A Man is Screaming in Sheridan Square

This one creeps me out a bit. Not sure at all where it came from, except that Khara House (who is beginning a lovely series of prompts) issued a rhyme challenge, and my brain hopped to “villanelle“. (Dammit, brain.) I wish I could say the subject matter was an uncommon occurrence round these parts.

I’ve been having a peculiar time. There’s a Long Poem with capital letters unrolling in my mind lately, as well as the beginnings of another idea of one, and I hardly have any room for anything else, it feels like. I’m trying to set myself a chunk of writing on it every day until it’s done, because all my ideas are getting funneled into it like a whirlpool. That’s how it goes, I suppose.

A Man is Screaming in Sheridan Square

A man is screaming in Sheridan Square.
He sits on a rotted bench facing west;
he’s tearing his shirt and pulling his hair.

After the dangling moon, this is where
the forgotten folk are denied their rest
by a man screaming in Sheridan Square.

The thin white statues stand fast, with a glare
for disturbers of peace: they can attest
he’s tearing his shirt; he’s pulling his hair.

Sea urchin shadows ply the humid air.
Queens of night stroll by in their summer best.
A man is screaming in Sheridan Square.

He’s unstoried in his tuneless despair.
Words fracture to ash, burrow from his chest,
tearing up his shirt, pulling out the hair.

Later they’ll tell it, pretending to care,
brows knit, mouths downturned. It will be confessed:
a man was screaming in Sheridan Square–
was tearing his shirt– had pulled all his hair–

Reverie Twenty-Four: OBEY

The throat ailment continues to improve. I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, but for now I’m going to assume that things will continue to get better. And I had wanted to post this earlier, but I’m doing a bartender certification this weekend, so that ate up the majority of the day. Enough bellyaching, though! Let’s get on with the prompt.

This week: “OBEY

If you’re not familiar with Shepard Fairey, you should be. He’s a graphic designer/visual artist who create the above image (a stencil of André the Giant), and the Barack Obama Warhol-3-D-glasses-esque “HOPE” poster, among other works. But it’s the OBEY giant I want to focus on. The original (and, in particular subcultures, more well-known) piece was a sticker used as graffiti, with the following: “ANDRE the Giant has a POSSE; 7’4″, 520 LB”. You can read more about it on Wikipedia. There’s been parodies and spinoffs and legal troubles surrounding this thing for 20 years now, but it (and the abbreviated OBEY version) remain an integral part (in my opinion) of late 80s/early 90s art.

I saw someone with the sticker earlier today, which was the inspiration for this prompt. You’re going to be writing about your posse, more or less. Have you ever noticed that first-person plural poems are comparatively rare in the writing world? First-person singular are probably the most common; second-person singular probably the second-most. Third-person singular and plural are also fairly well-represented; second-person plural, maybe less so. But not so many “we” poems, and those that are, often have to do with family, relationships, or other loved ones. This time, “we” is going to signify the posse.

Here’s how it’s going to work: it’s a recipe in several steps.

First, you have to populate the group. Think of at least three close friends (not family, not coworkers, not romantic relationship people) that you’d like to include (and don’t worry, we won’t necessarily be using them by name; you can change the names if you want). Write down a few pertinent qualities about them. Try to include some descriptor about their build: “tall”, “frail”, “petite”, “stocky”, etc. to honor the original descriptor. And be sure to include yourself! Then, you’re going to add a few imagined elements: maybe Hollywood actors, or deceased kings, or fictional heroines. Again, try to pick three, and give some description.

Now, look at your list and think about what you have in common, as well as what’s different between you. Rather than think of yourselves as a group of friends, think of yourselves as a gang: what mischief might you all go get up to together? Who would be the ringleader? Who would be the voice of reason trying to rein things in a little bit? Who would be the blind follower? Maybe you chose three friends who all like pink and three fashion designers from history: would you steal downtown in the middle of the night and paint the town rose under cover of darkness?

We zigzagged Main and Elm with Charlie Brown stripes
of lipstick color and cheekbone color, dipping brushes in buckets;
revising the cars and the post boxes; giving it all
some wildflower panache. 

Use a criminal act as an opportunity to stretch your language a bit, however ridiculous and improbable the act may be. (Get humorous if you want.) But — and here’s the grammatical thing coming back again — use we as your descriptor as much as possible. Bring in the physical descriptions of your posse indirectly, but give them first-person-plural sensibility. Say “we hoisted each other onto shoulders and leaped up to fire escapes” even if only one of you could ever hope to lift another, and only one could ever hope to leap anything. Give that posse a sort of herd mentality where the actions of the individual are owned by everyone. And have fun with it! A posse is no good if you’re not enjoying yourself.

I’ll use this opportunity to introduce a poem that might be the most famous example of one of these posse poems, Gwendolyn Brooks’, “We Real Cool”:


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

I don’t think Brooks herself was one of these live-fast-die-hard pool player types herself, but she was able to project into that state of mind and imagine some trouble that crowd might get up to. (Of course, it’s rather abbreviated, in that Brooksian way.) It’s up to you how much detail you want to give us. You can name particular people in your posse, or not; you can build them all visually, or just allude to their features; you can suggest and create impressions, or you can do a solid, word-by-word narrative. But let your hair down and cut loose a bit. Be the leader of the pack.

And for those who want a little more of a challenge, try to allude to (fictional or otherwise) past events between you and other members of your posse:

We stole a bucket from down by the river, the mud flats
where Mary took us on a hot August night
to brew up mugwort and play hopscotch on the old pier:
we carried it up with us
and filled up behind Tommy J.’s house, big old plantation
where we tried to tell ourselves how bad we were, but it
ended up tasting like honey in our mouths.

I like how Thomas Jefferson got in there. I didn’t expect that. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing I’m trying to get across here. These are going to be long poems, so if you normally write short, try to increase the length this time around; get a narrative going, or maybe a short poem series if you want. And then come back and show off what your posse is capable of. See if you can outfox and out-embellish each other on the poetic field! And we’ll see how that goes.


We Write Poems has a prompt that asks us to examine an aspect of nature in an atypical way, and I wondered to myself, “isn’t that what I always do with nature?” :P  Rare is the moment when I sit down to describe a tree and try to do it as just a tree. But the sea as a crazy person is more interesting to me. Probably not new at all, and the parallel between sea-self-schizoid is probably not new either, but it works at least. I finished reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf yesterday, and the imagery in that strongly formed the sense of this one, I think.


The sea flexes cracked lips a thousand miles long
and caked with ground glass. Its eyes are somewhere
beneath the horizon, but I can imagine
they must be gyring madly with the currents.
Shifting this way and that. It works up a wad of saliva,
beginning a guttural rumble deep in its throat.
Swallowed avalanches of crabs and krill dislodge
and ride the beginning of infinite syllables.

Long tongues of white foam flick over the sand
to shape a cluster of sounds so elongated that
I can’t say what it might be. T, S, H, something else
that sneers at any glyph: this is the sea’s
secret language. Wet, plaintive webs of vowels
balloon and break off, bubble into chattered foam.
Consonants echo on the dunes: they have arrived
with the swirl of a whip built from scallop beads.

All night with this complaining: and I think
the sea is like the man with grey hair who comes up
and down Broadway pushing a cart of mannequins,
like the woman in a black coat inventing prophecies
for a troupe of squirrels. Crazy, I mean, talking
without purpose to itself, or to anyone passing
patient enough to try and understand. Wild,
carrying on, convinced of some wisdom.

That’s how it’s been all night, far from any city
brimming with unwanted opinions. (They could all
jump into this sea, and it would hardly even sputter.)
Starfish and sand dollars enrich every bit of rhythm;
one jellyfish spit onto the sand, struggles feebly.
Dawn begins stringing pearls from cloud to cloud,
and still I sit, listening for a particular sound to crash
again: because I swear I’ve almost got that one.

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.


This is going up a bit late, argh! I’m not handicapped/differently abled/whatever term you prefer, but with the Big Tent prompt about feet, I thought I might try to project a bit. And with snow falling all around, I thought about how everyone becomes kind of ungainly when walking through a deep fall; does that make it seem like a bit of poetic justice? It’s a secret sonnet as well, with one little stagger put in there on purpose, because I wanted to bring metrical feet in as well. See if you can find where I hid it. :)


      I am iambic,
walking through the scattered stars and hexagons of snow.
  Hop-skip, hop-skip, the wetness soaking past my braces,
    drowning socks and shoes.
      These blessed Saturdays,
    made up of men and women tripping,
staggering, forgetting
    how to place their own two feet.
            It makes them seem more welcoming: deep drifts hide these
    corrupted ankles, twisted toes, unsteady knees.
  In sunlight, call me crippled;
      but so’s everyone on blind white mornings.
I will paint the blankness with this dream: that now
  I’m a gazelle in sun-drenched Kenya,
    stunned by this exception,
      still brave enough for each astonished step.


The prompt for OSI this week is “comb” (thanks to Gautami!)… I went with beachcombers and did a little late-night ditty on the crazy old women I’ve occasionally seen scouring the beach and muttering to themselves. Maybe I should be a little more forgiving, though. After all, today is Christmas, the holiday of giving and charity and kindness and whatever. I would be lax if I did not wish all Christmas-celebrators a very happy (and yes, slightly belated, as it’s almost over) time!


The shore is a generous lover–
whose treasures weather tide and tide again
for old women with sandpiper hair to come along.
Plastic bags in hand, cracked bare feet and
threadbare brown shawls.
And this one– a metal detector–
that one– the patience of hands.

They’re gathering bottles and flotsam
in curious colors: licheny greens and deep,
antiquarian blues in the soft slick feel of glass,
warping copper coins, faces worn to
mere suggestions
of presidents. Calling like gannets–
circling their garbage-scrap prey.

These lotteries– futile and fitful,
the moments bound in shells they call rewards.
Put your ear to a conch and you’ll hear the boundless sea,
vomiting its pale loot. And they think–
scallops, rings, gold–
we’re closer to beauty and riches,
growing so old in the salt.