War Paint

Just saw on poets.org that Natasha Trethewey will be serving a second term as Poet Laureate! I am okay with this, because I am still not very familiar with her work, and now I will have more opportunity to become so while she is still in the spotlight. The blurb adds, “Trethewey will undertake a signature project: a regular feature on PBS NewsHour Poetry Series for which she will travel to cities and towns across the country meeting with the general public to seek out the many ways poetry lives in American communities.” Pretty cool, says I. Maybe she’ll come visit New York and I can meet her this time without getting all tongue-tied.

Meanwhile, a poem. I’ve been trying to write more and more not to prompts, instead drawing on random happenings around town, random memories and thoughts/dreams I haven’t cannibalized properly yet for material, other works stumbled across, and experiments with sound and structure. So this one was part memory, part meditation on childhood, I guess. I tried to be as deft with the subject and my opinions of it as I could, but I don’t think you have to dig very deep to unpack the full idea of it. If you have any problems, um, let me know?

War Paint

First graders under the lone mulberry tree
take up the purple berries and crush them
between thumb and forefinger, smearing pulp
beneath each eye. Cowboys and Indians,
today. These boys hollering flecked with dirt,
their women in the root-hollow, rolling pebbles
into the centers of muddy spheres.

The blacktop with its fragments of glass
stained pinkish with the sorry shit of sparrows
singing in the mulberry becomes a mesa
which becomes a battlefield. Both sides charge
and collide. Missiles exchanged.
Black and purple berries and the red clay mud
pound back and forth, while the voices reach
that child’s pitch part laugh, part scream,
and rattle the chain-link fence.

After the skirmish, their women tend wounds
with spit and mulberry leaves. Some things
are learned too late; only old medicine will do
for now. The teacher blows her whistle.
And the fathers will remember their own wars
and shudder at the same old machinery.
And the mothers will say, well, they’re just
children. Yes, they’re only children.

Symphony through a Basement Window

I have to say, I will be relieved when this month comes to an end. I just feel bled dry, creatively, right now. I’ll make it through tomorrow — I’ll get the prompt up (at some point), I’ll write a poem (maybe two), I might even hit my goal of sixty for the month — but then I am taking off for a solid five days. It doesn’t help that I feel bled dry in several other aspects of my life right now, so I think there’s got to be some slow re-accumulation. I say this every year, and never stay away for long; probably this one won’t be any different. But I think I need to start taking a more measured look at what I’m producing, how to improve it, how to find things worth saying and say them uniquely.

This one is kind of for NaPoWriMo. The five foreign words required by the prompt are in there, I promise.

Symphony through a Basement Window

There’s a woman who plays the berimbau upstairs,
scratching along with an old LP from her batizado.
The chorus bubbles out, and her voice lifts with it, starling
greeting starling. I do not think this is the same woman

who, during dinner, hurled a stack of china plates
into the airshaft as she screamed, maricón, cabrón,
the one whose husband slammed the door behind him
and let his dinner petrify on the table. And she
is not the only musician careening round the courtyard:

theremin bows awkwardly over the collapsing fence,
flickers through the screen, laced with bass guitar
like tectonic plates discussing their shift. This band
always holds parties full of hiccuping laughter
that I’m never invited to. And when the sun droops

red into the chimney, some animal, must be a dog,
wails its awful diminuendo and I want to drop everything,
climb the fire escape, come to the rescue–
but I could spend hours trying to figure out

which window to break, the building an echo chamber
drinking sound like the sea drinks a river. Sometimes
I press against the screen humming into it
so it can imbibe me, too. When the alley grows dark
and the boiler quiet, I press my head to the pillow. There,
far-off is the tempered beat of the subway buried alive,
there I am, riding it into the night.

Recursion Twenty-Seven: city by the sea ii

“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it.”
~ Zhuangzi, Chinese Taoist philosopher

Another delayed prompt, but at least I have a good reason this time (instead of being busy at work) (which, actually, I guess is also a good reason, I just loathe that it happens). My faux-niece’s first birthday party was today, and I have to say, she is quite the charming ham. Most infants-transitioning-to-toddlers are, I guess. I do take a measure of pride that aside from the kitchen playset, a part of my gift was the best-received: a purple-sequined zebra-striped fedora, which I’ve decided is her pimp hat. And we had a drum-off on the picnic table, which was pretty cool. I’m a fan of kids, and I think I’d like to have one in the future, but not for some years yet. I’m lucky enough to have seen comparatively little of all the fluids and screaming that I’m sure most child-rearing comes with…

I’ve resisted bringing in characters because I don’t like to force them into a prompt. I’m of the opinion that their voices — and certainly personae, if you decide to appropriate and speak in character voices — should happen organically, without prompting. But sometimes it’s good to consider an independent person who is some Other, some Not-You, moving within the landscape you’ve created. I keep asking people to come back and share the fruit of their labors, but of course people will paint what you write with their own meaningful brush: introducing a character helps you direct the narrative a bit better. (Of course, then readers will move up a little and paint the character him/herself with that same brush, but we do what we can.) And a city, after all, is swarming with characters for the taking. As I said yesterday, eventually they all get pulled to the banks of the river running downtown and outward, whether it be to admire, to cross, to jump, to work. Cities are defined by their active patterns of motion; a city is a flower that opens inward. If you follow the moving life, whether animal or hydrological, you find the skeleton of the place.

So let’s come back to that final watercourse again, channeled perhaps into flat-cut stone slabs or metal pipes. We will reach the sea proper tomorrow, with its harbors and piers, but for now let’s do twofold work. First, rather than pick apart the powerful theme that’s been vibrating along for the last several days, we should consider that the overall theme of this poem. I recommend using it (mine: biological process in the world) as the title, just for now, to be changed after the fact. You can keep it a bit abstract at the moment, as you do some free-writing about what that general theme means to you. Get as deep or broad as you want, but keep it short: one solid paragraph, maybe.

Then you’re going to have the casting call for other people in the poem. Try to gather ten personages, give them faces and names and brief histories (where they’re from, what they do, what physical deformities they have, what breaks their heart, etc.) You can gather these people from life, or people you pass in the street, or other literature, or just whatever comes to mind. Do the brief sketches of each, then pick a couple that keep you interested. Arrange them around the idea of the theme, and decide how they would write about it, almost as though you’re channeling for additional free-writes. How will their voices come through? Will you take them on completely, are they friends/family/enemies who will contradict or support you (in different ways), will two of them converse with each other? Will you erase direct opinion entirely, and show their thoughts and feelings through action and appearance? I leave it to you to determine how the population of this little thought-city will deal with what the city, ultimately, is known for. You may wish to place them in a situation to see how they react, or simply have them consider quietly, as you are doing for the work of the poem.

This may help you to get across to the reader more clearly what your intention is behind writing what you are writing. As readers, we search for lenses we can relate to in some way, to understand where the poet is coming from: we see how the images and thoughts are collected and distilled, but we don’t always understand the lesson or the mechanism of it. Show us and tell us in this instance, before that purest expression of the river-of-consciousness’ water is lost to the sea; let it run into the Comments box so we can read for ourselves.

New Jersey

Finally, the weekend! Guys: I needed this like you would not believe.

I finished (again) Lunch Poems on my way home, and some O’Hara — along with some Whitman and Sandburg, I guess — influenced the feel of this one. Miz Quickly’s prompt today was to observe Nature, while yesterday’s Poets and Writers was to write a letter to a landscape, which seemed to go hand-in-hand. And while I struggled with the themes all day, I realized that traveling New Jersey almost end to end was a pretty good source, so this is a little paean for the old home state. It’s kind of wonky and rambly, and doesn’t do a tenth of the justice that I’d like to, but then again, it’s only one poem, written to prompts, and it’s late. Be merciful, I beg you!

New Jersey

The length of you electrified, the breadth of you cast-iron,
mouth sunk deep into one city, tail rattled round another,
         what do you think about underneath?
Do you start with a man walking tunnels under the Hudson
to burst out into the Secaucus sunlight, slodging through
         marshwater pierced with telephone poles
whose wires dip parabolic underneath an egret’s wing?
Will he say, this is the arrowhead, flung forward, carved
         scrap of flint dipping its colonial point
into marine history, extending in a perfect line, industrial
revolution and immigrant tale, feathered with one eye
         pointed east into tomorrow’s Atlantic sun?
Who will smell salt air as the cars roam these counties
packed with fine gravel, listen to the mosquitoes buzz
         fear of the finchmouth under viaducts
crazyquilted with graffiti, buckling freight, hollowed like
a careful clay gorge? Are they women with moonscape hair,
         men with block-letter tattoos, children,
muddied and painted, roaming from stone checkerboards
onto your threadbare fields to execute the last crabapple,
         deer stalking the interstate’s shrug
to gnaw a bit of alder shoot? How do they weigh on you,
you who were always slight, the runt, the performer,
         the intense gaze, always warmer than
anyone thought, even with vertebrae all full of steel pins,
your limbs catalogued and the ospreys tagged, your feet
         shod wooden and dipped in Delaware Bay?
When spring comes fierce and yellow, dogwoods hang up
chandeliers in all your roofless parlors, and the cherries
         weep, do you tell them, this is no death,
show them a man walking tracks, a child splattered pink
and black, first tomato bloody in her teeth? Won’t new life
         wrought out of rust and broken glass,
wrung from reeds round empty factories, need a mother too?
What better land than one that sings them its similarity:
         small, wise, proud, wild, radio, radiant!

Recursion Twenty-Six: city by the sea

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
~ Norman Maclean, American short story author

Scribbling out a quick prompt while I have the chance…!

Because I assume you want to know more about my sorry little life, after a crisis of confidence in writing last night, I realized that I’d pretty much hit The Wall of NaPoWriMo. You know how runners talk about the wall, that point where your body just refuses to function any further, and even the physics of momentum/inertia seems like it can’t keep you going forward? Muscles and nerves refusing to fire, etc.? I think that about sums up how it was. (I ended up surfing the Net for 2 hours.) But I jotted off a quick rhymey ditty, went to bed, and woke up early enough this morning to treat myself to another pancake breakfast with my notebook in hand. I have to stop making a habit out of this, but at least  it got me feeling like there were things worth saying that I could say, and setting things in motion again. If you’re at that point with the month, never fear: we’re in the final stretch now.

Our river has begun its final descent to the sea. I’m a big fan of cities at river mouths, for some reason: New York, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam. And even seaside places that don’t have a major river by them: Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco. Paris and London and Montreal are all lovely, but there’s too much land around; I love a good marine vista. There’s something about allowing the water to parcel us up that has an implicit (and sometimes misplaced) trust in nature, but also an assertiveness in catching ourselves between land and sea, in the hopes of taming both. We rely on both for survival, and have managed to turn both into mechanisms of trade and development. Or maybe it’s just that now and then we need something to gaze at which is impossible to turn busy: you need a lot of ships and swimmers to make the ocean as distracting as developed earth. People can approach such a city from all directions, and so many factors come together to make them grow, sometimes more than they should, but always in a way that seems relatively effortless.

Such a metropolis is ripe with things to appropriate for poems. If you don’t live in such a place, don’t worry: our exercise today does not rely on firsthand/current experience with it. Think back to those prompts when I asked you to grow things along the edges of a river, using its water. Rather than growing, this time we are going to allow things to come to the river; and remember, the nature of the current has changed, twisted, amplified. Go out and do some gathering in your everyday: try to find twenty items for a list, be they concrete items, abstract ideas, everyday moments, unique experiences, bodily feelings, momentary emotions, or random musings. I recommend standing up and walking around (as Miz Quickly also has you doing today), through a park, a garden, or some other liminal space between the natural and the urban. See how the built collides with the unbuilt, and make note of the interactions that take place.

With that spirit held close, begin to go through your poems this week and see how they reflect the river itself, that line of theme and image that’s been increasing its velocity. Which of the items in your list will be nourished by that stream‘s water? If you noticed a man polishing hubcaps this morning, it may not fit with iconoclastic grief, but if you saw warblers tearing yesterday’s paper to shreds, that could be perfect. Let’s say that for my biological process in the world theme, I came across bees swarming around a dead pigeon, taxicabs nearly colliding, and a woman, topless, smoking on her fire escape. The middle one probably wouldn’t work very well, but the other two have potential. Explore the interaction between these found moments and the theme in question; I know we’ve been doing a lot of resonating of this kind, but my goal is that it puts you in a state of mind to perceive and be ready to investigate such correspondences. Part of the charm of poetry is its ability to pick out the unexpected meanings; part of the charm of the river-as-city-aorta is that sooner or later, everyone wanders down to see it.

And for added masochistic shiggles, if you need a particular form challenge today, it is Day 26, so… maybe try an abecedarian, where each line of the poem starts with the next letter of the alphabet. (Start with whichever letter you want, and maybe circle back to the beginning in a final, 27th line.) Then show us what you’ve got!

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.

Lunch Sonnet

I’ve been on kind of a Frank O’Hara kick lately, as I am wont to do. I feel like when spring comes, it’s much easier to keep an eye out for the strange and somewhat uneasy side of New York; the truism is that the crazies come out when it gets warm. (Even though everyone gets a little bit crazy when it’s warm.) And since I’ve been reading Lunch Poems again, and since Poets & Writers asked for sonnets yesterday, and since I did indeed eat lunch today, here is an O’Hara send-up. No, it’s not a strict sonnet, but it rhymes very nicely and Petrarchanishly, I think. You could call it semi-persona, maybe. Anyway, it was fun to write.

Lunch Sonnet

I came for peace and quiet: lunch standing up, at small round
silver tables grit with crumbs, garlic, red pepper flakes,
two slices and a Coke two seventy-five. The thick-chin boy takes
two paper plates and lifts my lunch like I am about to be crowned
street-food royalty, I am starved with thanks.
Patient standing the art student and Titus who marked his place
with bundled trash, the paranoid Honduran girl and that half-face
dogfighter with scarred dewlaps. Dissension in the goddamn ranks
when a guy cuts in front, wheelchair tires squealing
he hoists his plastic leg like a truncheon. Some fucking respect
for a Eye-rack vet he bleats and I think, just let it happen, best
avoid trouble. Peace. and. quiet. In here we’re used to feeling
lullabied by salsa radio and grill smoke, when the mood is wrecked,
when he snarls up to my table, I keep my change. I leave the rest.