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 Spider

And also, a poem. DVerse wanted a “bathroom poem”, however that is to be interpreted. So I rolled with the spider theme, having seen one in the bathroom the other day; but also, another attempt to exorcise this idea of the spider as the spirit animal. I think she’s a good shape for that analytical part of ourselves that (for poets in general, maybe) takes the tragedies of others and turns them into writing, which always strikes me as callous on top of whatever other value it has (instructive, cathartic, etc.) What is the psychosis of the writer that death leads to good writing about death? What is the animal shape of that part of the spirit which simply allows itself to mourn?

I think I was also trying to do subtle things with sound, but they were so subtle they disappeared. Womp womp.

The Spider

She stares eightfold from the showerhead
before continuing her web.
A grey body skirts along blue tile.
Barring water, the little deaths
will string their constellation to the windowsill.

It can be so easy to claim kinship,
confusing webs for words,
when the epilogue belongs to someone else.
The spider is the one who dangles from it.
She is just out of reach in the totem-dream,
harbored on the underside
of the cabinet, shaded by the shelf.

Some of her outdoor cousins
are long-lived too. You’ve seen them spin
between tree branches, webs well-built
as ten o’clock fog in early June,
those scraps too stubborn to melt.

Adam and Steve

All right, last one for the month, at least on the ol’ blogmachine. This is for Miz Quickly‘s prompt to write about a stereotype; at the risk of being heavy-handed and beating people over the head with the topic, I elected to write about the first one that sprung to mind. But I tried to have some wry humor mixed in with the bummer stuff, at least. I don’t think it’s really ending April with a bang, but then, I didn’t really expect to, and didn’t really start the month with a bang, either. Maybe tonight/tomorrow I’ll have the blog giveaway and the final summation of the challenge, but for now, I am going to head home and cook some flounder. How’s that for a happy ending!

Adam and Steve

are not in your kitchen destroying your marriage,
ripping out cabinets and screaming in falsetto
this tile has got to GO. They are not upstairs
whispering to your son, whose voice has just begun
cracking, who locks himself in the bathroom
(where he stares at his own reflection), nor are they
on your bed, filling your sheets with their sweat
so that you can’t sleep for the unholy reek of it.
They are not strutting this-hip-that-hip down the walk,
stuffing porn in the mailboxes and snorting cocaine
off the hood of your car. They are not gelling their hair,
popping pink polo collars, looking over aviator shades
and sucking their teeth. They are not at the gym,
or the bathhouse, or the park behind the supermarket
(because everyone knows what goes on there).

Adam is taking the bar exam in two weeks.
These days he lives in the library, while Steve
drives back home from seeing his dying mother,
which he can only do while she is doped unconscious
(she swears and spits on him when she’s not).
One of them will call the other to pick up dinner,
to share while they watch their favorite sitcom
on the royal blue loveseat. Adam worries about debt,
Steve worries about death. If you look in their window,
you will see them opening envelopes, wiping the table,
folding gym shorts, and once in a while, standing
quietly wrapped around each other. Their curtains
have been torn down by an unruly mob; their doors
unhinged and battered to kindling. Everyone passes by,
peering in, jumping at long shadows in the dusk.

New Jersey

Finally, the weekend! Guys: I needed this like you would not believe.

I finished (again) Lunch Poems on my way home, and some O’Hara — along with some Whitman and Sandburg, I guess — influenced the feel of this one. Miz Quickly’s prompt today was to observe Nature, while yesterday’s Poets and Writers was to write a letter to a landscape, which seemed to go hand-in-hand. And while I struggled with the themes all day, I realized that traveling New Jersey almost end to end was a pretty good source, so this is a little paean for the old home state. It’s kind of wonky and rambly, and doesn’t do a tenth of the justice that I’d like to, but then again, it’s only one poem, written to prompts, and it’s late. Be merciful, I beg you!

New Jersey

The length of you electrified, the breadth of you cast-iron,
mouth sunk deep into one city, tail rattled round another,
         what do you think about underneath?
Do you start with a man walking tunnels under the Hudson
to burst out into the Secaucus sunlight, slodging through
         marshwater pierced with telephone poles
whose wires dip parabolic underneath an egret’s wing?
Will he say, this is the arrowhead, flung forward, carved
         scrap of flint dipping its colonial point
into marine history, extending in a perfect line, industrial
revolution and immigrant tale, feathered with one eye
         pointed east into tomorrow’s Atlantic sun?
Who will smell salt air as the cars roam these counties
packed with fine gravel, listen to the mosquitoes buzz
         fear of the finchmouth under viaducts
crazyquilted with graffiti, buckling freight, hollowed like
a careful clay gorge? Are they women with moonscape hair,
         men with block-letter tattoos, children,
muddied and painted, roaming from stone checkerboards
onto your threadbare fields to execute the last crabapple,
         deer stalking the interstate’s shrug
to gnaw a bit of alder shoot? How do they weigh on you,
you who were always slight, the runt, the performer,
         the intense gaze, always warmer than
anyone thought, even with vertebrae all full of steel pins,
your limbs catalogued and the ospreys tagged, your feet
         shod wooden and dipped in Delaware Bay?
When spring comes fierce and yellow, dogwoods hang up
chandeliers in all your roofless parlors, and the cherries
         weep, do you tell them, this is no death,
show them a man walking tracks, a child splattered pink
and black, first tomato bloody in her teeth? Won’t new life
         wrought out of rust and broken glass,
wrung from reeds round empty factories, need a mother too?
What better land than one that sings them its similarity:
         small, wise, proud, wild, radio, radiant!

Recursion Twenty-Six: city by the sea

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.”
~ Norman Maclean, American short story author

Scribbling out a quick prompt while I have the chance…!

Because I assume you want to know more about my sorry little life, after a crisis of confidence in writing last night, I realized that I’d pretty much hit The Wall of NaPoWriMo. You know how runners talk about the wall, that point where your body just refuses to function any further, and even the physics of momentum/inertia seems like it can’t keep you going forward? Muscles and nerves refusing to fire, etc.? I think that about sums up how it was. (I ended up surfing the Net for 2 hours.) But I jotted off a quick rhymey ditty, went to bed, and woke up early enough this morning to treat myself to another pancake breakfast with my notebook in hand. I have to stop making a habit out of this, but at least  it got me feeling like there were things worth saying that I could say, and setting things in motion again. If you’re at that point with the month, never fear: we’re in the final stretch now.

Our river has begun its final descent to the sea. I’m a big fan of cities at river mouths, for some reason: New York, Philadelphia, Buenos Aires, Amsterdam. And even seaside places that don’t have a major river by them: Barcelona, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco. Paris and London and Montreal are all lovely, but there’s too much land around; I love a good marine vista. There’s something about allowing the water to parcel us up that has an implicit (and sometimes misplaced) trust in nature, but also an assertiveness in catching ourselves between land and sea, in the hopes of taming both. We rely on both for survival, and have managed to turn both into mechanisms of trade and development. Or maybe it’s just that now and then we need something to gaze at which is impossible to turn busy: you need a lot of ships and swimmers to make the ocean as distracting as developed earth. People can approach such a city from all directions, and so many factors come together to make them grow, sometimes more than they should, but always in a way that seems relatively effortless.

Such a metropolis is ripe with things to appropriate for poems. If you don’t live in such a place, don’t worry: our exercise today does not rely on firsthand/current experience with it. Think back to those prompts when I asked you to grow things along the edges of a river, using its water. Rather than growing, this time we are going to allow things to come to the river; and remember, the nature of the current has changed, twisted, amplified. Go out and do some gathering in your everyday: try to find twenty items for a list, be they concrete items, abstract ideas, everyday moments, unique experiences, bodily feelings, momentary emotions, or random musings. I recommend standing up and walking around (as Miz Quickly also has you doing today), through a park, a garden, or some other liminal space between the natural and the urban. See how the built collides with the unbuilt, and make note of the interactions that take place.

With that spirit held close, begin to go through your poems this week and see how they reflect the river itself, that line of theme and image that’s been increasing its velocity. Which of the items in your list will be nourished by that stream‘s water? If you noticed a man polishing hubcaps this morning, it may not fit with iconoclastic grief, but if you saw warblers tearing yesterday’s paper to shreds, that could be perfect. Let’s say that for my biological process in the world theme, I came across bees swarming around a dead pigeon, taxicabs nearly colliding, and a woman, topless, smoking on her fire escape. The middle one probably wouldn’t work very well, but the other two have potential. Explore the interaction between these found moments and the theme in question; I know we’ve been doing a lot of resonating of this kind, but my goal is that it puts you in a state of mind to perceive and be ready to investigate such correspondences. Part of the charm of poetry is its ability to pick out the unexpected meanings; part of the charm of the river-as-city-aorta is that sooner or later, everyone wanders down to see it.

And for added masochistic shiggles, if you need a particular form challenge today, it is Day 26, so… maybe try an abecedarian, where each line of the poem starts with the next letter of the alphabet. (Start with whichever letter you want, and maybe circle back to the beginning in a final, 27th line.) Then show us what you’ve got!

Recursion Twenty-Five: a drowning

“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.”
~ Albert Einstein, German-American theoretical physicist

Following suit on my promise, I’m writing this the night before and saving a draft, just because I know there will be no time to sneak in a prompt while at work tomorrow. (It has all the makings of a crazy day.) Probably I’ll even try to do a poem in advance tonight. All this work to keep on top of the wave of April! It occurs to me — as it often does, in a reversal of what I’m about to say — that the Recursion part of these prompts doesn’t always come through as clearly as I would like. But I feel recursive in my life these days, with the same stuff over and over, the same words and experiences running their way through my head and my hands. I think sometimes it’s important to have that, to keep yourself engaged with where you’re coming from, and the fruitful parts of your life, but another word for it is rut, as in, being in one. Or maybe doldrums. I think I’ll be a bit relieved when these mis-named prompts have reached their final destination…

…but of course, we are not there yet. And in keeping with this mid-week bleakness, the prompt is focused on drowning this time. I don’t want this to be necessarily literal; it can be the figurative drowning in emotion, or work, or stress. (Or all three, as is common.) And I don’t want it to be something final and dismal, either. I think about that scene from The Hours (which is one of my favorite films) when Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf drowns herself: even though it’s ultimately a pretty depressing film, there’s something very beautiful about the intricate thoughts the character shares, and about the look on her face as she plunges into that beautiful water. (This is not really a spoiler: it’s the first scene.) In the novel by Michael Cunningham, a lot of attention is devoted to what she sees as she descends, and that last set of thoughts that yawn into infinity; there’s a sense of rejoining a greater whole. And the book/film are both recursive as well, joining up storylines with each other, going back and forth, always coming back to the same themes in self-referential loops. This kind of mental and psychic load can be a form of overwhelming in its own right.

Without risk to yourself, try to experiment with allowing yourself to be dunked over and over in the stream of thought. Try and focus on one point of the current of inspiration you’re riding this month: go back to (choosing at random) poems you wrote on the 3rd day, 7th day, 13th day, and 21st day. Draw out a character, or maybe an image/idea you can shape into a face to apply to a humanoid mold, and plunge them in the part of the stream that contains whatever remnants of those four days lies buried in the sediment, or caught in a bit of kelp and cattail along the bank, maybe wrapped around a bridge pier. Do four free-writes, trying to go deeper each time, exploring the depths of your final week’s theme, always searching for that bit of old treasure. If I’m keeping up the biological process in the world bit, my drowning apparatus might be shape-shifting into sea creatures, growing gills, or the unique sensation of bursting lungs; what I’m looking for could be (from previous poems) saints, minnows, quantum mechanics, and the texture of gods. How does one set of transformations (the narrative of drowning) lead to another set of connections (the purpose of drowning)? Like I said, you don’t have to be literal, but allow the themes to cover you completely in some noticeable way.

And then, write a poem. You might want to demonstrate the effect in some concrete way: this is your chance to really make the last week’s threads of idea your own, getting as concrete and shaped (or maybe as loose and fluid) as you want. Go down, and down, and down. I sometimes think the action of poetry should always feel like this, as though we have rooted around to the bottom of a locked chest and found something terrifying/valuable/unknowable, with another lock on it. Then you break it open and begin again. How far can you allow yourself to go? Even Alice in the rabbit hole wasn’t sure she’d come back (although we, the reader, and you the poet, separate from the narrative voice, know otherwise), so let yourself be uncertain. Then come back, in the end, and be uncertain with the rest of us; uncertainty shared is, I don’t know, certainty multiplied. Insert aphorism here.


I think — think — this is my fiftieth draft this month (not all of them have been posted), not counting a few revisions of old work along the way. Which means I might achieve my goal of doing two poems + one prompt each day in April after all, which would be a huge relief. (I could sleep happy into May 1.) Maybe I will try to get a little bit ahead of myself this weekend to ease up on Monday and Tuesday next week. But a lot of these also have been remixes, found poems, re-worked texts, and a translation; not sure if I should count those. I suppose the point is to mess with language a little bit and see what happens, yeah? In any case, I think this year’s NaPo has exhausted me than any other I’ve done so far, and I need some serious regroup after it. For now, this is for Poets + Writers‘ challenge to open a book you’re reading (mine: Jane Hirshfield’s Nine Gates) to a random page (75) and use only the words on that page to make a “literary object”. The title is a throwaway, and I don’t actually feel the way I describe here, but I suppose it works, kind of. Meh. I think I’m usually better off when I just write my own thing… damn this prompt-addiction!


When I learned longing,
it was too abstract, too dark
with the American night.
My dream-shell might be
casual ink; my fierce choices
free of translation.
An emotional phrase grows
husked and rare in my ears,
later to turn black
with functions. The moon always
explaining; the custom of love
a world-weight, appearing.
Why, I also learned opening,
original and imagistic,
but inside the usual vividness
I stood here too aware. I was
made in reverse, then
believed that image mine.