meta-blogging: april’s end

All right, time for the count:

– 35 poems for Big Tent Poetry (seven prompts each week for five weeks, compressed into the April time frame)
– 34 poems at Poetic Asides (one for each day, plus an extra one each Tuesday)
– 5 poems for One Single Impression (every Saturday/Sunday)
– 3 poems for We Write Poems (sorry I missed a week in there!)
– 2 reviews of the books I’m giving away (even if I just wrote one of them)
– probably a publication or two I forgot about… I didn’t send anything in this month, but I know I had at least one pending for April and one for May

I’m a little bit disappointed in myself that I didn’t circulate in the blogosphere as much as I wanted to, and that I still have this big ol’ stack of books I want to really sit down and take time to review. But the other aspect to April is that (if you hadn’t gleaned this already), I am finishing my master’s degree… well, tomorrow actually. I put together a conference in the middle of the month and simultaneously wrote a master’s thesis of 60-ish pages, which is what I’m presenting tomorrow. Add to that the pressure of a job search for when I’m really and truly done, plus the job I’m currently working… so maybe I’m not that disappointed, it still turned out all right. :) Sheesh, I don’t know what I’m going to do without the frenzy of ten things at once.

Still haven’t accomplished my poetry resolutions, but now that the degree is done, I can redouble my efforts once again. (Though, finding a steady job may have to come first. Anybody looking to hire linguists from prestigious universities?) One thing I can do, though, is get around to the book giveaway! Judging by the number of comments on the original post (not counting pingbacks and my own), it looks like there are twenty-one people in the running. So, using the handy-dandy random number generator Kelly provided…

…it looks like Nancy Lili of The Monster’s Flashlight gets a copy of Carol Ann Duffy’s Selling Manhattan! Congrats! And then, for the second offering…

…apparently Risa of Risa’s pieces will be receiving John Ashbery’s Girls on the Run! Further congrats! I will either leave comments on blogs or send emails (or hell, both if that works) to get in touch with you both if I don’t hear from you first, so that I can get these things off my shelf. :)

So after 30 days of free verse and sonnets, terzanelles and Sapphic odes, sestinas and shadormas, haiku and tanka and couplets and quatrains and roundels and whatever else about love, sex, magic, death, sweetness, bitterness, bittersweetness, tragedy, comedy, confusion and chaos and order and nature and religion and everything in between all of those… thus endeth NaPoWriMo 2011. I am looking forward to what the next month will bring, because if nothing else, I expect it to be a meandering stream compared with the torrents of April. But I hope that everyone will keep up the pace and stay active as much as they can. See y’all around, and enjoy your May Day*!

(* May 1st, that is. Not like the Bond villain played by Grace Jones. Yikes.)

meta-blogging: john ashbery, “girls on the run”

Technically it’s after NaPoWriMo now, and I am super delayed in writing up this review, but I figured it was better to have it a bit late than to not have it at all. This is the second book that I am giving away for Kelli Russell Agodon‘s book giveaway (stay tuned for my winners drawing!), and even if you don’t get it, it would be a wise idea to check out the collection. Let me explain why:

John Ashbery is already a master at taking on and off personas like they were suits of clothing. He flows through voices effortlessly, and nowhere does that come through more clearly (at least, not that I’ve seen) than in Girls on the Run. There are shifts of character from line to line, sometimes even within the same one, and very often without any warning at all. It creates a very dissociative clamor that is held together by its unity of the overall “story”: an adaptation/interpretation/re-imagining of Henry Darger’s “Vivian Girls”. (If you’re not familiar with Darger’s work, I recommend reading some of his Wiki article just to get a sense of this fascinating man.) While the original work was a mammoth piece of outsider visual art, Ashbery translates the images (I suppose you could call Darger’s work one of the original graphic novels) into poetry.

You won’t be able to get a sense of the original story (a complex fantasy epic involving kidnapping, child slavery, and overcoming alien tormentors for the sake of Christianity, etc.) from Ashbery’s words alone, though there are clear echoes of it. What comes through best is the desperate and chaotic mood, both within the story and without. Henry himself shows up as a voice from time to time, a bit reluctantly, as though he’s aware of the authorial power he wields and yet is carried along by it as surely as the disasters and misfortunes he concocts for his heroines. Ashbery the author becomes a reflection of that, channeling this stream of consciousness (really, a friggin’ Amazon of consciousness), and the girls with their many companions flit and out of the narrative. And despite all appearances, it is a narrative, albeit one without a discernible beginning, end, or middle.

The poet’s language is always something to be recommended, but he allows himself to become truly unrestrained here. Lines run on and break in half, thoughts are abandoned mid-sentence when more urgent thoughts come along, and references are made assuming the reader is perfectly familiar with everything that has come before (and after). Little gems like “are we not shipshape entities?” pop in. (I’ve tossed a couple excerpts in below for a better sense.) Adventure and maturity and sexuality and tragedy mix freely. One theme that comes through repeatedly is being washed over, overwhelmed, covered, drowned, sometimes literally, sometimes not, but always in a way that makes me think of Darger’s impressive but pitiable condition. He obsessed over his work for decades, always adding, never able to stop; the story itself took control and refused to let him breathe. I wonder if Ashbery is trying to create the same effect, as though the reader is not permitted to come up for air in the midst of all this (beautiful, lyrical) confusion. Whatever the intention, every verb and adjective and noun sings from the page, and there is always some new vision with every stanza.

Ashbery subtitled his work “A Poem”, though there are twenty-one discrete sections. (I haven’t tried pinning a tarot card to each one yet, but it might be an interesting experiment.) Within each section there are sub-sections and individual stanzas and lines standing alone. The effect is like a jigsaw puzzle: but when you’ve finished, and put all those pieces together, it doesn’t give you a complete picture. As with the front cover, you only have a sense of what’s going on, only one chunk of the story, yet you suspect there is something much more massive outside the borders. And when you do finally float your way out, I can’t say it makes the reader any wiser or happier. But it definitely makes you feel like you’ve been a part of something fantastic and unsettling. I don’t know (and don’t want to know) what it’s like to be mentally unbalanced in this way, but if you’re ever curious enough to toe the line, this is it. Poetry that gets you completely out of your most inner, sentient, comfort zone is rare, and even rarely is it executed so masterfully as here.

As promised:

“They had all walked for the day. Tonight’s
question mark loomed in the agate sky, pointing them toward dewdrops
and madness. Are you listening, one of them said,
or just insane. Look, this pulley works,
we’ll unscrew the pears from the plate, and put them back again,
and no one will ever know the difference.”

I dream too much, Metuchen swirled, and in the gasps in his doublet
many live fish pirouetted and stank.
Now it was Phoebe’s turn to complain: “Whoever thinks he
can outwit the sun is in for a rude awakening.” ”

“Come, it’s silver, children, the unbearable letdown
has gone under the hill to bide its time. Centuries shall pass away this way.
When we wake up it will be over. The motor will have started up,
and peas have been planted in Wyoming. Time grabs us
again, it’s terrible, for a little while.”

It may not be Ashbery’s most accessible work, or a good one to start with, but for those who want to see how poetry can truly be challenged and pushed to extremes: this would be a wise choice.

Carnal Knowledge

I’ll have a post about this being the last poem for April later on, probably. But this is for the seventh (or thirty-fifth) (or, if you will, last) prompt for Big Tent about a stranger buying breakfast. This never happened, it’s pretty flippant, and ultimately I just wanted to see if I could make another inverted sestina written in alexandrines out of the prompt. (I tried this earlier in the month: it involves doing the usual six-end-word pattern of a sestina, but then also the pattern in reverse using the first words. Some interesting effects ensue! Since it’s kind of twisted about itself, I was thinking of calling it the helix or double helix instead. Maybe someone else has done one of these before. Which name do you like best?)

And now that this ridiculous exercise is done (I mean this entry, not the month-long challenges), I am going to relax a bit. Then I’ll get around to wrapping up with some reviewing and book-prize-granting!

Carnal Knowledge

I didn’t catch his name, but said I’d spend the night
since he was just my type. Grey eyes, the smell of smoke
about his mouth, an eagle nose and hair close-cut:
how had I caught him? Or, had he caught me? I know
my Kryptonite: the consonantal lilt of Greece
and chiseled arms pulled me into his bed.

Since he rose early, he asked while I was still abed:
how would I like some breakfast? Bronzed de-armored knight,
and gentlemanly too. (If that’s the way in Greece,
my God, I’m moving there.) He stepped out for a smoke
about nine-thirty while I showered. Did he know
I’d only dreamed of him? The full director’s cut.

However this might go, I thought, I’ll take my cut,
my share of masculinity. He made his double bed.
I followed him down boulevards I didn’t know
about, except from maps: the quarters where at night
(and day), you shouldn’t walk alone, where no one spoke
(since that would draw attention better off decreased).

My nose caught charcoal soot and frying bacon grease
about a block away. The stomach’s true, the gut
sincere: it speaks its hunger when it smells that smoke
and fire. We reached the diner: steak and eggs and bread,
I love the lures you set me when the stoves ignite.
How you accomplish this, I think I’ll never know.

A bout of morning-after breakfast might have no
end, to prolong the time together, to increase
however possible his lust. Maybe tonight,
I’ll ravage him, I think, and make a lustful cut,
sins on my mind, into sausage and hash-brown bed,
my tongue alive with pepper, salt, and grilltop smoke.

And when we’d finished, sated, walking back, he spoke:
I’ll see you round! Did he trade numbers? No,
my eagle prince went home alone, into that bed.
Since he, eventually, will go back home to Greece,
how can I blame him? Still, I bear that wound, that cut,
about my heart, ashamed of such a glorious night.

Since then, how jaded I’ve become about the beds
of smokestained men: though still my dreams at night are filled
with meat, cuts no one wants, wounds full of bloody grease.

Two Tanka: Field in Early Morning

This one is for the One Single Impression prompt of “border” (thanks to Gautami!), and it’s the last one for April. It’s Arbor Day, so I tried to be a little bit nature-sensible with this one, regarding a particular (and well-marked) chunk of land by my apartment building. It’s really too small to be anything useful, but it’s very clearly its own little world of trees and animals in the middle of development. Hence, two tanka for how it is at the beginning of the day.

Two poems tomorrow, and then this ride is over. Jeepers.

Two Tanka: field in early morning

Sunrise cracked open,
spilled over the horizon:
a birch line brightens
while apartments hide themselves
behind thick curtains, thick hollies.

City birds don’t sleep,
practicing dawn songs instead:
perched on the low walls
marking their stamp-sized country,
they choose no wheres and no whens.

Ghost Bikes

I’m not a cyclist, but I know a lot of them, many of whom have been injured while riding their (non-polluting, inexpensive, easily reparable, status-contest-free, compact, quiet, shiny, and dependable) bikes. If you’re unaware of the ghost bike project, it’s where bicycles painted white are placed at locations where cyclists have lost lives; the movement has made itself known in many cities. It seemed like as good a way as any to tackle the Big Tent prompt of “the wheels coming off”… a lot of the bikes used are appropriated from junkyards and the like, so missing wheels seems possible. Maybe that’s a cop-out. Anyway, at this point I’m just kind of searching for ways to eke out the last little bit of this month.

Ghost Bikes

They couldn’t afford a mausoleum in marble,
and isn’t that just what they wouldn’t want: a resting place
empty of motion forever. (This is a tribe of nomads.)
So they took the twisted wrecks and snapped rusty chains,
propped up the aluminum frames that grinned with
missing seats and uncircled spokes like a mouth of
infected teeth. Schwinn green and Huffy red
became zebra-crossing white.

Fleet but flightless, like ostriches: a whole damn flock
descended on the city overnight, on lampposts,
wrought-iron fences, and
the metal skirts of public flowerbeds.
Limping along with broken toes: the sun and moon alike
glinting on the windchime tubing.

They’ve set them on all the corners, and if you look sidelong,
from the edges of your eyes, you can see the ghosts
gripping the handlebars. Pale and dreamlike,
impassive in the moments before– screech and thump.
Bloodstains on the pavement.
It takes a certain bravery, weaving the roadway’s shoulders:
almost as great as the ignorance you need to not see
bikes of any color drifting along, quiet and breathing and
fragile as the first blossom to fall.

Padmāsana (Lotus Pose)

One more Big Tent prompt (about “floating”) for the evening… I’ll try to get the other two done tomorrow, as I am off from work. After a hiatus to get through the end of the semester, I started going back to yoga last night, and I am so glad I did. The lotus pose is perhaps my favorite, because I’ve been doing it off and on for years, since I started meditating with infrequency back in high school. Once your body is really loosened from doing all the poses, it really does play tricks with your senses, tactile hallucination style. You open your eyes and you’re surprised you haven’t floated through the window.

Anyway, just a pretty freeform thought bubble on that.

Padmāsana (Lotus Pose)

We come into it at the end, after our minds
unfold as easily as bodies: ankles crossed,
both soles upturned. It must be some illusion of
the circulation, when the yogi says: eyes closed,
just feel your breathing, focus on the inward gaze.
We puff out thoughts as pollen, rooted to our mats,
florescing, hands at rest upon our outstretched knees,
and we begin to rise. Sensations in the legs,
like levitation. Lengthening spine and rising crown,
uncoiling even while we’re trying to keep still.
Inside, a rush of colors, ribbons, flags of it,
lift up and catch the exhalations. Wishes, thoughts,
intentions, all the perfume we have left: we rise,
and they rise too. Before we say our namastes,
please change our bloodflow: tricky how it snakes around,
convinces us we’re balanced, weightlessly at last.

An Evening At The LGBT Center

I used to volunteer at the LGBT center in downtown Philadelphia; it would have been right at the beginning of this blog, so I may have mentioned it before. Anyway, it was a fascinating and good experience, if for nothing else because it showed me so many people from different walks of life than my own. I have specific people in mind for the examples in this little terzanelle, and many more besides… could probably write a whole chapbook about that place. But this is just for the Big Tent prompt of “what’s at the center”, no grand designs or anything for this one. Probably a good thing too, because with seven poems and two point five days to go in April, my steam has all but vanished.

An Evening at the LGBT Center

We get obscene phone calls on Monday nights.
The director says, before you go home,
make sure to lock up and turn out the lights.

The heroin addicts, in pairs, alone,
the gaptoothed meth-heads show their raw faces,
the director says. Before you go home,

indigent siblings, take up your places.
We bring cups, hands for the weary troubles
the gaptoothed meth-heads show. There! Raw faces,

jagged-mouthed, red-eyed, lips blowing bubbles.
The suicidals, seeking the comfort and care
we bring. Cup hands for their weary troubles,

says our churchman, leading his flock in prayer.
What else are homeless queers, the sorrowed,
the suicidals seeking? The comfort and care

due to anyone. Given. Not borrowed.
What else are homeless queers but sorrowed?
Still: get obscene phone calls on Monday nights,
make sure to lock up. And turn out the lights.