renovation two: ceromancy

Well, let’s see how this second one goes, shall we?

I am now officially moved out of my apartment; the last 20 hours have been a whirlwind of trucks and storage units and bars and sleeping on couches and trains and suitcases and not-quite-tears. Mostly I’m exhausted; but not too exhausted. Which is good, because I’m treading a whole lot of garbage to stay afloat. (Not least of which are grad school applications and work things.)

Since I am not too exhausted, but dashing into Philadelphia for a bit, I thought I’d take some time to put together another prompt. It’s All Souls’ Day, which I think affected what the poetry websites I’m trawling had on tap, and combined with my grumpiness, created a morbid mood for my poem, at least. But I encourage you to break the mold and try to do something completely different. What would our world be without a bit of variety?

Here’s the list of elements this time:
1. “Smooth the few silver threads out of my hair…” (Elizabeth Akers Allen, “Rock Me to Sleep”)
2. “Have you died? Then speak.” (Katie Ford, “Speak to Us”)
3. “…all candle wax and cold water…” (me, “Fabric”)
4. an antique compass
5. Name a trick you use to get to sleep, even (or especially) when it’s noisy.
BONUS. Break the poem into three stanzas, each with two complete sentences, each sentence having a punctuation mark you haven’t used yet in the poem.
ALTERNATE (5). Name a trick you use to get yourself out of bed, even (or especially) when you really don’t want to.

And my invention for it (which is not based on anything except getting all of these, however thinly, into the poem as inspiration):

(ceromancy)

At the fair: the old fortune-teller’s tent
hangs purple and melancholy over the wet field
like some forbidding bird. She offers the usual
read your palm sir? read your cards?
but I see red candles thick as wrists dripping
into copper bowls.

Not many want the candles, she says, tips one
into the water with a withered hand.
The drippings knot into a brownish ribbon–
hard and roped like a piece of sick coral–
someone has passed recently, she says, you must
learn to move on.

I didn’t need to pay five dollars for this wisdom,
since I’ve come here (for the first time) alone.
I already know what I must do;
the question is how, when I’m so desperate,
from the sky to the mud to my rubbed-raw skin,
to think of other things.

Do your worst! Or… no, sorry, I meant the other one.

reading: william bory, “orpheus in his underwear”

Managed to get through the work week, and the impeding baby they’re expecting back home has not arrived yet, so I find myself with not much to do this weekend, and a sense of relief at that. Therefore, I am at the cafe on a Saturday morning as I am wont to be, typing merrily away. But now that I’ve wrapped up the chapbook draft, and now that workshop is over, and now that I am trying to be a little more disengaged from reliance on prompts, I feel like I’m at a bit of a loss. There are more constructive things I probably could and should be doing with my time, but I can’t seem to pull myself together in that regard. Yet I don’t feel my usual spell of aggravation and self-loathing around that inability; very curious! Must be the first day of summer keeping me going.

Ian Young sent me a copy of William Bory’s Orpheus in his Underwear a few weeks ago, which I finished recently. At different points, I’ve talked about gay poetry, my thoughts on the gay poet identity and how much of it I take on, etc.; frequently my attitude has been that I’d like to be regarded as a poet who happens to be gay, rather than the other way around. But on the occasions where I do want that aspect of my identity to come to the forefront, there are certain poets I find myself gravitating towards, more and more: Cavafy, Doty, Gunn, O’Hara. There are enough gay poets who are so focused on sex without context, shock value, and the narrative of liberated gay culture playing at depth, while I prefer the ones who apply the emotional and philosophical depth to their identity that they would to anything else cosmic. (I have a soft spot for mythological context as well, so Bory’s classical sensibilities, with Rome and Greece running strong currents through the book, appealed as well.) Maybe the majority of the audience for gay poetry feels a need to be titillated, and I’m the exception to the rule; but I feel more confident in my conviction that the audience for poetry as a whole does not need that, and I’d rather write something accessible and significant to everyone.

Enough soapboxing: the book. Sex-centric or not, you’d be hard-pressed to find gay poetry written from the mid-80s to the mid-90s that doesn’t deal with HIV and AIDS. A pre-occupation with the body and its transience recurs over and over in Bory’s book, but very rarely is it spelled out for the reader: instead, we must rely on subtleties like “bring me the hard round fruit / that knows nothing of the dead”, “the body has always been a stumbling block”, etc. (One of the exceptions is the straightforward “So, you’re infected, who isn’t?”) I did a little bit of research about the author since I had never heard of him before: and in fact he seems to have more or less disappeared from the public record. He was the partner of Charles Silverstein, he was a brilliant and well-traveled fixture of the New York gay scene in the 70s and 80s, and eventually succumbed to his illness. But as powerful as his poems are, and as close as he was to the center of the development of modern gay culture, how many people have heard of him? (The recent collection Persistent Voices by Philip Clark and David Groff contains his work, but you won’t find him at poets.org or anything.) It’s a sobering thought that a person can disappear so completely, with the integrity of their vision unrecognized, and that restless ghost hangs over the experience of reading these poems that swell with a vicious beauty.

In that sense, and in the content of the works, Bory may owe more to the French Decadents like Baudelaire and Rimbaud; as literate as he was, I’m sure he was deeply familiar with their work, and took at least some inspiration from them. But in form, they remind me more of Cavafy and Gunn (who is himself some kind of Rimbaud-Cavafy fusion, I’d wager), with very regular, song-like patterns emerging on every page. I’m not sure how early he began writing, but with the Confessional poetry movement reaching its full flower by the 70s and 80s, these poems stand as a delicious counterpoint to the often over-wrought poems of that era. The author confesses, but there is no contrition here: the feel is one of liberation, again a hallmark of the 70s. There is this awful narrative of how HIV/AIDS developed as the “punishment” for the post-Stonewall gay lib movement, and Orpheus fits into that narrative with tragic seamlessness. The poet says, “Here I am,” in all his glory, and brings us along for the ride through his own destruction. But he does it with an attention to sound, an expansive vocabulary that spans continents and religions, and a pointed reticence that neither beg sympathy nor apologize. I’ll admit that for the first few poems, I was worried I would be too distracted by the very apparent rhyme schemes and rhythmic forms, adapted from traditional ones, to appreciate the poems’ content; you know how I get with those. But soon I felt more that I was exploring an idiomatic genre of songwriting, with particular melodies suggesting themselves over and over in a minor key through the book. Very beautiful, sensual, and melancholy all at once.

I’ll trot out a few examples:

“You, runner in another race, with unflinching eye,
gaze upon them, shining from the sky.
They, who possess their visions in the dark,
turn over for you daily in the park.”
~ “Business and Pleasure”

“A red fish fucks a black fish,
as the world’s turned around,
and, suddenly, it occurs to me,
that I’m the one who’s drowned.”
~ “At Sea”

“How would you like to be stuck here,
stranded, in one of these baroque dumps,
fettered with flowers,
the sun thorny about your head,
hanging out at the crossroads?
Lord, Lord, I wouldn’t.”

~ “Manumission”

I don’t want to contribute to the mythology of the poet dying young and beautiful, because that trope has done more than enough damage already, and been debated at more length than it really ought to be. But I will say this: when a poet does find themselves dying young, I imagine there is a sense of responsibility to do so as openly and beautifully as possible. I think age brings a certain kind of wisdom, but when you don’t have that, the best you can hope for is the most artful truth you can manage before the end. Bory had a prodigious intellect to back up that fire, and if there was an element of regret or fear in his ending, it does not show through in these poems. It’s a tragedy that echoes the Greeks of whom he seems so fond: Orpheus sings his way to the underworld, and ends up with nothing to show for it except the music he leaves behind. That’s what makes the book timeless. We can all relate, more or less, to the idea of time running short, and the feeling that before the end we have to speak it all out as our last offering to the world; sometimes it’s the most intangible things that are the most memorable.

reading: bryan borland, “less fortunate pirates”

Probably my favorite thing about this time of year, aside from the, erm, fauna strolling around town, is the fact that the sun doesn’t disappear until 9:00 or so, and that dusk can last even longer. I’m sitting right now in the Starbucks on the corner (which doesn’t close until midnight: more marvels!) watching the sky over the west side of Chelsea fade cleanly from orange to dark blue, which is quite nice after getting all the usual evening errands and things done during the day. And the air outside is just the right temperature, and the rain has taken a break… this is what I call an evening well-spent.

But I don’t want to spend an evening without doing something productive, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about the other book I managed to get done over the weekend, Bryan Borland‘s Less Fortunate Pirates. I’ve known Bryan almost as long as I’ve had this blog, and he’s one of the few blogosphere people I’ve met on a few occasions in person, thanks to his frequent New York trips. I’d almost hazard that he has become better known in recent years for his spearheading of Sibling Rivalry Press, producing the magazine Assaracus, and putting Arkansas back on the poetry map (unless there’s some secret contingent of Arkansas poets I don’t know about). However, he is a fine poet in his own right as well, and his first book, My Life As Adam, makes for a scintillating debut. (And lastly, he is a Southern gentleman. Très important.)

Less Fortunate Pirates bears the subtitle, “Poets from the First Year without My Father”, so you know right away that this collection will gravitate heavily towards family, loss, and memory. I remember the hints on Bryan’s blog surround his father’s passing, but to see it articulated from so many angles and with such a deft hand deepens not only the experience of shared emotions, but also digs deep into all the other dimensions of this father figure. Elegiac poetry can function as a kind of resurrection: it’s easy to bury ourselves along with the departed, à la W.H. Auden (and don’t get me wrong, “Funeral Blues” breaks my heart every time I hear it, it just doesn’t give me any idea why I should care about its subject), and it’s hard to keep the deceased person talking, moving, having an impact on our lives. The conceit of Pirates is how it traces that exact year, chronologically, from the time of the father’s death in a car accident. I am no expert on the stages of grief, but if the cycle created here is a representative case of the complexity of emotions involved in losing a parent, then certainly there are more than five, woven together, repeated and reflected, moving between anger and denial, but also the extremes of love and dedication.

There is an aspect of automatic writing as well in here. I don’t mean in the James Merrill Ouija board kind of way, but in the sense that in several poems, the father figure seems to insert himself into moments where he would not be expected otherwise: family barbecues, meditations on business, relationship angst, etc. (Of course, there are poems overtly about death as well, but those are the ones we expect.) In my limited experience with losing loved ones, and seeing how others are affected as well, it does seem to me that one of the key elements is the way they make their presence known in the quotidian. Maybe in this sense, the book owes something to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do”; Bryan’s work also carefully blends direct address to the departed and narrative whose orbit continually brings him closer to his father’s flickering star.

And there are some cutting moments as well, when the bitterness shows through: “My friends are divided / into two camps: / those who’ve lost a parent / and those who will lose a parent,” says one poem. Another talks about the necessity of staying with a lover because they are the only one, moving forward, who will have known the absent father; I remember a friend of mine saying the same thing about her boyfriend. (Perhaps because knowing a partner’s father goes a long way to understanding that partner?) There are all the bad movie trappings happening in real life — inability to choose a headstone, “vultures” circling the widowed mother — and then the minutiae that one doesn’t think of until they arise, from dream journals to inherited joint pain. One poem in the collection has what might be the most subtle nod to the idea of death and incarnation: “The possibility of a stranger’s memory / breaking our skin / is no more unrealistic / than stigmata.” Even when the father’s presence is not spelled out, he lingers on the edge of the page.

Generally speaking, I am not a fan of “therapy poetry”, the most introverted parts of the confessional genre where people exorcise their own demons and emotions about family, love, self, et cetera. I find it difficult to relate to unless, you know, I’m the one writing it; I prefer to do poetry that’s meant to be shared. But I don’t think Pirates falls into that camp at all: rather, there is no question in the author’s mind that the father is loved and missed. There are no conflicted feelings about him as a person which need to be resolved. Rather, the questions surrounding the circumstance of his passing, the weight of What Comes Next, and the relentless sorrow under the surface like a constant beat inform the poetry in the collection. An appreciation and joy for the time that the father and son did manage to spend together darts through all of this like a web of light, holding it all together and keeping the speaker from falling apart. I don’t claim to know whether the book was written as a form of closure, an exploration of other avenues of understanding, or just a reporting of all the assorted thoughts and feelings that rose up in that year, but I think perhaps that unity, the silver lining of grief, is the most valuable takeaway from the book.

And it wouldn’t be much of a review if I didn’t include a few excerpts I found the most moving, would it?:
It is Memorial Day again. The neighbors
fly a flag from their front porch. Our family
visits, my in-laws, my mother. And it dawns
on me that I can no longer use the word 
parents
in the present tense. These are our holidays
now.
~ “Memorial Day”

I remember the time a roman candle
exploded in your hands. The blood
launched like patriotic sparks
across our paved driveway, your pain
another lesson.

~ “The Fourth of July”

I am ready, she is not, so we are not
ready. I think it is her own mortality
she cannot face, her name etched
beside his, one date known, the other,
and everything else, unknown.

~ “The Day We Do Not Choose Your Headstone”

One last note: I have not mentioned the significance of the title, because I think it’s best if you, the potential future reader, find it out on your own. I will say that it appears once near the beginning, once at the end, and its one of the sweetest father-son bonds, and ways to honor a lost father, that I can think of. And there is a lot of sweetness, humble and not over-adorned, in these pages. Someone else can judge whether it’s a suitable primer for those of us who fall into that second camp of people waiting with unmixed dread the day we’ll have a book like this to write. For me, it was a helpful prelude: not a warning, but a thorough journey through how we come out the other side all right.

The dusk has given way to night. Here’s the book’s home, if you care to purchase it. Pax!

Exterior

TGIF indeed, ladies and germs.

I’ve got this incipient cycle of poems that are for a certain persona. Not sure where it’s going to go, but I’ll probably be focused on them for the next couple of weeks, and drafting not-so-often here. (Although I said I was cutting down anyway.) And I put in for vacation from the 6th to the 15th of June (plus the weekend after, so really the 17th), which I hope will be a much-needed jolt of relaxation and time for writing. Not sure if I’m going to travel anywhere yet, but the Berkshires are looking mighty tempting if I can swing it, as is Montréal. But hell, even just reclining at home would be nice. And my sister-in-law is due in mid-June, so I’ll probably want to stay around these parts to go home for any impending becoming-an-uncle…

Speaking of having time to write, that was one of the key components in my poem for Sam Peralta’s prompt at dVerse, to write a glosa. I’ve seen this form before, but I don’t think I’ve ever tried it before: it involves taking a four-line snippet of a well-known poem, doing four ten-line stanzas off it that successively end with each of the four lines, and rhyming lines six and nine in each with the last. (Plus, tipping your hat to the poet’s style helps.) Since it’s often a tribute form, I chose a dead poet I’ve been admiring more and more lately, Jane Kenyon, and used her poem “Dutch Interiors” as the basis for mine. This character of the merchant’s wife, so cryptic yet elegant, interests me. I started thinking about what Kenyon’s personal heaven might be like, and wondered if there was an echo to be found in this poem that is ultimately a slightly cheeky take on the presence of the divine.

But, you know, just read it as you will. I wrote it as such.

Exterior

And the merchant’s wife, still
in her yellow dressing gown
at noon, dips her quill into India ink
with an air of cautious pleasure.
~ Jane Kenyon, “Dutch Interiors”

This is what comes, after:
always the sun just beyond reach,
a fat bumblebee in the blossom
gathering pollen to make time
(which will seep and slowly flow)
but too drunk. He never will.
Instead all things are frozen:
the room, the table, the water glass
forever beginning to spill,
and the merchant’s wife– still.

Far below her, the counting-houses
churn their presses, the fisherman’s
fishing, and the king is up a tree.
When you’ve no more life left,
how dazzling to see it spread out
for writing! She gazes down:
what else to do but memorize
the flicker of light on silver scales
and the color of the king’s crown
in her yellow dressing gown?

And she forgets the feel of silk
and the tumbling coin’s sonata.
Only the words, now. The words
join together in her like knots of wind
meeting overhead. Up here,
it is all the glory of watch and think,
waiting for the sun to start up again.
And she feels its wings click close
as her hymn reaches its brink
at noon, dips her quill into India ink.

The merchant’s wife, who is poised
without need, who smiles when
there’s nobody to smile at, knows
when things are too good to be true,
and when they’re just good enough.
This place: she’s taken its measure.
In other houses, other bargains:
but here she is content to be a hand
spilling its simple treasure
with an air of cautious pleasure.

Inheritance (II)

I wrote a poem called “Inheritance” a while back, so the “II” is just to distinguish the titles; and they are pretty different in feel. Again, I don’t want to talk deeply into this one, but there’s some roots and some story behind it, I suppose. The Poets and Writers prompt was to take a cliché and explore it: cleaning clocks was the main one for this, though skeletons in the closet informed it slightly as well. That’s about all I’ve got right now; have to go shake off this over-caffeination I’ve subjected myself too.

Inheritance (ii)

We stopped the grandmother clock, like you do,
catching the pendulum to still its tongue.
Then we rolled it out of the house without speaking.
Light curled on the living room’s nicotine flowers
pasted to the wall, and from the carpets
ash rose to follow us ghostly to the van, follow us
all the way home. How many years
can you let something stand silent in a corner
pretending it’s not there? It’s like those murders
nobody talks about, the body buried
not underneath a persimmon tree out back
or along the chain-link fence, but in the walls,
in a locked trunk. When a house has its whole face
removed, you must unlock all the closet doors, open
everything. The air lifts old newspapers,
hurled glass, and even things of wood and copper
bigger than sons, daughters, unmanageable things.
It takes a practiced hand to wheel a body
from place to place, and a careful one
to wipe it down, prop it up, find a whorled key
with which to wind it. Tar has beaded on the posts.
Rust in the bells. Then it sings the hour once again,
reminds us there used to be good days too, silver
and entirely happy. Everything grows tired,
even love. Still a strong hand can unbury it
seeking old music after the hour grows late,
and a steady one keeps it going, going.

Requiem for the Infected

This was a toughie to write. I think I’ll let the poem do its own thing, but it was for the NaPoWriMo prompt of writing a “valediction”, which got me thinking about some obvious paths to walk along for the theme. I had four inspirations bouncing around as well for this: Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsberg, Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come”, and Peter Campion’s “Dandelions”. I’ve just found Peter Campion, and I’m thoroughly charmed by his work, so I shall have to investigate his stuff further. In workshop, the advice we’ve been given is to find poets who we admire greatly, and trace their writing genealogy, so to speak: find who inspired them, read those poets, find who inspired them in turn, etc. A “family tree” of poetic voice.

Requiem for the Infected

O murdered youths: may they leave the light on
when you come home,
                                 all you snow-white boys,
up the back of a rainbow-scaled serpent
                        at dawn:
the key’s beneath the mat.
                                 Hide your childish toys!
The sky has been opened, and an angel comes
cruel with the sun in his mouth,
                        cold, pale, hot,
all stinking brimstone and singing,
                                        how much have you got?
                        And he shakes a wet fist,
shows a drop on one thumb.
                                        O murdered youths!
who burned with an Aztec fire,
                     who dove into lakes and pierced
                                   each other through:
how did you fall apart, waste away so young?
The salt that I shed makes a flat
                        white wire
                                        down my cheek to
my mouth, lures out a bloodstained tongue
which is incanting, forgive me!
                                        I was too afraid for you.

Still Life

See? I told you I wouldn’t be gone long.

This one is kind of morose and morbid. We Write Poems wanted a piece that took something often seen as ugly and made it beautiful; I dislike getting too macabre and melancholy (god, so many good m-adjectives) with the beautification of death, I am no Baudelaire. But this was the first thing that popped into my head. There’s a reason I think we keep coming back to tragedy in our culture, and I suppose this was an attempt to pick that apart a little bit. I promise I’ll be back to my usual cheerful observational self with the next one.

This is post 1001, which has all kinds of pleasing Scheherezade undertones. That’s it for the milestones today, though.

Still Life

He froze to death, right there, on a bench under the pine
sloping westward. Police come to Jackson Square, all black gloves
and yellow tape, searching his pockets for a name. We stare

through the iron gates, thinking, out here is all pumping blood
and carrying voices, and in there is all hush and cessation.
One of his hands claws forever at the sky. There are crystals

decorating his beard. Police sip coffee and take their notes,
and we want to peer over their shoulders. We circle. The man,
posed at every angle: accusing, forlorn, merely sleeping.

We haven’t seen him before, in that rustling coat worn colorless,
those chewed-up boots. They’ll label him Unknown, lay him out
on Hart Island in earth too solid to accept a single crocus,

despite our best intentions. He is brushed with blue.
Police refuse to tell us anything, so we detach and float,
Orphean, afraid to turn away. All art is a merciless teacher

we can’t resist. It comes suddenly: a dead man grows sculptural
and sorrowful; police murmur like flies; and we drift home,
where we will hold each other in silence by the fire.