right at the edge of something, bumping against the boundaries of his space and always at the end of the last dance.

Friday, April 28, 2006


I recently received the latest issue of poemmemoirstory (PMS), an annual literary journal published by the University if Alabama, Birmingham. The title's acronym refers to the fact that all of the authors are women. I don't relate my own sense of womanhood to that particular experience of bloating, pain, and chocolate craving, but there is some wonderful poetry in this journal.

The following poem about the power of self-love is by Niki Sixx. Ms. Sixx's bio says that she is a member of the Cave Canem Workshop, whose mission is "the discovery and cultivation of new voices in African-American poetry." If you are an aspiring African-American poet, check out their nicely-designed site.

Have a wonderful weekend, and remember ladies: shoot.


find one thing to love
inside yourself
carry it like a gun
in guerrilla hands
and when government
defeats you, mountains fall
lovers leave, and the words
of women before come
crashing to the ground
hold this love between
your hands, sing its name
like the alphabet
and shoot woman. Shoot.

Niki Sixx
PMS Number 6, p. 44

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


GutCult is an online journal featuring poetry, essays, and poetry book reviews. This poem by Graham Foust is in Issue 6:

Just a Voice

I could not be famous
to this place.

Pale with light,
I think here—

one eye small,
the other swollen—

and I look: You’re always
walking. Your shadow

is a sky.
You are why

I say entire
life, entire world.

Graham Foust

I'm captivated by the narrator's relationship to place in this poem. S/he feels alone and unrecognized--"I could not be famous / to this place." The narrator observes with very strained vision--one eye is"small," the other is "swollen"--and states, "you're always / walking." Who is this "you"? Could it be another reference to place, this place whose "shadow / is a sky?" The narrator feels insignificant in this world s/he describes, and unable to properly describe it (the injured eyesight). Even the "shadow" of this place "is a sky." This is how the narrator conceives the contrast between the "entirety" of his/her life--small and wounded--with the entirety of the world--big, light-filled, and indifferent.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Duane Ackerson in Rock Salt Plum Review

Here's another online poetry zine for you: Rock Salt Plum Review,which features interviews, essays, book reviews, and, of course, poetry. This poem by Duane Ackerson is in the current issue, Spring, 2006:

Notes on Decoding Snowflakes

All those books full of
sure-fire formulas
for writing books,
all those instructions
for stained glass windows or doilies,
all this must come from somewhere
and be pointing someplace.

One more workshop should do it;
the vat of molten lead
come to a point;
the phoenix,
push aside ashes
and re-feather the fire.
Class, take note;
take flight.

The apter students take fingerprints
off the rain,
convinced it's cutting
piano rolls on the side.

The less apt try to unravel
the DNA for Rhapsody in Blue,
derive the formula for Fats Waller or Monet,
while cummings protests:
careful, you'll crush
the tiny hands of the rain.

Duane Ackerson

It's a wonderful poem; we see the real writers living in and observing the world and believing in the magic even a simple rain can create. The "less apt," as the narrator states, live in the writing about the world. They live in the abstract ideas about the world rather than the world itself, in an attempt to reduce writing to a formula. They ignore the magic.

I understand the feeling that taking a workshop will make you a poet. I'm taking two weeks of poetry workshops myself this summer. I remember a few years ago it struck me quite suddenly that writing makes you a writer, not study. Study is very valuable, absolutely; but it is not writing. Simple, right? But I can occassionally be a little dense.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Julie Doxsee in Shampoo

The current issue of the online poetry journal Shampoo has some wonderful postmodern poetry. I love poetry that is challenging, even a bit oblique, yet well-crafted and with a sense of unity. Today, I've been looking at this poem by Julie Doxsee:


Clouds take blue from could. Could be clouds are
the rind of a ripe sky.

An outside eye holds all lakes and oceans in one

The body casts an object onto its shadow two or
three times. An eclipse lives nowhere then wrestles
awake. Nighttime can’t stretch darkness when the
moon is engulfed by noise.

Hold a piece of dust at arm’s length and watch its
two-dimensional twin burn at noon. Gray stranger,
make your gray a happier thing. Nighttime erases as
it grows over the eye.

The earth’s rind forms the hard outer layer where
fruit sprouts. Leaves detach from xylem after
sucking skin. A rock conducts its upside-down

Discovery invites the collapse of something high.
Sky. Paradise. Wing-pilot. Echelon. Uncrater
holding bits of ground.

Uncover the rock. Fig leaves fall off and die, but
there are more fig leaves in a grove you’ll visit

Julie Doxsee
Issue 27

When approaching a poem like this--lots of wonderful imagery that may seem at first to be unconnected--it's a good idea to start with the imagery that strikes you. For me, the idea of an "eclipse" is what captured me first. In the third stanza, the "body cast an object onto its shadow--" the body in front of the sun creating its own small eclipse, resulting in shadow. "An eclipse lives nowhere--" it does not exist until that blockage of sun by an object, when it "wrestles awake." When viewed in the context of the title, "Erosion," we can imagine a sense of the self fading in the darkness of an eclipse, of some bit of self eroding off and forming shadow.

In the next stanza, the narrator continues the imagery of shadow and light. "Hold a piece of dust at arm's length." Now we have moved from a large body eclipse to a tiny particle of dust. Even something that tiny exists and has form; but at noon you can see its "two dimensional twin burn at noon--" the eroded shadow created by the blockage of light. This stanza ends with night, as does the previous stanza; the night "erases / as it grows over the eye." Here, the self erodes away into non-existence in the creeping darkness.

Think of this poem in terms of erosion or fading; of covering and uncovering; of the boundaries of self and how light and dark affect the existence of self. What do you see? How do you read this poem?

Monday, April 17, 2006

3rd Muse Poetry Journal

I spent time this weekend checking out some online poetry journals. There's great poetry being published online.

The current issue of 3rd Muse Poetry Journal has some lovely work, including this poem by Sarah J. Sloat:

Saw You, Want You

Saw you - corner of 8th
and Crescent, asking
a lady in fur for directions.
My mouth went limp when
you called her “ma’am.”
You smiled, and I felt
I might not have to walk
through life with this boulder
between my hands. I want
to lie down in your drawl, fall
asleep on the tilt of your eyebrow.
I kick myself for wearing
that hippie poncho, for not
having the car to drive you
where you meant to go.
I never did anything
like this before.
I was the 5’5 brunette
carrying a takeout pizza.
The walk signal went green.
I sneezed, and
you blessed me.

Sarah J. Sloat
3rd Muse Poetry Journal, Issue 33

This poem is a perfect example of how concrete detail can convey emotion. The narrator doesn't need to tell us what she feels; she simply describes the scene and her thoughts. "My mouth went limp / when you called her 'ma'am...' I want / to lie down in your drawl." A city girl falls fast for a southern guy. In that moment, she feels a lightening of her burden--literally, the pizza; but more generally, perhaps she feels the possibility that one day she won't be a single girl alone subsisting on takeout.

The ending is poignant and mysterious: "I sneezed, and / you blessed me." The narrator is noticed, if only peripherally, by this guy. Perhaps his "blessing" is a portent of positive things to come; if not with him, then with someone else.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

A Little Haiku

I think I'll wrap up the week with these two lovely haiku poems by Taneda Santoka, translated by Scott Watson. They are found on page 32 of Vallum v. 3:2.

all day
without words

rub a

I particularly like the serenity created by that second poem. Beautiful.

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Empress Eifuku

In the Japanese Court Poetry book I mentioned in the previous post, there is a poem by Empress Eifuku (1271-1242), written in the tradition of Japanese courtly love (p. 402):

In my heart,
Weakened now by your betrayal
To the point of death,
Even misery takes on pathetic beauty
And my bitterness is gone.

I asked before whether something negative could become "sweet" simply because of its constancy, as Saigyo suggests in his poem. Empress Eifuku's poem seems to reiteriate Saigyo's sensibility. The authors state that Eifuku suggests "the whole course of an affair by writing its surprising conclusion--that suffering at its worst point yields to beauty and release, if only in death"(402).

Saigyo, however, sees his sweet loneliness as a companion, a reliable part of his life that will not abandon him. Empress Eifuku feels her suffering as a relief, a freedom from the bondage of passion. In her experience, misery turns sweet ("my bitterness is gone") because she envisions an end to it, even if the end is death.

Monday, April 10, 2006


One of the presents my husband bought me for Christmas was a first edition book entitled Japanese Court Poetry by Robert H. Brower and Earl Miner, published in 1961 by Stanford University Press. I looked through it this morning and found this great poem by Saigyo (p. 261):

My mountain village,
To which I have abandoned hope
That any friend will come,
Would be a wretched place to live
Were it not for this sweet loneliness.

Saigyo, 12th c.

Like the previous poem, this one hits us with a little surprise at the end, one that demands our attention. Part of what Saigyo is doing is reflecting on the joy of solitude, but that is clearly not all that's involved. He lives in a "wretched place" where he longs for a visitor, but he has "abandoned hope" that anyone will show up. His solitude seems to be unchosen. He has no friend, so loneliness itself has become his companion, the one constant, reliable factor in his life.

Is it possible for a seemingly negative circumstance to become a source of "sweetness" in our lives, simply because of its constancy?

Friday, April 07, 2006

Erin Noteboom in Vallum

Do yourself a favor and pick up the current issue of Vallum. You won't regret it. There is so much wonderful writing in there.

This untitled work by Canadian poet Erin Noteboom presents the possibility of having to choose between two things we all want:

ink brush ideograms
on a pair of teacups
my husband
pouring pale jasmine asks
happiness or love?

Erin Noteboom
(Vallum, Vol. 3:2 p. 29)

Can you imagine someone you're married to asking this? As if he were saying, "Assam or darjeeling?" Both are wonderful--but you can't mix them or you'll ruin the flavor. Is he playing, joking around? ("One lump or two?") Or has he had a sudden moment of self-awareness? This image, which at first appears to be a warm, typical domestic scene, feels poignant and sad to me.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Thank you, thank you, thank you for the kind questions and continuing posts on this humble little poetry blog. I am not lost. I have been ill, dealing with the symptomology of polycythemia vera, and the relentless infections I tend to get from the treatment. For a while, I was just too sick to write; then I spent time making up work for a class, then I just sort of lost my will to write; not writer's block, just writer's angst. These phases come and go, but poetry is always there, waiting for me to come back to my senses.

So I bring you Terayama Shuji in the lovely bi-annual Canadian journal Vallum. The featured theme of the lastest volume is "Japanese Imaginings," and it is a real treat, especially for those of us who study the Japanese language. Many of the authors' original Japanese text is included along with the English translation. I love when editors do that!

Real Tears

She was a liar.
She met a man, a liar, and their love
Was a lie--and reciprocal.
Under one roof, under false pretenses,
Their happiness was a lie.
A story of loneliness and love
And known now to the seagulls who know this.
She was a liar.
Her husband was a man she kept secrets from:
She loved a sailor, a liar,
Abandoned the happiness that was a lie
For a sailor who upped anchor.
And her tears were real enough. Real tears.
But who'll believe them?

Terayama Shuji (v. 3:2 p. 20)
Translation by Marc Sebastian-Jones

This is a great poem. I love the perfect use of punctuation, and the questions it brings up: Why be a liar? Why love a liar? If you're both liars, why not love each other, leaving the honest folks alone? Why leave one liar for another (especially when you've discovered the ability to make real tears)? Is there truly a point beyond which you can no longer prove your ability to be honest, where you've sacrificed any chance for an honest relationship? "But who'll believe them" implies that no one will, but actually leaves the door open, if you're looking at the text with optimistic eyes.