renovation twenty-four: christopher, three years later

It is so bloody cold out there today, that I couldn’t feel my face when I got in a little while ago. I need to find a new apartment ASAP, but if the one I’m supposed to go see tonight doesn’t get back to me to say it’s okay to visit… well, I’m okay with not going back out there at all tonight. And since I was getting everything together to head back to New York, I did not get to do this prompt until later than intended, so I apologize:

1. “Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the cafe.” (Ernest Hemingway, “Montparnasse”)
2. “All day I’m giving a name / for what isn’t there.” (Liz Beasely, “Snakeskin”)
3. “Donna Summer starts up on the speakers.” (me, “The Gospel According to Helena”)
4. an empty birdhouse
5. Think of a person, and the last time you saw him or her.
BONUS. No bonus! Go nuts with the structure.
ALTERNATE (2). “Commuters arrive in Hartford at dusk like moles…” (Robert Bly, “The Executive’s Death”)

I couldn’t think of anything for the bonus. By all means, if you want to do form stuff, you should; but I just was too tired to dredge up any clever things about it. Go where the words take you. Lazy Sundays all around.

(christopher, three years later)

Several seconds passed before I recognized
those eyes like cigarette burns, perfectly round
and dark, and full of a desperate history.
I was working, and he asked for a cappuccino
the way he might have on a November morning
three years ago, the two of us clasped
on a mattress in someone’s West Village hallway–
the way you might ask someone to save you.
Maybe he recognized me, maybe not.
We met in a club. We only ever knew each other
by touch, and anyway, three years can change a lot.
It can draw lines through veins under perfect skin,
grease the hair, narrow and crack the lips
and tremble the fingers. If I awakened anything
in him, it was a feather of blue candle flame
you could call regret, bending towards the corners
emptied of a person, a shuttered gallery
dragging itself out the coffeeshop door.

Jericho

I promise I didn’t mean to write a depressing poem! It just happened, guys, sorry about that. This was intended for Donna‘s prompt, inspired by Marty McConnell, to tell the seven kinds of (insert emotion here). I guess “heartbreak” was what I had in mind, but I was so busy trying to get kooky with imagery and work in Biblical allusions that it just ended up being miserable rather than deep and complex. Not intentional, but I hope it works still.

Jericho

A heart withers on the vine when winter comes,
glassy-eyed and temperamental; and I know
winter. I know how, if you dig out the heart’s cellar
and tug the arteries loose

what tumbles out freezes before it hits the ground.
Spit in Alaska and you get a thread of ice, and
this is not unlike the puffed consonant of steam
in a well-wandered desert:

in both cases, something precious must be mourned.
Fill up the heart emptied of its virtue, cored
and tossed to the birds, with tales of its sins.
I know what it means, to be

reminded of my failings. To watch them circle
like pacing panthers around my walls. It still snows
in the desert: I could never catch the snowflakes
on my lying tongue. It is hard

to speak the truth after staying silent so long.
The throat crumbles some mortar from the lips
with the first shout, with the open hand,
with the midnight trysts

under streetlamps with steamed breaths.
There are things that, when discovered, take
hypodermic needles to the heart, sipping blood
and giving back poison

that makes the heart forget the root. Here,
in the desert, is the only place where it is easy
to garden in winter. The ground gives, shifts.
And in the end, just the door

slamming behind me is enough to tug the vine
loose completely, until it hangs from my chest
like a scarlet rope, announcing, here there is nothing
left to destroy. I know

what a withered heart looks like: leather and
feeble frost, a carved slab of kiln-fired clay. At night,
deserts become hushing seas: the heart floats,
tangled in someone else’s freedom.

Cease-Fire

Long but interesting day, in which I got absolutely no writing done. The highlight of it, for me was seeing Thoth at Central Park; they made a documentary about him in 2002 that won the Oscar. He’s a completely unique type of performer who blends music and mysticism in a truly incredible way. But then I got home not long ago, and wanted to do something for the dVerse Armistice Day prompt. So this is my slapdash offering to write about peace making of some kind.

Let it be noted that on this theme, no poem will ever surpass, for me, Susanna Rich’s “Passover“. It aches perfectly, and is so complicated with hate and hope.

Cease-Fire

You can’t spin thread out of silence. I’ve tried,
but it slips your fingers, makes lousy stitches
when sewing up a wound. We have so many

nowadays. But I wouldn’t keep at it
if there wasn’t love at the point of the needle,
patience rounding out the eye. I’ve spilled

the blood of many with what I call healing.
You have to use a long line of words forced in
through the skin. You have to pluck feathers

off the firebird, rolling them into the thinnest
line of feeling: then you pull the edges together.
One by one. X after X. The smoke of one

shared cigarette, and the cold pavement
in October. Trinkets traded at street markets,
and the gift of a mutual touch. I would sell

Manhattan to you for a glass bead and three
syllables of forgiveness, if you would do the same.
Then we can finish each other off with

double knots, and carry on. After a while,
all stings go numb. All fiery feathers are ground
out, like tobacco embers under a boot’s heel.

Reverie Thirty-Five: lies, damn lies, and statistics

Last night at the bar, they played “September” by Earth, Wind, and Fire, just after midnight. One thing I don’t miss about pegging my life to the academic calendar is the notion that Labor Day weekend is a cliff at the end of summer, where it seems like all the fun and joy of summer is coming to an end. I’ve been working the same amount as I do in winter, so it’s just another weekend to me: and furthermore, one with a bonus day to spend with the Fellow. But all of my collegiate friends are sighing about going back, and my teacher friends are crying a little on the inside, and I find myself enjoying the world just as much as I did last weekend. (The trade-off, of course, is the fantastic flexibility of a college schedule, which trumps this realization by far.)

Oh well. On to the prompt!

This week: “lies, damn lies, and statistics

Mark Twain made the famous quote, if you’re not familiar with it, that these are the “three kinds of lies.” And Neil Gaiman made the observation, in his graphic novel series Sandman (one of my favorites!) that writers are liars. In a very literal sense, he’s right, when it comes to fiction: by definition, a novel is one extended, elaborate lie, but when it’s tentpoled to the world we know, remember, and experience, and the purpose of it is to entertain, we treat it as a (mostly) harmless yarn. I think poets are held to a higher standard of factual accuracy, because the impulse is to describe rather than invent. As flowery as the descriptions may get, poets are not expected to obscure the “real world” of everyday sight and feeling too much, generally speaking, and I say, why not?

Today (despite the half-Quaker sensibility I was brought up with) we’re going to tell some tall tales, little white lies, and just the facts ma’am. The first layer of this is to come up with three levels of untruth that you want to work into your piece. As Twain wryly suggests, besides having a pretty straightforward, recognizable lie, and a whopper that forms the crux of the poem, you want to include a “factual” (perhaps numerical) assessment that comes from nowhere.

Half of you will read what I’m going to say,
and the other half will not…

Maybe you want to start your poem with that. Maybe you want to use the statistic as a descriptor: if you’re writing about birds, you could say every white crow is as smart as we are, or if you’re writing about roads, maybe we could stretch all the interstates to Jupiter and back. Essentially, these claims turn into hyperbole, which I normally eschew; but when you divorce the numbers from any emotion (“I loved her with the million vessels of my heart!”), they flatten out and become more uncertain. It will add a layer of calm to the poem if you assert these false factoids in an authoritative way, which you will need…

…because now let’s talk about the meatier lies. Come up with something truly unbelievable. It could be that the sky is actually red, that blueberries hold the secret to immortality, or that Basho actually invented the sonnet. Your goal is not necessarily to convince the reader of your lie, but just to make it sound as though you so thoroughly believe it, that it’s something inseparable from your worldview. Then, with things that are moderately plausible, support your claim. Talk about reading X or Y in a magazine, or hearing it from your cousin– even if you read no such thing and have no cousins. Describe things you’ve tried which you wouldn’t do, odd occurrences that haven’t happened, and so on. I think this is the easiest part of the piece, since we fudge little bits of truth in poems anyway. The difficulty is that the rest of them are usually real, and we’re trying to get away from that here. Pull the foundation out from under your house of lies.

So maybe you’d have something like this:

A thousand monkeys with typewriters
might come up with all the sonnets that have ever
been written: there’s one for every five people
on the Earth. The secret they don’t tell you is
how Basho came up with the first one, like a tulip bulb
planted upside-down and carried on the trade winds,
spreading in sharp iambic brushstrokes
from shore to shore.

Or perhaps:

The scientist on TV talked about how blueberries
have two hundred and twelve chemicals
that hold the cells together. And if we ate enough–
well, maybe we’d just stop aging completely.
What kind of purple-stained immortals
would we be?

There’s no reason not to be inventive and lyrical with your lies; in truth, I don’t think I’ve made mine very attractive, but this is just for example purposes. You should try to find ways to stitch these lies seamlessly together, so that at some point, you can’t tell where the biggest fibs are. Leave your reader wondering if this or that statistic or fact is actually true: the unexpected thing is that your poem is a complete lie, so they’ll think that something must surely be real. (A caveat on that: there is sci-fi and fantasy poetry out there which could be considered complete fiction as well, though it too is usually grounded in human experience. And then you have things like Jabberwocky which defy all classification. If you want to try going either of these routes, you’re welcome to, but it won’t be as fun, because your readers will figure out the jig pretty quickly. Unless you have very lenient readers.)

Finally, I’d like to suggest two additional bell-whistles. There is the fib form, named after the Fibonacci sequence, where each number is the sum of the two previous ones (0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13…), so that the poem’s lines have syllables corresponding to those numbers. (First line has one, second line has one, third line has two, etc.) I like the idea of using this form for its name’s double meaning, and writing a chute of lies with it. You can vary a little by having a moment when you reverse the sequence and decrease the syllables to the end, too; after 13 syllables, the lines usually get too long for their own good, so it’s could place to stop or switch gears.

And the other thing you can do is think about that “writers are liars” bit above, and get meta-poetic. Show complete cognizance of the fact that your poem is a liar’s paradise, under the surface of your words. I leave it to you to figure out how you might do that, since I think it will be different for each person, but draw into the open the fact that writers lie, while simultaneously lying your head off. And the skill that comes from all this is to build up the smooth transitions between truth and embellishment, without being too obvious about it– but then, I might be lying now, mightn’t I?

Cheers!

Four-Letter Word

Last night I got caught in a sudden severe thunderstorm, and was running through city streets in the rain. I forgot how unbelievably fun that can be. (Well, ok, except this one time – on my birthday some years ago, when we went in to the city to see Mirrormask - it happened, and I lost my flip-flop in a flooded intersection, and so I was sloshing through a foot of probably-typhoidic water with one shoe… that was less fun.)

Also, I recently discovered that we have roof access in our building. I sat up there a good long while (pre-storm) writing, and reading Patti Smith, and watching the sunset. Some excellent ideas in my journal.

But this one is, more or less, for Donna’s Poetry Mix Tape prompt about taking something serious, personifying it, and making it lighthearted. I didn’t get nearly as light as I thought I would – maybe it has a bit of black humor under the surface – and the metaphor is a common one (maybe I’ll follow up with a lighthearted one about trite metaphors), but I think it still works. For the last stanza, I went back and forth on the choice of “manacle” and “hand” for a good twenty minutes; I still feel like something better could have been chosen.

Four-Letter Word

We pass it back and forth like loose change,
nickels softened with caresses and bite marks
to check for silver. And I’ve done my share:

I’ve pressed it into palms and slipped it
underneath tongues, I’ve balanced it upon
closed eyelids and squirreled it away.

It’s a free market with floating currency,
and no one keeps their ledgers. After a while
you’ve committed counterfeit so many times

that you can’t tell anymore who you’ve paid
and who you owe. Every syllable with a face
stamped on the obverse, a heart on the back.

I keep my stash in a leather pouch at my hip
so I can draw out each time it was given,
flip it over my fingers for the memory

spoken in some darkened bedroom or pressed
against a nightclub wall. We decimalise,
we devalue. The market will correct itself.

Eventually, we’ll be rich as Weimar Germans
wheeling our barrows down to the river,
who takes all the four-letter words it can get:

but I’ll save just one. I’ll work it into a manacle
the perfect size to slip into the sentence, “I–
–you“, loop a hand whose shape is yet unknown.

Plea

Just an odd little one that’s been rolling around my head since the cafe last night, gathering some substance. I don’t believe what I thought would stick is what ended up in here, but that’s how these things work. Pretty much the way I was feeling in the evening, carried through into today. I’m not sure what a lot of it means; will have to step back and come have a look later on.

Plea

An aphid, one peridot pixel,
is emigrating across my knuckle on her way
from the window to the teapot. I will believe
in good omens.

Lately, it’s been impossible
to find anything calm. Water does not
sit idly in the cup; words clothe themselves
with unwanted meanings. Last night,
I scrubbed my hands until the skin went white
and cracked into desert islands
rather than give myself away.

There isn’t much I ask for:
kinship with the things that crawl,
half-light and pleasant music, something warm
that I can hold while it grows cool. I don’t miss
anything except the simple pleasures;
but I hope for the onion-skinned ones,
so complicated and so easily torn.

Bring me a lantern to see with,
a bell to speak with. Bring me the night
brimming between sealed fingers,
and drip it into my wounds.

That will be restoration and
the beginning of faith. And I will be the mirror
holding the world still. A six-legged scrap
of pine pollen gathers
intention from the isthmus of my thumb,
carries it like a charm from one place
to another. Sometimes we have to
remind ourselves.

Not everything we touch will turn
to ashes: I keep trying to cling to everything
that won’t.

With Melpomene at the Corner Table

Just an odd little one for the dVerse prompt of doing an “exile” poem, using a number of dialect words I don’t normally use, for no particular reason. I like the visual of someone practicing suicide notes at a table in a cafe, and getting fed up with the grammar of it until it just doesn’t seem worth following through anymore. (There’s a black comedy film scene in there somewhere.) Meanwhile, I finished my bartending class. Anybody want a cocktail?

Sunday evening, back to work tomorrow. Maybe I’ll just stay in tonight (at the cafe now), cruising poetry sites until I pass out (early).

With Melpomene at the Corner Table

We practice suicide notes,
balancing sentences atop their full stops
like TinkerToys,
a cage-cathedral
built to be collapsed.

The way the people queue up front,
carrying mugs and conversations in
both hands: we watch them
the way the leaf drooped from
a green stem
watches the flower, full of excuses.

Now the bin is heaped with papers
covered in scribbles and crossed-out lines,
which might seem
a good omen,
to whomever might find it.

Lacuna

I’m feeling a bit like a wobbly gyroscope lately, poetically; when I’m level, I feel level, and confident in my writing. Everything feels like it holds together and pops as it should. But then I shift and spit out some lame half-assed poem that doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional resonance and linguistic derring-do I’m looking for. (Like, not even close.) NaPoWriMo is great if you need motivation to write more, but I don’t think I need that; I need motivation to write better. I’m thinking of taking some time off from prompts, keeping my new work postings down, and just going with the flow in terms of fresh drafts.

Thinking about all of this because of this one I just trotted out for Donna‘s prompt, based off a poem by Marie Howe. Now, I know I can’t hold a candle to Marie Howe; and I know the prompt (to talk about someone deceased/lost with the lens of missed details) is a tough one; and I am fortunate to have not lost many close people. But I still feel that for the subject of this poem, I didn’t do justice to what I feel and remember and think about her passing. I don’t really know what the solution is to that, and as happens frequently, I’m caught up in this idea that by writing a lot, I’m sacrificing the potential for honest-to-goodness deep thought.

A while back I said I thought I had plateau’d with my poetry; then I distracted myself with challenges, submissions, Curio, etc. Now that thought is rolling around again, and I want to deal with it head-on this time.

Lacuna

The worst part of outlasting is that you start questioning
your own memory. Nobody tells you that: they make TV movies
about morphine drips and white-gloved doctors saying things like

you can let go now, and all the relatives under grey skies
hugging each other. I wish they talked about four or five years
down the line, when these horrible moments strike you, some

Tuesday afternoon, and you realize that you can’t remember
how tall she was, exactly, or the precise wood grain of her hair
curtaining her ears. I know one time we freestyled in the cafe,

early morning, the world still sunless; but I have forgotten all of
our rhymes. There was the summer afternoon when we poured
two cups of Burundi coffee, which we held under our noses

and in our mouths until we were sure it had been changed into
blackberry juice with some tongued alchemy; but maybe that
wasn’t her at all. Memories play tricks: it is the last thing

they do before they walk out the door. The only one that stays
burned deep in me is the photo of her car, with the windshield
viciously inhaled and scattered around the road. It prowls

through nightmares, while the rest is hearsay, half-dreamed
in watercolor. Last time I held onto a mouthful of coffee, it stayed
black and bitter; lately, all of my words have had lonely endings.

For the One Who Got Away

This is a weird little poem for Margo’s prompt, which is really 20 tiny prompts for the lines, words, and images that string together to form a poem. It ended up being a lot more dreamlike than I anticipated, but at least I managed to keep something of the emotional core, the memories, and the opinions that I wanted. Check out her site for the full list, as I’m not going to repost all 20, but for the curious: the House of Delights is not its real name (nor is Alex his real name); my pseudonym does not have a nickname; I’ve certainly never used “turpentine” in a poem, nor do I know anyone else who has; and the italics are a quote from a much funnier story that does not belong to me.

For the One Who Got Away

Every boy starts out as an unwashed stone,
and I chop splinters of fire and water to slip into them.
I want to see opal flash under their perfumed skin,
taste the sounds of beauty, all invented with
compression and the laying of hands.
But when I traveled with Alex to the House of Delights,
he didn’t bloom with colors, no matter what I tried.
We kissed in irreverent rain that ran down
like turpentine, streaking all to pieces my expectations,
another Alex (the one I’d been hoping for, the
flowering one) pooling in the drains. Our enchantment
slyly remarked, Not today, boys, not today.

The tired yolk of the Sun dripped nothing
but pessimism on the car ride home. (Another Joseph,
in the back of my mind, tore back the convertible roof
to scream bodily out onto the highway
in frustration.) I’ll remember this as the beginning of
our mosaic end, when he invites me to his wedding
and I piss in the aisle. I bear no grudges
except the ones with taproots, the eventual faux amis
heavy with venomous fruit. A rolling plum stone
gathers no moss, refuses to turn translucent with flame.
Which means: all the drawings I thought were him are
slowly and silently lining up to be erased.