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.

The Refinery: joseph harker(??)

Tomorrow evening the vacation begins! It is much needed, and I am hoping that it will be the appropriate balance of relaxing and productive. Donna is doing a summer residency, and I thought, I wish I could do one of those too; but then I took a page from Peter Murphy‘s book and thought, I’ll do a retreat on my own time. A writing staycation, if you will. So, it’s down to the homestead for several days, and I’m committing myself to writing time each day. Then back up to NYC for the last evening of poetry workshop on Monday. I had kicked around spending next week in Canada or New England, but the logistics ran away from me, so I think I’ll stick to the Hudson Valley if I go anywhere at all. Perhaps some city exploration and finding new venues to write will do some good for the old muse as well.

But meanwhile, I’m doing the thing I’ve threatened to do for a while, and carving myself up on the Refinery altar. I do want to spend some time editing and revising some older pieces, so I ought to get in the habit of doing it. Workshop is nice because it’s an opportunity to hear feedback on the poems you know aren’t quite right yet, but can’t put your finger on what the problem is. (I don’t habitually bring poems that I know are terrible, out of embarrassment, nor the ones that I love, for fear that they are actually terrible, too.) When you have those middle-of-the-road poems, particularly the ones that grow out of prompts, I think workshop is good practice for external critique, and a lot of the strategies people use in them can be adapted for internal as well. This one that I’m going to tear apart is one that I put down a couple weeks ago with the hunch I’d use it for this purpose, so it may look familiar:

“Heart’s Thaw”

After such a long time heartsick,
to see the birds’ northward line
and the archery of homecoming–
from the bone to the flesh grown thick
moans a green sound, the rhyme
of the body with the sky hums
vowel on drowned vowel– the signs
meaning spring and rain running
will fill each part and cavity– the sun
paints bird backs as a flame the wick,
gravity claims their upward climb–
and the flock tacks right, lowly divine
with the sleepless heart caught undone
in its wake– knotted by the quick
turn, by the art of so many dimensions
and leaves who burn with becoming.

I’m going to break from usual Refinery practice and not introduce the author because it’s, you know, me. And because it’s me, I can flesh out some of the rationale and resistance a bit more thoroughly. But otherwise, what’s bothering me about this poem is:
– In workshop, we often talk about the cry of the occasion as an essential ingredient for a poem, that is, the event/thought/image that demands a poem be sculpted around it. And I tend to get Socratic when I look for that cry, continually building question on question: why did I choose to write about this? But is it really worth writing about? Is there some element I can nail down as the compelling part? Is it really compelling? Why? And so on. I know that this was done to a WWP prompt, asking for a “body-soul Zen moment”, but the danger of prompts is that it’s a forced choice. The event in question here is seeing a flock of birds returning in the spring; is it compelling? Am I looking for something deeper than what’s there? This isn’t to say that simple observational poetry, nature poems, or basic emotional poems don’t have the value of others and shouldn’t be written, but there ought to be something damn compelling to make them pop. I’m not convincing myself that this momentary event, which (to be honest) didn’t actually impact me enough to be called a body-soul Zen moment, so the poem feels a little bit fake and lacking in depth.
– But part of that good be chalked up to the prompt itself. Remember: prompts can be cages as much as they can be foundations, and it’s good to break free of them if the poem demands it. I think I did toss aside some elements of the prompt — it was part of a longer series that I haven’t been taking part in — but not enough. If you’re going to let the poem spread its wings enough to cast off whatever prompt-egg it came from, you have to flap them hard to get those little bits of eggshell off. In workshop, we also talk about the second subject of the poem, where you have the other “what is the poem about” underneath the surface interpretation. I think that I got caught up in trying to create this mood around a one-dimensional image, and though I wanted to dig a little bit deeper, I didn’t do enough work in that regard to give the poem depth. (I was also distracted by other elements, though, which I’ll get to.) Not to toot my own horn, but this is another reason I try to give multi-faceted prompts: they force the mind to do more than one level of work, and give the poems richness. It’s a skill I’m still trying to master too, though I suspect it’s easier to be effortless about it.
– I think I was too cryptic at certain points, too. The title and the poem’s events may give some context to the emotional information in the poem, but there’s not a lot of reflection, just a raw sense of feeling X, Y, Z. Again, not to say that’s not a valuable impulse to share, but it wasn’t what I set out to write, and it feels clunky in the trappings I tried to place it in. Never leave the readers confused; tantalize, mystify, and entrance them, but don’t perplex them. How many people can honestly read the poem above and say they understood every single word and the work it was doing among the others? Because I can’t, so if you can, do fill me in!

That being said, there are some things that when I look at, I’m proud of:
– This was an image I’ve tried to get down for years without success. Although it may not be as profound as I make it out to be/felt I needed to portray, and though there’s not a lot of specifics given, I’m glad I finally wrote something about it. It was a day in spring when one of the trees outside my house was just completely chock-full of birds. They all rose at once at one point, and formed this flock that dipped and turned as one, hundreds of them, sounding like thunder. And there was nothing transformative or enlightening about it beyond the simple wonder of the power of nature. The challenge with writing about that in verse is to keep the core of the idea from being so cloaked in poetry’s devices that it gets lost.
– There really are a couple of phrases I’m really proud of, which were the genesis of the poem to begin with. I think the archery of homecoming came first, and looking back, I almost feel I wasted it on this poem; though after revising it, maybe it will become a more solid piece that I’ll be more comfortable with as a box for such phrases. And the rhyme of the body with the sky was another one I liked, though I must have re-written it twenty times trying to get the mouthfeel of it just right. The idea of tangible, primal things being vowels, and then the unexpected rhyme between them, was something that occurred to me and filled me with delight. Lastly, that knotted by the quick / turn, I knew it had to enjamb. That sudden curve of the flock was what I wanted to capture, though I’m not sure it worked out. Don’t get me wrong, there are other phrases that I think fell kind of flat, but I think those three I feel happy with.
– And of course I was trying to do kooky things with sound. In workshop, they call me a sound poet because, perhaps due to my linguistics background/day-job, I love experimenting with rhyme and meter, throwing lyrical flourishes in, creating nonce forms around internal sounds, etc. But as with all things, all poetry is a balancing act between what the poem needs and what you want the poem to have. The sound got in the way, probably, of a lot of explanation — or at least suggestion to, again, entice and entrance — that would have better served the lyric. Now, there are plenty of poems (e.e. cummings, anyone?) and songs (Sigur Ros, anyone?) that play with sound and language, and don’t concern themselves with much else, all well and good. For me, though, I like to keep that intentional, structured sonic richness in poems that have a heartbeat when I can, and it’s very delicate to get right. That being said, I do like the sounds in this one, too.

And the little nitpicks that make these Refineries so much fun:
– The middle of the poem is the weakest. I feel confident saying this.
– There seems to be some ego-deletion in the poem, on another read, which is surprising but not unwelcome.
Aunt Emily, with her hyphens and penchant for deleting function words, may have made too heavy a mark.
– I do think the poem is exactly the right length. Not too long, not too short. A haiku wouldn’t have done it justice, a sestina would have been interminable (as they often are, let’s admit).
– What was I thinking with the title? I can’t tell if it helps or harms.

Well, I have generated for myself at least some food for thought. And if the fact that I’m doing one of my own poems was too subtle a hint: send me poems! Email is best (linksfreude) (gmail) (com) (fill in the blanks), but links in the Comments box are always fine, too. If you don’t feel like sending one for revision, and would rather have a prompt, try this one on for size:

Choose a memory of yours based in sound, and write a list of beautiful, bizarre phrases to describe it: then pick your favorite. Examine the rhythm and sound of that phrase. Is it iambic, dactylic, trochaic, some mix of meters? Does it repeat consonants or vowels? Try to create some specific sound and meter rules for yourself and invent a nonce form just for this poem, based off that line. Describe the memory and what you learned from it, no more, no less; use at least one body part, one color, and no verbs with more than one syllable.

Complicated enough for you? I certainly hope so. ^_^

The Subjunctive

You know, I bet I could write a better poem called “The Subjunctive”, but at the moment, this is an exercise for NaPoWriMo (and the last!), to take a short poem we like and turn every word/phrase in it on its head. A recent find is Ada Limón’s “The Conditional”, which you can read here. I liked it as soon as I saw it, at least partially because of the grammatical reference, so I went back to it for the exercise. I think my poem is more similar than I thought it would be, even though I did my best to really alter a lot of elements. Ah well. Language, she is the universal beast.

The Subjunctive

Let yesterday tumble in.
Let the sun unfold its tropical bloom.
Let rhubarb bend with reddened youth.
Let the moon glint as a pure blue monocle.
Let the cat’s nose flare valleys.
Let snakes coldly leave no trace.
Let his cap be a velvet planting-pot.
Let me always keep on watching: the squinted
past, trickling like water on rock, always
orbiting, always changing its light.
Let me meet him again and again. Always him.
Let me waste that first forever glancing away
from each other, back to shy back, catching
a butterfly and letting it crawl the cool sea.
Let it be worth something. Let it never be
enough. Let him say he’s done: not I, buried
elsewhere, ignorant with joy.

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.

Origami

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.

Origami

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.

Karma

One more before I go make dinner and then proceed to a friend’s graduation-from-acting-school show. (I know, look at me, such the social butterfly today.) Miz Quickly is asking for sonnets. The thing with me and sonnets — and I may have given this story before — is that, back in high school (during the first era of poetry, when I was a high school poet like everyone else), I used to be part of, and eventually run, this online poetry group thing on Saturday evenings, because I was totally one of the Cool Kids. And one of the challenges we used to do was Seven-Minute Sonnets (sometimes Six-), where you were given a line/a theme/three specific words, and had that length of time to do a sonnet. So I got very practiced at doing rapid rhyme and pentameter, and when lucky, a volta (as every good sonnet should have).

The downside is that I can almost never think of a theme for sonnets. Every sonnet prompt I’ve seen is, I think, simply “write a sonnet”, because that’s usually enough. Which means I have to go hunting for ideas; I refuse, point-blank, to default to doing a love sonnet. I cruised over to Verse Daily and ended up at the Charles Simic poem “Roadside Stand”; I only read the first line before immediately rushing back to write the sonnet, after an experience from childhood I’m probably mis-remembering. The sonnet is about as regular and exactas I get with them; the narrative is pretty self-explanatory. And this is one of my rare actual narrative poems, with very little else going on it (except for maybe a too-subtle allusion here or there), so… enjoy!

Karma

My mother swings off-course and cries, fresh corn!
The sign hangs awkward, painted red and white:
she knows the market. We are sometimes born-
again to local farms, lapsed converts sworn
then swayed and swayed again. A secret right,
an unpaved road, the farmer’s gingham wife
up to our window. Taste this, have a bite–
but we crave corn. The wife sighs, money’s tight,
we had to sell. Instead, she has black plums
like far-off planets ready for the knife.
Of course, desire denied is hard-replaced:
but see the yard, the house. My mother thumbs
through dollars: we’ll make cobbler, or still-life.
The fruit is passed; my mother’s hand, embraced.

Little Kanawha River

I will say this: one of the finest compliments I’ve gotten on my work is when people say it has music in it, and sound that works. Being intensely interested in language, of course this is one of my primary concerns when writing, though the importance of curious imagery regularly competes with musicality. I don’t do persona poems easily, and even the voice that is “my own”, or at least the in-the-poem version of me, regularly gets a lot of his traits deleted. (But I don’t mind being an impersonal “me” so much; I sometimes feel it allows the reader get into the poem without being so objective that I engage in complete ego-deletion.) Nor am I a particularly issues- and message-based poet, like so much of the slam scene. I do feel like I’m paying a lot more attention to these issues than I used to, especially since the workshop began. My lines are getting shorter, my playing with internal rhymes in free verse has gotten more frequent, and I’m appreciating more and more the value of a delectable image stuck like a pin into a mass of papery stuff.

Anyway, I hope that kind of attention is clear. Sometimes I do let it fall by the wayside, but when it makes its way whole into the poems, those tend to be the pieces I feel proudest of. Poets and Writers had an interesting experiment that generated this one: pick a random spot on a map and write a poem about daybreak in that location, inventing details if necessary. Some of the long- long-time readers may recall when I took a road trip back in August 2009 with my then-boyfriend. I ended up landing near the Little Kanawha River in West Virginia; we had traveled along the full-size one, and in the afternoon, but this poem is pretty directly about that experience. Or at least, just the nature part of it, which I imagine would be like this. I left out the old mining infrastructure, the churches, the little downtowns interspersed with surprisingly modern rancher houses, the absolutely terrifying mountain roads, the power lines and deer carcasses and produce stands. That’ll be another poem; this one is just a very, very slow meditation.

I think the last full sentence of this poem might be one of my favorite things I’ve ever written.

Little Kanawha River

Nothing green is hurried,
whether the beech tree
crinkling summer leaves, or
each drink of mountain streams
married to the sudden bend
tacked with fog and rippling
dark from the coal seam.
But nothing green is hurried,
rivers older than mountains
least of all. Crows call
the fountain springs at dawn,
we are pleased to hear,
water is cello music
to two sleepless boys who
half-blind pull trousers on,
it’s creeping close to the ear–
but none of this is hurried.
We are heading east
past the charm of the falls
waiting for the sun’s burst
over canyon walls, the road
worn and warm and moss-crazed.
The stars must conquer
mountains, too. And always
they do; it just takes longer,
here. The land waits for light
with its walker to draw near,
meanwhile the days grow green,
everything moving through
unbanished green, our talk
tired and ready to turn
to love colored that grey
that is green slowly won,
last seen in ageless country,
always half-done– never hurried.