Recursion Twenty-Seven: city by the sea ii

“We cling to our own point of view, as though everything depended on it.”
~ Zhuangzi, Chinese Taoist philosopher

Another delayed prompt, but at least I have a good reason this time (instead of being busy at work) (which, actually, I guess is also a good reason, I just loathe that it happens). My faux-niece’s first birthday party was today, and I have to say, she is quite the charming ham. Most infants-transitioning-to-toddlers are, I guess. I do take a measure of pride that aside from the kitchen playset, a part of my gift was the best-received: a purple-sequined zebra-striped fedora, which I’ve decided is her pimp hat. And we had a drum-off on the picnic table, which was pretty cool. I’m a fan of kids, and I think I’d like to have one in the future, but not for some years yet. I’m lucky enough to have seen comparatively little of all the fluids and screaming that I’m sure most child-rearing comes with…

I’ve resisted bringing in characters because I don’t like to force them into a prompt. I’m of the opinion that their voices — and certainly personae, if you decide to appropriate and speak in character voices — should happen organically, without prompting. But sometimes it’s good to consider an independent person who is some Other, some Not-You, moving within the landscape you’ve created. I keep asking people to come back and share the fruit of their labors, but of course people will paint what you write with their own meaningful brush: introducing a character helps you direct the narrative a bit better. (Of course, then readers will move up a little and paint the character him/herself with that same brush, but we do what we can.) And a city, after all, is swarming with characters for the taking. As I said yesterday, eventually they all get pulled to the banks of the river running downtown and outward, whether it be to admire, to cross, to jump, to work. Cities are defined by their active patterns of motion; a city is a flower that opens inward. If you follow the moving life, whether animal or hydrological, you find the skeleton of the place.

So let’s come back to that final watercourse again, channeled perhaps into flat-cut stone slabs or metal pipes. We will reach the sea proper tomorrow, with its harbors and piers, but for now let’s do twofold work. First, rather than pick apart the powerful theme that’s been vibrating along for the last several days, we should consider that the overall theme of this poem. I recommend using it (mine: biological process in the world) as the title, just for now, to be changed after the fact. You can keep it a bit abstract at the moment, as you do some free-writing about what that general theme means to you. Get as deep or broad as you want, but keep it short: one solid paragraph, maybe.

Then you’re going to have the casting call for other people in the poem. Try to gather ten personages, give them faces and names and brief histories (where they’re from, what they do, what physical deformities they have, what breaks their heart, etc.) You can gather these people from life, or people you pass in the street, or other literature, or just whatever comes to mind. Do the brief sketches of each, then pick a couple that keep you interested. Arrange them around the idea of the theme, and decide how they would write about it, almost as though you’re channeling for additional free-writes. How will their voices come through? Will you take them on completely, are they friends/family/enemies who will contradict or support you (in different ways), will two of them converse with each other? Will you erase direct opinion entirely, and show their thoughts and feelings through action and appearance? I leave it to you to determine how the population of this little thought-city will deal with what the city, ultimately, is known for. You may wish to place them in a situation to see how they react, or simply have them consider quietly, as you are doing for the work of the poem.

This may help you to get across to the reader more clearly what your intention is behind writing what you are writing. As readers, we search for lenses we can relate to in some way, to understand where the poet is coming from: we see how the images and thoughts are collected and distilled, but we don’t always understand the lesson or the mechanism of it. Show us and tell us in this instance, before that purest expression of the river-of-consciousness’ water is lost to the sea; let it run into the Comments box so we can read for ourselves.

The Refinery: barbara young (ii)

What, you thought I was done for the evening? Not a chance. Well, at least, I’m not done hanging out online, so I might as well do something constructive while I’m here, mightn’t I. And since I was reminded that the Refineries should still be going, I am carrying on through the chronology of poems languishing in my inbox. Tonight’s victim…

In a Peninsula of Restaurant Windows” by Barbara Young

Most of us know Barbara already, as she is a poetic dynamo on the blogosphere scene. One of her poems was featured in the Refinery back in January, and I’m going to not look at what I said about her work previously when I say: she has one of the most unique minds for crafting images and personal voices that I’ve seen out there, with a very down-to-earth kind of dialogue punctuated by curve ball metaphors that bonk the side of your head. We all could take a page from her in that regard. The poem she’s sent this time is longer than her usual work, so let’s see what we can do to help (at her request) give it some firmer foundations to stand on:

Precipitously descend the big rain-y drops.
The indeterminate time of gray
resolves to nine AM with rain.
And watches without passion the woman the rain coming, come.

a series of events
some shy, some bold hard flashing, the mob mindless, only
following physics.

Mrs J___, a thrift-store-purchase man’s white shirt,
four thin silver bracelets,
spreads the second-to-last crust of toast with peach puree.
no plans for rain or sun,
no pressing need for plans
Mrs J___ watches windless raining rain

Hello, my soul, my tethered soul, my fluttered kite
without me: brain and pain, complaining, shame and dreaming
what are you? Indistinguishable fleck from the head perfection
of cosmos discarnate, are you
alt-enjoying absolutely clear ideally amber perfectly Earl Gray
from the concept of a yellow teapot with a brown replacement lid
the pattern of a woman watching rain land bouncing and disintegrating
on the first gesture of factory paint faded below loving polish on
the pure form of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue, loved
within the mind of god, driven stoned into a ditch one slow summer evening,
dented and repaired and passed from hand of god to hand of god
through years (constructed in the mind of god)

and listens to the sound of water like a stream rushing somewhere
over and under the clank of flatware.

There’s a lot of richness here, and a lot to pick apart. Probably I could find several things in each of my usual categories to talk about, but I’ll keep it to the usual modest three, for fairness:
– It seems as though there are several different threads here, which I think are competing for attention, like we have three poems wound into one rope. First we have an establishing scene (those raindrops), then a character sketch (Miss J), and finally an internal monologue (perhaps Miss J’s). I think something as simple as labeling each part “1”, “2”, “3” could help, but I suspect what would help more is separating these three into different poems, and focusing — at least, at first — on the strongest. Alternatively, the strongest individual aspects could be picked out from the three parts and joined together, allowing the rest of the poem to be discarded. I often find myself in this predicament too, unwilling to sacrifice any of the themes I want to get stewing together; but if the poem as a whole isn’t being served by the assortment, it’s time to let something go. The two elements I’d cut here are the at-times-too-fancy vocabulary and the at-times-too-chaotic stream of consciousness in the penultimate section. Not to say there isn’t a time and place for them, but too much can turn into a James Joyce kind of thing. I love James Joyce, but he’s great at keeping the reader at bay. Poets don’t (or shouldn’t?) have that luxury.
– To dig deeper into the word use, there are two things going on that I think take away from the poem. Right from the start, that word precipitously bothers me. Beginning with a five-syllable word is very risky, beginning with a Latinate word is very risky, and beginning with an adverb is… well, not that risky, but a little bit. I get the pun (rain/precipitation), but I think it’s too much to begin with. And there is a line of words I almost stumble over: indeterminate, indistinguishable, discarnate, disintegrating, etc. It may be Barbara’s intent to create these obstacles and demand our attention, but I don’t think the poem demands them, so we ought to let them wither into something more manageable. The other thing about word use is that there is some repetition I’m ambivalent about. (Some of it I love, which I’ll get to.) The word rain comes back again and again, but then there’s that plans section, and the coming, come up top… maybe my issue is that there are anaphora that seem to float, without a structure. Sometimes repetition is meant as almost a hysterical device, to beat something into our heads, but this doesn’t have that feel; I’d recommend either filling out the poem in between any given repetition (with a couple exceptions!), or using some other image/synonym.
– And a note about syntax. Messing with it is always tricky, and even when you get away with it, you are always giving your poem a layer of difficulty that you may not want. Some poets build their career around that element of their voice (W.S. Merwin, e.e. cummings, Frank O’Hara, etc.), and Barbara has a pretty keen sense of it, but I think it’s shifting too much here. The needle moves back and forth between language that is sparse or inverted, where nouns and verbs aren’t always needed in their proper order, if at all, and immensely lush, where subordinate clauses hook together like monkeys in a barrel. Again, it creates a particular effect that may have been intended, but which I don’t think serves the poem well; probably it’s better to move in one direction or the other (and I’m leaning towards the sparseness of the second section, with Miss J).

OK. All that being said…
– That second section is marvelous. The “plans” thing and the “raining rain” are the only things I’d immediately change, though maybe with careful tweaking of the rest of the poem, the middle would also need some work. Look at that portrait with the second-to-last crust of toast; beautiful! With only a few lines, we get an immediate sense of who this person is, what she’s doing, what her relationship is to where she is and what’s going on in the world around her. I would like to see more of her in the poem, because she seems to be the centerpiece (both literally and figuratively), and she is compelling. Note also that no fancy words or structures are needed for her to be powerful: “peach puree” on that crust is powerful because it is specific, not because it’s fancy.
– Despite the fact that I think the stream of consciousness in the latter half of the poem becomes a series of whitewater rapids, I do love some of the turns of phrase that appear. My fluttered kite / without me, the pattern of a woman, passed from hand of god to hand of god, a stream rushing somewhere / over and under the clank of flatware… all lovely. I think I understand the intention here: this simple moment is full of inner voice and a chain of specific memories that key other specific memories, leading to what we call in interactional sociolinguistics a nexus predicated on all kinds of previous information. What I fear is that some greater point is being obscured by the information; can we pull away some of the clumps that are only there to give substance, and not lyric? I don’t think we need absolutely, ideally, and perfectly all in the same line, and while I like this Platonism in “pattern of a woman”, there is also a concept and pure form overdoing the concept a bit.
– Overall, the theme of the poem is one I like, because I’m a sucker for those momentary-slice-of-life poems that dig deep to show there’s always more going on underneath the surface than you expect. (Hell, there’s that whole journal devoted to the idea that I’ve been doing.) If that is the kind of tone we should be drawing out of the poem, I think it’s coming across. It’s just a matter of cleaning and clarifying the bits that don’t serve the poem’s purpose. For Barbara, I would ask two questions: what is the intent of the poem, and what is the tone of the poem? By this I mean, first, it’s important to decide what you’re trying to convince us of/illustrate on a hidden level/arrange in a three-dimensional pattern, and then try to get in the reader’s shoes to see what effect the poem has towards that goal (and whether it’s what you want).

A few minor things:
– Not sure about the title? I suppose it was the setting of the thing, but the title is prime real estate for tackling theme, intent, or tone, or maybe all three at once, with brevity the soul of your wit.
– The notion of 1967 Karmann Ghia Pastel Blue being “loved within the mind of god“, moving from the highly specific to the broadly religious, is fantastic.
– There are so many poems waiting to be spun from this one! Why not split it?
– Sound devices are usually pretty cool, but I think that in a poem with so much else going, you might want to drop them. Specifically I’m thinking of brain and pain, complaining, shame. It’s a bit jarring.
– Coming back to that specificity: the contrast between it and the universal is great, and flows nicely through the poem. I would say, draw it out into the open even more.

So, Barbara, I hope that helped! And for the rest of you, if you’d like a bonus prompt in addition to the daily Recursions that are going on right now (which I hope you’re finding helpful!), try this one on for size too:

Write a poem in three stanzas that features a place, a person in that place, and the thoughts going through their mind. Include at least one image that is both highly specific to each of those three, and one description for each that is very general. Try to keep it colloquial, but also try to include any of: a car model, a color name with a proper noun in it, and a specific time of day. Don’t meander all the way through: have a point by the end!

And that is that. OK, now I’m really done for the evening, at least on the blog. Too much computer makes Joe a headached boy.

Prosthetic Conscience

Eh, feeling a little bit better about this one. And at least I managed to get two down today… I might have one more short one in me when I get home. Even if they’re crummy!

NaPoWriMo gave a list of spaceship names from the delicious novels of Iain M. Banks, and suggested using one as the title of the poem, which is where this one comes from. I found out, unfortunately, that Mr. Banks yesterday announced he has terminal cancer, which is rather advanced; he may not be with us a year from now. He is about the age of both my father, and my parents’ good friend (my brother’s godfather; maybe the best man at my parents’ wedding? I can’t remember) who passed away last fall from, eerily, the same sort of cancer. It’s a depressing and unsettling kind of thing, and I feel more depressed and unsettled that the only thing I can get out of it is this mediocre scrap of writing that is just me pumping the bellows to keep the fire going. But I suppose it’s more of an effort than nothing at all; these are the things we must do.

I think the weekend, and a sustained gasp of spring, are needed.

Prosthetic Conscience

He wore it after the original was severed,
fearing that its absence would show
between two ribs, or flared in his nostrils.
He always kept the lights out during sex.
If anyone got close enough to notice,
it would be too dark to see.
From time to time he felt phantom pains
deep inside his chest, a coppiced stalk
trying to sprout something stunted
but generous. He read philosophy.
He took communion and waited for change.
But it was the small hesitations
that quivered his hand or his tongue
which gave him away. Then it would slip
and expose his abbreviation.
What could he call himself?
Not a person: maybe the kind of person
who knows why he no longer deserves
that title. Some word that means,
“used to have slow warmth inside him”,
but not anymore. Now there’s only
an indifferent blood, just a few degrees
too cold.

A Warm Day on Titan

This wasn’t at all the poem I set out to write, but there you go. It started with this idea of science and religion, and turned into some thoughts on a Wiki article I stumbled across about the theory of ancient astronauts, and some notes were taken for it on a train ride, and… well, it just went bonkers from there. In workshop, our moderator often writes these rambling musings, so some of that style got in there too, but I wasn’t sure what to do with this one. So I’m just going to pitch it up here unaltered and see what happens.

A Warm Day on Titan

I was reading about the theory of ancient astronauts:
how our human ingenuity was not enough for fire-making,
or Great Pyramids, or the invention of gods– and so some
figures must have descended like Prometheus, all light,
to prick us in the consciousness. And maybe an old priest
came up from Thebes, climbed to meet the travelers

who told him (like I-AM to Moses) how Venus, the traveler
star of the evening, was sulfuric, molten, any astronauts
foolish enough to land killed instantly. Then from the priest
spread an idea of Hell along the red Nile and beyond, making
its miserable rounds. I don’t know if I believe it. If the light
switches off, and I’m only left with terror, maybe. Some

familiar bell is rung. But here’s what I wonder: would some
other extraterrestrials have first granted them that traveler’s
spirit? When faced with the impossible, do they make light
of it, say, “it’ll be a cold day on Venus,” forgetting astronauts
crushed to death before them? Here’s the point I’m making:
there is a place for the scientist, and a place for the priest,

and I don’t think you can do without either. In Babylon, “priest”
meant “king”; it follows that the analytical mind rules in some
inverted place. And we’re abandoned in between, making
do with half-stories, half-logic. We’re the worst sort of travelers:
Orphean, necks twisted. We could be the ancient astronauts
to someone else, explaining the truths and mechanics of light

with mythology. (The Eagle Nebula’s Virgin and her light-
year Child; Orion buckling a blue-white belt.) We’re high priests
of the full circle. But I’m telling you this, not some astronaut,
because I’m on a train feeling earthbound, seeking some
capacity for kinship. This is the curse of everyday travelers:
to always be dissatisfied, the drab surroundings making

you wish for some magic. Leaving Secaucus, we’re making
slow time past graffiti levees, brown marshes decaying light.
Can you blame me for dreaming? And my fellow travelers
stare unsatisfied out the windows, too, each one a priest
given the chance. Me, I’d preach the moon called Titan (some
ancient giant), orbiting Saturn, where (according to astronauts)

oceans of ethane boil cold. I’d get there uncertain, priest
making science out of legend-names, traveler carving religion
from light. Some astronaut! But being what we are– I could do
no less.

The Gospel According to Helena

Random drag queen character sketch poem on a rainy Tuesday. The most frustrating thing about being in a creative/general life funk is that the muse is there, tantalizingly out of reach, and you just can’t quite snap out of it enough to take hold. The best visual metaphor I can think of is that it’s this brilliant blue (peacock deepening into indigo almost) plume of paint flattened against glass, close and formless and impossible to touch. That’s what it feels like in my head. And I think you have to just keep writing in the meantime until inspiration takes a hammer to that glass, letting the words through. There’s no blood in these poems I’m writing lately; it’s all I can do to try to keep them interesting and artificially meaningful. I had a poem like this in my chapbook; it reminds me to think about getting around to the next one.

Maybe I’m being too self-critical? I don’t know. Anyway, at least I’m flexing the language a bit. Workshop last night and roundtable tomorrow night are helpful things.

The Gospel According to Helena

Ain’t got no use for it, she shouts over the music,
sweating rum, lipstick bloody on one front tooth,
but honey if I gotta play the God-fearin’ woman
I’ll do what I have to
They call her name, the bar shakes with cheers,
Donna Summer starts up on the speakers.
She plumps her breasts one last time,
checks to make sure she’s still tucked in
underneath the beaded skirt. But I’ll tell ya this:
this right here, this is
transfiguration. This is bein’ alive.

A final pull on that thin cigarette, down to the butt
clenched between press-on nails, and then
she laughs, Lazarus get on up!,
throws back her cloak and seizes the mike,
her royal scepter, as she enters the follow-spot
and begins to crook her mouth like a serpent
along with the ecstatic crowd:
It’s so good, it’s so good, heaven knows,
heaven knows.

Slow Rhapsody

I know I can be wishy-washy, but even for me, this Boston decision was such a mess. I ended up not going; considering there were several inches of snow across New England, blustery winds, poor visibility, and the fact that it would have taken 4.5 hours to get there with none of these factors, I think I made the sensible choice. (AWP was worth it if I got at least two days out of it, financially and temporally; if I’d had to stay over in some Holiday Inn in Connecticut and got one day, no.) Anyway. Better planning for next year!

Another week draws to a close in my poetic rut. It’s not just writing; everything seems to be escaping me. Ideas, energy, communication. Something in the planets or the weather or the water. I’m still taking off tomorrow, so I’m hoping that will do some good; I’ll have a mental health day at the cafe or something. Meanwhile, DVerse was asking for poems about where we live; enough has been written about New York already (hell, by me, even), and at the same time, the paradox is that not enough has been written about New York. So, what the hell, here you go.

I’m going to eat bacon until I feel better about myself… flawed plan? Possibly. But it’s a flawed plan with bacon.

Slow Rhapsody

Every third day, the people unfortunate enough
to own a car in Manhattan get up on this street,
move everything to the other side for the sweeper
hissing by, all that powerhose and bristle song
that pushes cellophane and gravel and urine along
determined and fierce, the men with naked feet
at the brick-faced methadone clinic and doormen
pressed and polished grumble to each other,
why bother?

Tomorrow the street again turns brown and grey
like every other day, tomorrow another aging hippie
smokes hashish on her stoop and the super follows
red-faced chiding, tomorrow there’s juvenile rats
discovering trash and finch chatter in the narrow
moats of saplings pierced through the cement,
tomorrow a bell and a cab and a madman make
a symphony, so what’s the use in pretending this
could be anything else?

And the echo sidles up to say, because, because,
it’s the gospel of transformation caught between
two rivers, for a moment the street sheds rough skin
like a serpent and this becomes an anywhere
that is everywhere flecked with people who seem
everyone, escaping the way unfletched arrows
seek their liberty to alight where they please, when
weathered pavement settles shrugs contradictory
shoulders into place:

then in the cracks cries a ragged visionary
give and take give and take give and take.

La Goulue

Another poem? Goodness!

This is another from the Donna Vorreyer lines, using verbs this time. The verbs in question being:

screen, dim, forget, be, command, move, do, untangle, navigate, send

I don’t know whether I should admit how much of this story is true, or invented, or what. Does it kill the poem for you as a reader if you know the truth of a narrative piece? At the very least, I will foreground the allusion of “La Goulue”: she was a(n) (in)famous performer at the Moulin Rouge at the end of the 19th century, a popular subject for Toulouse-Lautrec in art and popular gossip in the street. It means “the glutton”, as she was well known for seizing patrons’ drinks during her act. That kind of drunken abandon, especially in a public kind of art space, makes for a fabulous subject, sometimes. In the gay clubs, we’d call her a “hot mess”.

I have this idea for a TV show set in turn-of-the-last-century Montmartre. Look for it on HBO one day.

La Goulue

I bet you’re a poet, she hiccups, leaning over this
elderly Polish gentleman ready to enjoy the French film
they are screening. They have dimmed the lights,
which, we are given to understand, commands silence.
But not her: she is undaunted. She was already drunk
before she got here, I suspect, as she caresses
a glass that brims with Riesling. She has forgotten a bra;
she did not untangle her apricot hair in the bathroom after
bitter wind seduced it outside. Tonight’s film is about
the deception of relationships and mistaken identities,
where the farce is life itself, a comedy we all do
from time to time, without meaning to. And already,
I’m plucking ideas from the red curtains, the rafters
and rococo boxes, the women up front in elaborate hats,
the Polish gentleman, who has one green glass eye.
I scribble notes for a poem about the film before it starts,
maybe a sonnet to send some prestigious journal with
stamps and SASE and fool hopes, when she spots me,
moves in for a kill. Maybe you can write a line or two
for me, she laughs, parting the whispers like a toothless
lioness scatters the tall grass. But of course, I will;
and that makes her correct. In the film was a woman,
object of the protagonist’s disinterest, who by mischance
was navigated to thin immortality with an error of his pen,
Marianne, or something equally French, weepy, brazen,
refusing to see why she was written not with love,
but with pity. Then again, I was distracted; and maybe
I am remembering it wrong.