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.

A Kiss from Far-off Eden

Today’s Miz Quickly prompt is to do sort of a cento of eavesdropped conversation, but since I find it hard to break text out of the conversations themselves (plus the fact that brunch with my family is the narrative equivalent of two freight trains loaded with chemical fertilizer colliding), I decided to just do one of my random-wandering centi, as I am sometimes wont to do. The path just kind of unfolded delicately, and I’m not sure I have any deeper reading, but eh, it kept me occupied.

A Kiss from Far-off Eden

I know that David’s with me here again,
with our shame and bitterness. Skies ever-blue,
our right shoulders red, our wavering hips indigo–
but what does he know about inside and outside?
(I come up to him
in the land of missing pronouns,
and when it starts to get dark,
we hardly speak.)
I’d ask how such wretchedness came to cumber
all mistake. One world that shuts air into
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
whoever you are, holding me now in hand,
without you here, I’m viciously lonely.
Of all sweet passions, shame is the loveliest:
you are not me, and I am never you,
you with me, on me, in me, and you’re not.

Sources: Vachel Lindsay, “My Lady is Compared to a Young Tree”; Robert Graves, “Not Dead”; Denise Levertov, “In California During the Gulf War”; Traci Brimhall, “Our Bodies Break Light”; Li-Young Lee, “Immigrant Blues”; Galway Kinnell, “The Bear”; Marilyn Chin, “Quiet the Dog, Tether the Pony”; Alberto Blanco (trans. W.S. Merwin), “The Parakeets”; John Logan, “Three Moves”; Trumbull Stickney, “Mnemosyne”; Reginald Shepard, “Drawing from Life”; Li-Young Lee, “Eating Alone”; Walt Whitman, “Whoever You Are, Holding Me Now in Hand”; Aaron Smith, “Boston”; Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Praise of Shame”; Philip Lopate, “The Ecstasy”; Marilyn Hacker, “Coda”

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.


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!


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.

In the Beginning, There Were Only Probabilities

I guess the HIV- and AIDS-inspired poetry I heard today generated the idea for this one. Miz Quickly‘s prompt was to write about luck, good or bad, and I decided to walk the balance beam between the two. (Or, maybe one foot firmly planted in each, aha!) Rest assured: this is not a true-to-life situation, though I’m sure it could very easily happen to people. And if it ever happened to me, I definitely do not think I would be this vicious. I can equate that waiting for test results with quantum physics in the abstract; in the real world (and given this poem, what is the “real world”, anyway?), I’d be shaking right with him on those chairs.

The title is a quote by physicist Martin Rees, and I love this quote. It has the right amount of religion and science that the awe of quantum physics ought to inspire (as Niels Bohr suggested).

In the Beginning, There Were Only Probabilities

In quantum mechanics, the idea of Schrödinger’s cat
is that the cat is simultaneously alive and dead,
poisoned or irradiated in its box. And two universes
(torus-shaped, immeasurable) bleed together inside

until you open it. We are also always in two states
waiting for an outside observer to tell us
what we don’t trust ourselves to know. It’s like this:
sitting at the clinic on hard teal leatherette cushions

while the clock clicks its tongue and I am
flipping the National Geographic page by page.
You are biting your nails. In one potential universe–
and here, I can unfold a glossy chart full of graphics

to explain this– a chemical machine plays marbles
with your blood, knocks loose a few antibodies,
and the nurse’s plastic wand will come up POZ.
In the other, the inverted world you hold up

to examine in light, there’s no such things as
consequences. You don’t want to tell me which of you
forgot the condom, who was so T’d out of his mind
that even the thought of transmission was sexiled,

miserable on the stoop as mislaid ideas often are.
And that’s fine; I accept many things. For example,
in a closed system, entropy increases. Probabilities
always, eventually, add up to 1. You can tell me

he didn’t look sick, that normally you’re so careful.
Schrödinger’s cat is doomed whenever that first atom
splits, and leatherette creaks when you start
shaking, even though the room feels warm. This is

the longest twenty minutes of your life, but also
another life: one bullet-dodge, one crucifixion.
Look, the hard part is perceiving both at once.
Even our best scientists have no good explanation.

Recursion Twelve: second meander (the lorelei)

“There are two tragedies in life. One is to lose your heart’s desire. The other is to gain it.”
~ George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright and orator

I think I set a new speed record this morning: normally, I get up around 7:45, do my fairly abbreviated morning routine, and get to work at 9. But today I hit “dismiss” instead of “snooze” on my alarm, and ended up dozing until 8:37. Still made it to work on time, though, showered and groomed and bagel in hand. There’s something to be said for living two subway stops away from your job. Anyway, it’s still a dismal day out, with lots of cold and rainy grey, so I am very much looking forward to the weekend, along with all the other worker bees.

That got me thinking about the nature of desire and when it becomes an absolute need. Maybe this was a topic for before we did the waterfall bit: often desires lead to our downfall. But sometimes destruction is not so apparent, and there is a class of myths in the Indo-European realm that deal with those tempting spirits of the water. Think sirens, nixies, and (my favorite name out of all of them) the Lorelei. Water has this enchantment in it, simultaneously one of our primary needs and greatest difficulties (you can’t walk on it, you can’t breathe it, you can’t survive just by drinking it). But it’s still very beautiful and musical when it has a mind to be: no wonder there are so many myths of nymphs in rivers leading people to their doom. And these are so often parables about people allowing themselves to be victims of their own temptation; but it’s the crafty ones who get away with it. Siegfried steals the Rhine-gold, and Odysseus ties himself to the mast. In the end, the clever hero gets the best of both worlds: satisfaction, and his life. (I actually don’t know the Nibelungenlied well, but my guess is that in both cases, the ending isn’t entirely happy.)

On Monday we talked about meanders and how they drag us away, seemingly, from our purpose. At the narrowest part of the Rhine, Lorelei stands overlooking just such a bend in the river. Any mythology or audiology aside (the rock is said to “murmur”), just imagine the majesty of seeing a mountain suddenly blossom from the tree-lined gorge as you come swooping around its corner. Yesterday in turn, we discussed things rising unbidden out of nowhere, and accepting their distraction for the purposes of summoning up new material to work with. We’re going to carry on with that line of thought in process today. As always, review what you’ve been working with, any free-writes or ideas that have come up in April, and follow through on some of them to begin with. But rather than do additional free-writing about particular topics as we did with the “First Meander” prompt, make a list of twelve objects of desire (the phrase is shamelessly stolen from a Suzanne Vega album). They can be your own or someone else’s; they can be physical, abstract, common and sensual or rare and haughty.

Then, as you begin to write your poem for the day, drop one in with a mighty splash. The presence of this object should create the diversion that swoops the river away from its course. If you have a persona in the poem, how does the appearance affect whatever it is they’re doing/thinking? How does the object interact with any events, places, or other objects in the poem? Does it create a connection that enables a logical sidetrack of thought? And the Lorelei is surrounded by treacherous currents and rocks: does a note of panic, self-destruction, or careful method work its way into the poem? Allow yourself, and the poem, to resonate with that object. You can work in any of the other eleven as well: maybe the first mighty one reminds you incidentally of the others, or maybe they appear as smaller obstacles in the path. Navigate the primrose path, but be self-aware about: does it break your heart to have to carry on without these things you want? Eventually, come back to your original line of thinking, maybe a little bit wiser, maybe simply regretful like Lot’s wife (who also stood atop a mountain). If you want some added difficulties, try writing the poem as a ballad, like Heinrich Heine’s famous Lorelei poem, and/or choose objects that are normally not something to be desired (for which you have to give your reasoning in chasing them). Then, please do swing back into your normal watercourse and share!

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.