The Spider

And also, a poem. DVerse wanted a “bathroom poem”, however that is to be interpreted. So I rolled with the spider theme, having seen one in the bathroom the other day; but also, another attempt to exorcise this idea of the spider as the spirit animal. I think she’s a good shape for that analytical part of ourselves that (for poets in general, maybe) takes the tragedies of others and turns them into writing, which always strikes me as callous on top of whatever other value it has (instructive, cathartic, etc.) What is the psychosis of the writer that death leads to good writing about death? What is the animal shape of that part of the spirit which simply allows itself to mourn?

I think I was also trying to do subtle things with sound, but they were so subtle they disappeared. Womp womp.

The Spider

She stares eightfold from the showerhead
before continuing her web.
A grey body skirts along blue tile.
Barring water, the little deaths
will string their constellation to the windowsill.

It can be so easy to claim kinship,
confusing webs for words,
when the epilogue belongs to someone else.
The spider is the one who dangles from it.
She is just out of reach in the totem-dream,
harbored on the underside
of the cabinet, shaded by the shelf.

Some of her outdoor cousins
are long-lived too. You’ve seen them spin
between tree branches, webs well-built
as ten o’clock fog in early June,
those scraps too stubborn to melt.


Another quick one, as I am now off for the next social extravaganzas of the evening. This is for the Poets + Writers prompt to talk about someone close to you using any of the senses except sight. There’s a ton of poems I’ve written that are sappy lovey dovey things where sight is, if in there at all, the least important of the senses. But I tried to be at least a little more complex with this one. It’s not entirely a true story, at least for me; I hope it is true enough to resonate with you.


Even after you’ve died,
there are still moments of you
scattered through the day.

The wind brings pine smoke,
someone squeezes a vanilla bean nearby,
I am frying butter and cinnamon.
Your body was the storybook
I could read with my eyes closed.

When a goldfinch tugs
scrap paper from the grass,
I feel swept up with kinship.

Occasionally the air is flat enough
that I, too, can peel loose its scent,
fold it carefully like origami.
Then I hold it to my mouth
and breathe the way I used to breathe.

Never a Boring Moment

This is for Miz Quickly‘s Wordle prompt. I recommend you head over and check it out, not only because they’re fun words to wrangle, but also because she gives some excellent advice for approaching such prompts. I won’t tell you what the words are in this one, to hold with the second of her principles (to make them seem natural), but I hope that they work, along with the sort-of-climbing rhyme scheme going on. And now one prompt done, on to the next one… it’s gonna be a good Wednesday night!

Never a Boring Moment

Each guest arrives in style
for the slab. Open them wide,
knot their veins, objects at rest
stay at rest. A heart may have
one good valve, the rivet pains
turned deadly. A heart, compressed,
yields blood money. The canals,
shocked silent, are not quite ready.
A rubber glove, a palm of honey,
a modest heart is sheet-white, quiet
for its massage, done with love
done with love, and a furious art.
Pick up. The beat. Red collage
all tissue-throb, the aftermath of
time, stood still. What a feat,
to detour death, they’ll say, awed.
What hospitable skill.
They too feel short of breath.
A nurse draws the transfer writ.
The tick-mark guest’s report
follows him out; the slack-jawed
watchers say, it was so quick,
we almost felt no doubt,
we quite forgot to pray.

White, Grey

First of two random little ones for the day… I had these grand designs to use my comparatively free evening to write and scribble away. But then, the thermometer got up to 82 (Fahrenheit, of course), and nothing I could possibly do seemed as important as going up to Central Park and lying in the grass. Which means I didn’t really have a lot of time to write, which means I’ve dashed off crummy bits of verse again, which means I’m going to just be even more aggravated with myself tomorrow. (And it will be another free, warm evening, so I might just throw in the towel.) I think what I need is a retreat, just to be locked in a room for a week with nothing but poetry.

Actually, that sounds like a good way to go crazy real quick.

This is for NaPoWriMo‘s challenge to write an ottava rima and Miz Quickly’s prompt about using the first two colors you see as the title, then writing a childhood poem keying from them. To this day, I don’t know what that white stuff was on the bird in question.

White, Grey

The broken bird lay heavy in the dirt.
A wine drop gathered in its half shut beak.
But most of it was feather-grey, inert,
and staining it, white streak upon white streak.
I wanted it to rise and stand, unhurt,
and waited– children wait– for it to speak.
We learn, when least expected, certain things:
that birds grown cold refuse to clean their wings.

Ashes, Ashes

Hanging out with Tessa on GChat before heading out to a karaoke birthday, I finally managed to squeeze this poem out like toothpaste from a tube. (So thanks to her for being my reflective surface off which to bounce ideas!) Adele Kenny had a prompt based on a Dorianne Laux poem, and since I adore Dorianne Laux, I really wanted to give it a try today; meanwhile, Miz Quickly was exhorting people yesterday to have fun with sound and internal rhyme, which made me get all Kay Ryan. (I read and re-read “Crown” and “Sharks’ Teeth” about twenty times while writing this one.) I think sound play is a direction I’ll take on a few poems this month, but specifically I wanted to do it in this one. Not that this does any justice to either wonder that is Laux or Ryan, but this is what happens when I go rampaging through my subconscious looking for the profound and sublime.

Aside from the… er, nine? I’ve posted so far this month, I have two more in reserve, and hoped to write another today to catch up with my goal of two poems per day. (Plus one prompt per day.) (Because I am an overachiever like that.) Definitely need an infusion of steam or strong drink, though. Six days down, twenty-four to go.

Ashes, Ashes

They say we’re made of
particles forged in stars,
whose suicides we lie in
the shade of. It’s like
building castles in sand:
it takes a certain art,
shaping a burst bulb
into two hands, or a heart,
that can be believed.
But the sky with all that
cat’s cradle has only room
for night’s perfection.
How could we rain down
from the Great Bear’s ladle?
Unless we are meant
to be the tomb: the lights
wearing their own ashes
bent, crooked, as crowns.


Finally! A poem! I’ve been feeling decidedly unpoetic the last week or so (not the least reason for which is that I’m trying to polish up three short stories to send to a contest; the first short stories I’ve written in, ugh, five years?), but the workshop last night did its job of jolting me back into a poetic frame of mind. Furthermore, Margo had a prompt with paintings, which I wanted to try:

This is “Crashed Aeroplane” by John Singer Sargent. Something about the men continuing to work with this crash in the background: I first thought, maybe it’s at the instant that it’s happening, then I thought, maybe it’s long after it’s happened, and the work must go on. But then I noticed the pipe in the rear figure’s mouth, and the phrase, “It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it,” popped into my head. And the rest of the extended metaphor tumbled out from there.

I tried to layer the metaphors and possible meanings pretty densely without giving too much away; I’d rather see what people get out of it. But anyway, that’s that.


The scythe-man chews his pipe as he works,
humming along with the locusts in flight.
He is all sweep and method when he comes,
sweated through his shirtsleeves. No one
ever said this would be an easy job.

Wind tonight, says the gathering-boy,
hugging the stalks to his chest, his arms
all flecked with blood. The scythe-man nods.
He looks back at the lilied house
shut up tight and wonders about the gables.

They bring quiet wherever they go, save for
the hush hush of falling timothy-grass.
A cloud-boat reopens over a golden sea gone
summer-noon green. These small disasters;
the scythe-man says one’s good as the other.

The Refinery: irene toh

Let this be the official call for Refinery submissions! After this one, the current stack is empty, unless I am just being thick-headed and missed something you asked me to look at for this little feature. And if you believe in groundhogs, there will be an early spring coming along: what better way to celebrate than by poem-revision? (As an aside: last night I took the train home from a party uptown with a couple friends-of-friends I met last night. The one was really drunk, and kept trying to ask about Punxsutawney Phil, but couldn’t get the word out correctly. We were having a mad laugh over everything from “Punky-foxy Flynn” to “Hooked-on-Phonics Bill” and everything in between, most of them too vulgar to post here.)

So, for our Refinery poem this time, we’ve got:

If I Should Have a Son” by Irene Toh

Irene is another of those poetry blog superstars, who you’ve probably crossed paths with even if you don’t think you have. Another frequent contributor to several prompt sites, she also helps run We Write Poems and provides some of those weekly writing suggestions that it’s so easy to get hooked on. In her poems, I tend to look for specificity and unique uses of language; her metaphors often come out of left field and bop you on the nose with their originality. She writes about (in my impression) family and visionary dreams most often. Here is the one she sent in, which is a good representative of her work:

When someone is filled with longing,
a moth usually flutters to land
on the palm of a pillar, and you think,
has someone died?
When Timmy died, he sent
a dragonfly, with diaphanous wings,
unfazed, seething onto
the hall’s couch. Did he remember
where he used to lay whenever
he visited us, drank his milk
listening to our laughter?

You don’t know me, my son said.
Why, because I thought you’d be better off
doing something else, than us,
and when it is turning out that
you’re no different than us,
that your path would be in words,
not numbers, that just by the smell of
ginseng, you had confirmed its root
soaked in a bottle, uncapped.

And listening to a poet’s spoken
performance this morning,
it dawned on me that your gift
had already blossomed good. All the best
speaker trophies you had brought home
from school, why, I had forgotten.
Your birth, a year later than Timmy’s,
I’d often thought as wrought in destiny.
As if for all of life’s ill uncertainties
you need an aromatic cure:
a parsnip-looking prized root.

A powerful piece, and we want to make sure the theme doesn’t get lost in the mix. I’ll start with a few issues I think Irene ought to address, and then soften the blow with some positive reinforcement. :)
– Matt Groening talks about poets needing a complex and private system of symbols, which is true; I readily admit guilt to doing this. But I don’t think it’s the system of symbols itself that causes friction, because there are several things I want to stay: the dragonfly and moth, the ginseng in a bottle, the parsnip. I don’t need to know exactly what they mean, as long as there is some context to give me a hint. The poem is very mysterious in getting the significance of those items across, though, and I’m left with questions that are valuable, but distract from the raw enjoyment of the piece. I want to know what Timmy’s relation is to the speaker; I want to know (vis-a-vis the title) whether she actually has a son or not (though I’m pretty sure it’s the latter); and I’m not sure what the “path of words” proves, or why the speaker thought her son would be “better off doing something else”. Private significance is completely acceptable, but I want to see the door cracked open a little bit wider, because I’m afraid of interpreting the poem completely wrong.
– What also comes through strongly is the narrative: the speaker has a son, there was another boy named Timmy who died, the speaker is expressing emotions about her son. But again, there are questions I want answered, because the individual elements of the narrative need connective tissue. The transition from the first to the second (and then third) stanza is abrupt, but without a payoff; Timmy comes back briefly at the end, but I’m still not sure what the context of emotions surrounding the son are. Were they best friends, were they cousins, did they look alike and love the same things? There is a sense of disconnection between the speaker and her son; how did it come about, and is there a concrete resolution to those “ill uncertainties”? The poem could use expansion, but I suspect it doesn’t need to be longer; it would suffice to replace a thing or two with a bit more exposition (which can accommodate some more of those beautiful images).
– Therefore, what to replace? As I said, there are numerous excellent moments to keep, but also a couple of things to trim. Looking through the poem, everything I can pick out is extremely delicate, and must be carefully done, like heart surgery. (Some poems, you can cut out lines wholesale, but this isn’t one of them.) That “parsnip-looking prized root” at the end, for example: I want to cut it down to “prized parsnip” (or, if it’s referring to the ginseng “prized (some adjective like knobbly or wizened) root”), and immediately stanch the blood flow with another descriptive word or two. Some of the structure, too: “And listening to a poet’s spoken / performance this morning“, I want to change to something like, “This morning I listened to a poet,” followed by a replacement second line that makes the connection to the dawning comprehension that follows. Language can almost always be pulled more taut, unless you’re doing haiku. Then you have more room to build your poem’s body.

Enough griping! Let’s talk about some of the things that I refuse to allow to change:
– As I’ve alluded to, those images! Love them. The best speaker trophies brought home from school is a nice touch, and the ginseng in the bottle is one that’s going to stick with me long after reading this one. I get a sense of the personality of the son, and it’s paired with a nice sensory image that triggers specific thoughts. The idea of that wizened root (see what I did there? I’m going to keep voting for wizened) as an aromatic cure is touching, and I want to see more of its curative properties in action with some freshly-trimmed space higher up in the poem.The moth/dragonfly pairing; priceless.
– And that first stanza. Those first four lines especially. This poem comes to the party with an immediate presence: a nice motion from the general to the specific and almost surreal, a transition from “someone” to “you”. But it begins conversational, and continues through, changing it from your story to the speaker’s story. I loved “diaphanous” and “unfazed” and “seething”; the sound of the stanza is very rich. It gets a little bit weaker near the end (I think I’d rather see it as a statement rather than a question, since it leaves just the lead-off question at the beginning, making it that much stronger), and there needs to be tightening/connection to the next stanza as I mentioned before, but otherwise: very powerful. It resonates through the rest of the poem.
– I don’t see love in here. This might be a mixed blessing for Irene and her intention, so I’m going to defend my position: to me, this is a poem about acknowledging, confronting, and minimizing the cerebral aspects of having  a child. This is not a poem about the speaker’s love for her son. We have information about this other figure who died, Timmy (unless — see below — that is another son?), plenty of uninflected comparison, and information about the son being misunderstood, being placed off because that was what the parents thought were best. (That line “I had forgotten” and “wrought in destiny”: the son just kind of happened, it seems like.) But then there is a glimmer of rediscovery at the end (which could use expanding!), because obviously the speaker loves her son. It’s a rare poem that confronts this aspect of interaction, and I think it’s brave, elegantly handled, and unique for that.

A few more random bits:
– The title is overall just confusing me too much about the nature of the people in the poem, I think.
– Tell me more about the ginseng in a bottle! I want to know more!
– A couple repetitions that I think could be excised: that “why” of surprise, the second “when” in the first stanza, the “and” at the top of the third.
– There are a couple points where the grammar seems to break a little bit, particularly in the second stanza; I’m looking for a main verb clause after that “and when”…
– Despite everything I’ve just said, don’t kill the mystery. There’s an air of peeping into someone else’s family life that demands a little bit of standoffishness from the reader. Have you read Aimee Nezhukumatathil? Several of her poems create this sense in me when she discusses her sons.

So, Irene: I hope this helped! And everyone else: I think what I’ve been leaning towards (and shamelessly stealing from Donna Vorreyer a little bit with this) is crafting a prompt based on the poem here and my reactions to it. Let’s do it in italics:

Write a poem focusing on aspects of a family relationship that are rarely discussed, which are neither positive nor negative. Obfuscate your narrative a bit with some very carefully-crafted symbols; instead of leading us by the hand or eye, try leading us by the ear or nose, but always stay just around the corner. Bonus points for kicking off with a question, rhetorical or otherwise.

Happy writing!