renovation fourteen: lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932

Maybe you know this famous photo by Charles Ebbets?:

If not, this is from the middle of the Great Depression, as the GE Building (now more popularly known, maybe, as “30 Rock”) was being built. There’s something strange and poignant about all this New York Deco history happening in the middle of economic disaster. Probably the starkest example of this, in this photo at least, is the fact that these are men eating lunch (actually, posed to eat lunch) nearly 1000 feet above the ground, with no safety harnesses. The pulley in the foreground caught my attention, as did the man on the far right, who does not appear to share the camaraderie of the others. Since this was the prompt list I put together…

1. “…understanding what touch meant / for the first time…” (Roger Bonair-Agard, “Because I cannot remember my first kiss”)
2. “The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.” (Stephen Spender, “The Truly Great”)
3. “I bled sweetness across the outside of my teeth.” (me, “Treasure Hunt”)
4. an artistic photograph of something mundane
5. Give an example of the usefulness of a simple machine.
BONUS. Give your poem a prime number of lines (prime numbers being those that can only be divided by themselves and 1, such as 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, etc.)
ALTERNATE (2). “We pretended to know nothing about it.” (Cleopatra Mathis, “Dead Fox”)

…I thought of the photo pretty quickly, and the poem grew from there. There’s probably a lot more to be written just from this photo (and indeed there’s even a documentary about it, particularly about how nobody knows the identities of these men for certain), but this will have to do for now.

(lunch atop a skyscraper, 1932)

The man on the end frowns at the camera
while the rest pass cigarettes, discuss baseball,
trade gristle and hard-boiled eggs for red apples.
He drinks his lunch from a half-empty flask
to take the edge off, to help him forget that he is
one sharp breeze away from death.
Most builders have forgotten to envy the beam,
held in its web of pulley and rope, except this
scowling man pulling a rosary around the hand
tucked in his pocket. Life has gotten
so cheap these days. He, at least, is still
not ready to give up on it, even when shivering
on the bread line, or riveting these new cathedrals.
Or even now, when the bosses tell their men,
walk out on that girder– sit– smile for the camera–
and he does not smile. Tenacious as a bull.
Staring at the crowd who waits for him to fall.

Where Were You When

Y’all know that I don’t really get political on here too much, or break out of the personal/observational very often into the “real world”. But We Write Poems is asking for poems that show our age, and this is one interpretation (the generational one, I suppose) on that theme. Probably there will be others. I don’t know that there’s anything deep and significant to this piece, except that it’s more of a general musing about the question being asked, removed (at least partially) from any specific moment. I have my specifics, and you all have yours. I hope at least that it’s relatable.

Where Were You When

It’s that Question you can only whisper at first,
afraid to be overheard. At least for a while. Then, years later,
when you’re shouting over the dive-bar din, clinking glasses,
shoving shoulders, or on the street hailing a cab, or summer,
smoking grass behind someone’s too-good-to-be-true apartment,
it breaks through. It cracks open that dam of silence.
My father talks about Kennedy and Woodstock and the moon
at arm’s length, remembering when they first started out
brilliant as the sun, spangled into our national narrative
and too dangerous to look at directly. For me,
it was to see two aluminum eagles drunk and stupid
plunge into the towers with terrible speed. All of us
glued to the TV set, watching again and again, too close
but not quite close enough, too old to be innocent
and too young to do anything that could make the world right.
The Question is not meant for the people caught in the spotlight.
But we all need to feel like part of something greater.
This tapestry in every color, knotted at one end to each tragedy
and flashbulb of wonder, we build with constant weaving.
It becomes a hood to ease the night. Or a banner to wave.
Or a blanket for the dead of winter, which we stretch
over ourselves, over candlelight and hushed love,
each of us there for our own reasons, but still there,
picking out the threads which are familiar and tracing them
to find the points where we cling together.

reading: collin kelley, “render”

A few days into the vacation, and things are drifting along nicely. I haven’t gotten done quite as much as I’d like, but I’m trying not to beat myself up about it: just as important as the daily writing/reading I want to do is the daily time to do Absolutely Nothing. Seriously, there have been a couple points where I just lay there not moving, almost like one of these “nap” things I’ve heard about, except I think you have to be asleep for those. But at least I’ve done one draft per day so far, and seen groups of family/friends as well, which is nice. The late morning Starbucks crew has become very familiar with my presence.

So, on the train home, I finally had the wherewithal to get through the rest of Collin Kelley’s collection Render, which I picked up at the Rainbow Book Fair and have been too busy to just finish. (You may have seen one of the poems from this collection on Verse Daily a month ago, “To Margot Kidder, With Love”, a poem that I think typifies the book.) Collin himself is also very pleasant in person (and was kind enough to sign my book!), as well as a prolific Tweeter, holding monthly “poet parties”. You can check out his blog here: http://collinkelley.blogspot.com/.

I mentioned before (I think when talking about Jessie Carty’s chapbook, An Amateur Marriage) that it can be a challenge for the poet to carry over a particular point of view to the reader. There are confessional poems, dialogic poems, nature poems, universal poems, each of which pushes further and further out from the first person, and to relate intense, specific personal experiences in a compelling fashion can be much harder than making sweeping statements about the cosmos. Render rides (sometimes openly, sometimes coyly) on an extended metaphor of snapshots from the author’s life, starting not long after birth and carrying right up to the present. But many of the poems (I’d say the majority; I haven’t counted up) weave pop culture and geography particular to a time and place into the biography, creating a necklace of touchstones that different readers will react to. The casual references to World’s Fairs, Blondie, and Steel Magnolias are all historical reference to me, and some like Helen Keller’s house or Antietam are historical to everybody; but Star Wars, Star Trek, and Hanna-Barbera are timeless. The book is rich with an entire vocabulary of wholly American allusion, from “Zapruder-style” to “JC Penney knock-offs”; I doubt any one reader will have the exact same nostalgic resonance with the proper noun buffet.

It’s an interesting conceit that lends uniqueness to the author’s voice, but blended with that are situations and themes which are wholly familiar like discovering sexuality, parental friction, and family road trips. (I enjoyed the Civil War references peppered throughout, because I remember well when we drove out to Gettysburg when I was a kid. I thought it was just about the most boring thing I’d ever done.) The effect is what you would expect from a chain of snapshots arranged on a darkroom line: each square holds a few bits of information that are apparent or easily deduced, but it takes the subject (and/or photographer) to give the proper context that we can all relate to. Kelley also is fantastically raw and open about his past, in a way that, if it’s invented at all, does not sound forced or embellished, and doesn’t make the reader feel like a voyeur. It takes a great deal of courage to admit to locker-room goings-on, and a bold self-awareness to reconstruct and analyze memories of a mother’s affair, or beginning to take on gay identity. Too many poets (guilty!) veil their admissions with impenetrable metaphors.

What distinguishes this book from “confessional” poetry is the tone, in my opinion: there are no coming-to-grips moments or re-discovering trauma that you see in therapy poetry. The author has no illusions about the past, and is thoughtful with his analysis of its effects on him. A helpful trick for writing poems of this sort might be to try replacing “I” with “you” or “s/he”, to see whether the autobiographical has the same power when applied like a sticker to the reader, or some absent person. It’s a balancing act: you don’t want to be unfaithful to the stories you’re trying to tell, but you also don’t want to get so caught up in your own experience of them that they become impossible to relate to in the way you’d like the reader to. The poet must be a chameleon: subtle, even mythological, able to change colors and patterns to suit the observer, but still ultimately a lizard. Render is instructive to the poet who wishes to find that balance. The poem about visiting Helen Keller’s house features see-saws as a metaphor, and I’d carry that over into the process of crafting each Polaroid poem of this sort: on the one side, you must remain wholly yourself. On the other, you stack details (the pop culture references, the historical timeline framework, the hints of teasing apart an event to get to its emotional core) until you reach equilibrium. Of course not every poem will succeed in this, but when you average them out — and this applies to Render – the whole becomes a clear portrait.

Overall, the book reminds me of one of those portraits of faces that is made up of other, miniature portraits of faces. And I could talk further about the whole construct, but I want to share snippets from what are probably my three favorite components of the collection:

“She likes long hauls, seeing the world, while my mother turns bitter and adulterous, no sizzle in the bacon my father brings home. I stay up all night to watch Blondie on the Midnight Special, learn Debbie’s shawl dance with a ripped bed sheet, purloined heels, face smeared with lipstick, sucking a candy cigarette, Mother’s whereabouts unknown.”
- “Parallel Lines”

“Before you made me a witch,
got forced in the basement to pray,
your mother stripping you, whipping you
with a belt in those sure Jesus strokes,
you kissed me once in the backseat,
crouched low, out of my dad’s line of sight
in the rearview mirror.”
- “Ian”

“I say, cut the parlor tricks, Mary.
If you want a little respect, come flaming
out of the sky on a thunder cloud,
ride it like a magic carpet over Middle America…”
- “The Virgin Mary Appears in a Highway Underpass”

I think there’s a great deal of Whitman-heritage in the book to be admired: there is an honest, American, passionate voice ringing through the pages. If you’re a fan of that poetry which captures the everyday cultural, the immediately historical, and the familiar emotional, you ought to enjoy this one. Do get thee over to Sibling Rivalry Press and acquire yourself a copy, if my chat about the collection has inspired you enough. And then come back in the near future! I’ve been reading a furious pace, and I’m eager to share, you guys.

Triolet and Cascade in a Hanging Garden

I had the writer/artist salon tonight, which was nice; we ended up playing with duct tape and talking this-and-that. I don’t know what I’ll do once the poetry workshop ends in six weeks (although there may be another in the fall I can hop in), but I hope the salon will keep the social side of me going. Either that or I’ll have to find some kind of group to get involved with that appeals to my sensibilities and isn’t too bitchy.

As I (just!) remarked on Facebook(!), I keep finding myself drawn to the persona of Amytis, Nebuchadnezzar’s wife for whom the Hanging Gardens were supposedly built. A quick rundown of the appealing bits: she was a Persian queen married to a Babylonian king for political reasons (and quite late in her life, apparently), she moved from a wild mountainous place to hot plains slowly becoming desert, and she struggled with that homesickness. But then, he must have loved her, to build her this massive reminder of her homeland; and then, she (and the gardens) might be totally mythological, combined with all the other mythology/history surrounding Babylon/Persia, Iraq/Iran. On top of that you have all this potential for the lush descriptions of nature and class politics of absolute religious monarchy. I don’t know if this will turn into anything substantial (like Donna‘s Pioneer Woman), but hey, I’ll roll with it for now.

Also, this is for both the NaPoWriMo and Miz Quickly prompts, both of whom asked for repeating forms. Ugh, at least I got one in before bed.

Triolet and Cascade in a Hanging Garden

The servants turning water screws
discuss me and my wedding-gift.
Who spawned this dismal woman?, muse
the servants. Turning water-screws
makes bitter work. I didn’t choose
this waste, this continental drift.
You servants turning water screws,
discuss me. I’m the wedding-gift.

The queen is softly weeping in the garden,
not from sorrow, but from that barren species of joy
full of mirage. And still she must love it:

a river is made to bleed up into the temple to water
her memory-land carried as dowry. So who knows why
the queen is softly weeping in the garden?

Persian grass and mountain pinks beard comets
down the walls. She breathes air sweet and heavy
not from sorrow, but from that barren species of joy

that knows at last the truth of things. Cities are prisons:
this beloved hill hides mechanics, its petty desert
full of mirage. And still: she must love it.

Vädersolstavlan

Another Miz Quickly prompt! (The rain has picked up considerably, and I am finished with dinner and all, so there is really nothing more to do tonight except writing poems and some freelance translation; I’ll be up a while anyway.) Yesterday’s was to pick a day in history and key off that for a poem. There were a couple options, spread over April 18, 19, and 20 (since it’s already April 20 everywhere east of here), but I settled on the Sun Dog Phenomenon of 1535 (thanks Wikipedia) over Stockholm. It was the inspiration for the famous, apparently “Swedish pride” kind of painting whose title this poem has borrowed. See below:

Pretty beautiful, no? Look at all them little sundogs and parhelia! And since the 1500s were a good time for seeing meaning in astronomical events, I thought I’d do a cute little paean to the painting and the nation of Sweden, as it’s a pretty cool nation. Well, most of the time. I’m sure some others might disagree.

Vädersolstavlan

After the birth of a city
comes the idea of the city

gloried like a construct saint:
miracle of the raised beam,

miracle of the placed stone.
And good as any flag comes

this vision of a ringing sun,
as if it were a great bell tone

and the city the echo
upon echo, all the sun’s noise

rippling around a hopeful bay.
The idea drinks, takes root:

miracle of a nation
spoken into one place.

Courtyard with Statue of Maimonides

I’m sitting at the cafe listening to Joanna Newsom’s Ys (which I’ve heartily recommended on here before, and do so happily again), drinking an iced honey-nut latte as I wait for the place to close and the expected severe thunderstorms roll in, with a fresh new poem draft hot out of the oven for consumption by any who are interested in that sort of thing (as well as interested in the prompt by Miz Quickly to do a “postcard poem”) on an evening — like any other evening — that needs a reminder of how we’ve come from righteous, charitable places in our history, and there is hope for us yet.

Sorry, I just wanted to write a 100-word sentence. Anyway, this might be a bit long for a postcard poem, but I write small anyway. I took this photo in Córdoba:

maimonides

That’s Maimonides, celebrated medieval Jewish philosopher and physician. I remember exploring the city and being surprised, but happy, to come across it. Andalucía is one of my favorite places in the world; it’s on the shortlist of “Places To Which I’d Happily Retire, Or At Least Live Awhile”, along with Barcelona, Paris, the Berkshires, Montreal, and Buenos Aires. (Maybe not such a shortlist.) And I love elements of the history, with a level of religious and intellectual enlightenment that, although spotty, was still probably more agreeable than anywhere else in the medieval era. Maimonides himself had some pretty cool ideas about the balance between science and faith, respect between mutual faiths, and compassion in law. I wish more people had those ideas.

There might be more going on in this poem under the surface. I’m not really sure.

Courtyard with Statue of Maimonides

who considers forever before he speaks,
(bronze lips pursed, bronze brow furrowed)
here where he sprouted
like the almond shoot shouldering up
between mud bricks, in that far-off century
where everyone thanks god
for the blessing of each other in the street
no matter the name, strolling along
the nearby Guadalquivir who,
if you face upstream, back to the wind,
seems just as content to flow backwards
as it is to go down to that equitable sea
where all things, anyway, end.

On This Day in History:

I am so excited! Why, you might ask? Because today, as it turns out, is First Thunder, which is up in my top ten holidays, along with several others that don’t exist widely (such as First Snow, Mad Hatter Day, and Slutty New Outfit Day). We just had a line of severe thunderstorms roll through, which directly inspired this poem; the other inspiration was seeing on Wikipedia that it’s been (nearly) two hundred years to the day that Mount Tambora erupted in Indonesia. And since I’ve never been there, I folded in the Miz Quickly prompt about doing a poem that includes sensory description for three places: one you’ve never been, one you’re familiar with, and one that’s imaginary. I’ve been wrestling with this prompt for days, and I’m not entirely thrilled with this expression of it, but I think it works in other ways. Plus, I haven’t done blank verse in a little while, so it was a nice iambic stretch.

On This Day in History:

A mountain burst in Indonesia.
The sappanwoods fell bloody, slumped with ash,
while thunder drowned an empire. Summer fled–
but Earth spun on. Remember, says the mind,
desires are built from moments yet unseen
(until they are) and cautionary tales.
Some other mountaintop when we were young
once told the speechless, feel this shaking clay,
come smell the fallen magnolia tree. That’s where
our history begins. And ever since,
we wait for things we’ve missed to swing around
again, diminished, so we’ll have some right
to tell it too, crave mountains but accept
the hills. In cities we still listen for
some noise grown from all noise: a thunder vowel,
an abalone light. You know it. Yes, it’s in
those moments beating with a borrowed heart
hid underneath the hailstones. Drawing blood
that is (you feel it too?) a borrowed blood.

Gauguin’s Washerwomen

One more before I quit the café, seeing as they close in twenty minutes, and I need to cook myself some wholesome food. Poets and Writers has some good-looking prompts this month, and as I am a subscriber and everything, I thought I’d give their ekphrastic prompt a try (from Day 2). The suggestion was to go to the MoMa website, where I found the Gauguin painting referenced in the title:

At the workshop on Monday, I brought an ekphrastic poem, and I do want to share a few musings that came up in that discussion. First and foremost, it is terribly important to move outside the frame of the painting; the poem should stand on its own. Pretend that the person has no way of seeing the painting, or even the title, for a clue. If you’re too focused on the images and things going on in the image, you may lose some of the power, and an ekphrastic poem should never diminish a poem’s power, only enhance or at least complement it. Secondmost, do this as soon as possible within the poem! In this piece, I got a little bit meta, talking about the artist as much as the poem itself, and the importance of both, which may not have been the best tack. Do what you have to do to immediately indicate to the reader that this is a poem about the poet considering art, not necessarily a narrative or exploration inside the painting itself. (You can do that too, but they tend to be more peculiar than the former.) And lastly, any references you do make to what’s inside the frame should be as universal as possible. Therefore, this poem ended up being a praise poem about ladies! And not in a romantic or objectifying way, or at least, I hope it doesn’t come across that way: it’s half a blazon-poem for the mothers (and I suppose wives), sisters, aunts, grandmothers, etc., without whom (and without whose Herculean efforts) none of us would be here.

Perhaps you would like to try this prompt as well…?

Gauguin’s Washerwomen

Praise be to the ones who take us, lightly,
by the chin, and turn our heads around
to see the history of labor laid out in our wake.
Praise be to those languages where machine
is a feminine noun, worn through as it is
with a thousand thousand pairs of careful arms
so used to the weight of a child and hands
that have memorized every inch of every home:
praise be to the ones who show us that.
Praise be to a woman’s work, which is never
finished, and to a woman’s strength, and to
the life-weavers whose names and faces
we cannot know, without whose loving patience
we would not exist to praise them now.
Praise be to the tired back and stooped neck.
Praise be to the ones who hold us
around the shoulders as they lay the angles
over each crooked bone, saying, look,
this is what you are the fortunate heirs to.
Praise be to the parade of history; praise be
to those who peel off hay-green squares of it
thin as gold leaf, slowing down time enough
for water to turn to stone and grow moss
as the first crisp of autumn forever folds
a woman’s apron into pleats, then lift the whole
river with its line of women and write on a wall
with a language that is all color: praise,
praise, praise.

A Warm Day on Titan

This wasn’t at all the poem I set out to write, but there you go. It started with this idea of science and religion, and turned into some thoughts on a Wiki article I stumbled across about the theory of ancient astronauts, and some notes were taken for it on a train ride, and… well, it just went bonkers from there. In workshop, our moderator often writes these rambling musings, so some of that style got in there too, but I wasn’t sure what to do with this one. So I’m just going to pitch it up here unaltered and see what happens.

A Warm Day on Titan

I was reading about the theory of ancient astronauts:
how our human ingenuity was not enough for fire-making,
or Great Pyramids, or the invention of gods– and so some
figures must have descended like Prometheus, all light,
to prick us in the consciousness. And maybe an old priest
came up from Thebes, climbed to meet the travelers

who told him (like I-AM to Moses) how Venus, the traveler
star of the evening, was sulfuric, molten, any astronauts
foolish enough to land killed instantly. Then from the priest
spread an idea of Hell along the red Nile and beyond, making
its miserable rounds. I don’t know if I believe it. If the light
switches off, and I’m only left with terror, maybe. Some

familiar bell is rung. But here’s what I wonder: would some
other extraterrestrials have first granted them that traveler’s
spirit? When faced with the impossible, do they make light
of it, say, “it’ll be a cold day on Venus,” forgetting astronauts
crushed to death before them? Here’s the point I’m making:
there is a place for the scientist, and a place for the priest,

and I don’t think you can do without either. In Babylon, “priest”
meant “king”; it follows that the analytical mind rules in some
inverted place. And we’re abandoned in between, making
do with half-stories, half-logic. We’re the worst sort of travelers:
Orphean, necks twisted. We could be the ancient astronauts
to someone else, explaining the truths and mechanics of light

with mythology. (The Eagle Nebula’s Virgin and her light-
year Child; Orion buckling a blue-white belt.) We’re high priests
of the full circle. But I’m telling you this, not some astronaut,
because I’m on a train feeling earthbound, seeking some
capacity for kinship. This is the curse of everyday travelers:
to always be dissatisfied, the drab surroundings making

you wish for some magic. Leaving Secaucus, we’re making
slow time past graffiti levees, brown marshes decaying light.
Can you blame me for dreaming? And my fellow travelers
stare unsatisfied out the windows, too, each one a priest
given the chance. Me, I’d preach the moon called Titan (some
ancient giant), orbiting Saturn, where (according to astronauts)

oceans of ethane boil cold. I’d get there uncertain, priest
making science out of legend-names, traveler carving religion
from light. Some astronaut! But being what we are– I could do
no less.

Whitman’s Kiss

I don’t read enough Whitman. I know there’s a copy of Leaves of Grass at the old homestead somewhere, I just have never gotten around to sitting down and reading the whole thing. Maybe that will be an April goal. But I have read my fair share of Whitman, and I do have that note of South Jersey/Manhattan Whitman pride. DVerse wanted to hear about people we’d like to meet, and I would absolutely love to have met Whitman. Relatively little of that has to do with his status of Great American Poet (for I can think of few contenders for the title), but rather because his verse is just so ecstatic and liberated and self-aware without being self-conscious. This poem keyed a little bit off “I Sing the Body Electric”, but mostly it’s just a little dash of exuberance about the man and his work; I could keep going on this all night, though I think it’s best to quit the poem before too long.

Whitman’s Kiss

We would be breathing the dust of an unpaved street
deep in the ventricles of the Village, those New York parts
pumping city traffic north-south, heady, honeyed, dazed;
for this would be Walt Whitman of Manhattan and
not the shy Long Island boy smoldering with pale light
or the Prince of Camden ragged-breathed by a slow river.
This is that nameless Whitman from the engraving
where at one angle he looks ready to rip off his shirt
and pop off trouser buttons one by one, perfectly lithe,
tanned, bit of grey, and yet from another angle
considering something just over your shoulder, head tilted,
eyebrow raised, deciding on the right thing to say.
He is half pornographer and half philosopher, thatched
but polished, and we would hang from the iron railings
still steaming from summer rain as he describes
muscles releasing under crinoline or gingham
easy as syllables, pointing out every twitch and holler,
movement language multiplied ten thousandfold.
This is that certain Whitman bursting from his upbringing
as the first crocus does from its snow-covered bud,
all hymn and wonder, the wildfire crying for peace! peace!
and the masculine soil praising love, the blood delta
swimming with bardic ancestry, anatomist practiced
in descending the marvelous body as a drop of water.
Here, he would say, feel my smoothness and my
careful percolation, how I can work my way into each
hairsbreadth, each capillary, and see, how underneath
the earthy flesh grows so narrow that it turns to fire;
and I say, yes, it’s like touching a battery to your tongue,
it’s like singing an unknotted firework, at last, at last.