Healing the Divide: Poems of Kindness and Connection

When the lockdown hit, it was like musical chairs after the music stopped. Whatever books from the library you already had in your possession, that was it. I feel extremely lucky to have already had this book of poems on hand, loaned from the Stanislaus County Library. They brought necessary warmth and comfort during dark, uncertain times.

An earlier version of me, my younger self, proclaimed a hatred of anthologies, including those of poems, but I have corrected that opinion, seeing the value. The editors say it best in the preface, anthologies are “an efficient means for finding beautiful and moving poems. The wrecks and fender-benders in nearly every individual poet’s books have been pushed off onto the shoulder, leaving only the poems still capable of taking us somewhere… Every anthology, too, is an argument for something, an act of persuasion, and this one is no exception.” My only beef is that it’s arranged alphabetical by author last name; so predictable, so boring, why not attempt something new with zetabetical ordering?

The collection came to my attention when I was searching for more poems by Danusha Laméris after appreciating her “Small Kindnesses”:

Small Kindnesses

I’ve been thinking about the way, when you walk
down a crowded aisle, people pull in their legs
to let you by. Or how strangers still say “bless you”
when someone sneezes, a leftover
from the Bubonic plague. “Don’t die,” we are saying.
And sometimes, when you spill lemons
from your grocery bag, someone else will help you
pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other.
We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,
and to say thank you to the person handing it. To smile
at them and for them to smile back. For the waitress
to call us honey when she sets down the bowl of clam chowder,
and for the driver in the red pick-up truck to let us pass.
We have so little of each other, now. So far
from tribe and fire. Only these brief moments of exchange.
What if they are the true dwelling of the holy, these
fleeting temples we make together when we say, “Here,
have my seat,” “Go ahead—you first,” “I like your hat.”

Lucinda Williams’s dad, Miller Williams, gives good advice:

Compassion

Have compassion for everyone you meet
even if they don’t want it. What seems conceit,
bad manners or cynicism is always a sign
of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen.
You do not know what wars are going on
down there where the spirit meets the bone.

This by Rob Jacques:

Inukshuk

Note: On frozen trails of the far north, Inuit people placed five stones in rough human form as a testament of endurance and as warm encouragement from those who had gone before to those who were coming after.

We were here. We saw sorrow.
Across our hearts, emptiness and cold
pulled hard, as they do in you now,
and we pressed on as you will do.
We did all that possibility will allow
and expect nothing less of you.
We stand guard over accomplishment
and a strong journey through all this.

See in gray desolation how we made
this five-piece thing and left it here,
a stone creation to bring you certainty
in this drear, frozen waste, showing
you and we are keepers of the flame
melting chaos. You and we proclaim.

This by Thomas R. Smith:

Trust

It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers—
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.

This by Sue Ellen Thompson:

Sewing

The night before my older sister’s wedding,
my mother and I sat up late
hand-stitching a little cloud of netting
to the brim of each bridesmaid’s hat.

To be alone with her was so rare
I couldn’t think of what I had to say.
We worked in silence beneath the chandelier
until it was almost daybreak.

Soon I’d have a room of my own
and she would only be cooking for six.
We drifted among the wreaths we had sewn,
nursing quietly on our fingertips.

That she still had me was a comfort,
I think. And I still had her.

This by Barbara Crooker:

Listen,

I want to tell you something. This morning
is bright after all the steady rain, and every iris,
peony, rose, opens its mouth, rejoicing. I want to say,
wake up, open your eyes, there’s a snow-covered road
ahead, a field of blankness, a sheet of paper, an empty screen.
Even the smallest insects are singing, vibrating their entire bodies,
tiny violins of longing and desire. We were made for song.
I can’t tell you what prayer is, but I can take the breath
of the meadow into my mouth, and I can release it for the leaves’
green need. I want to tell you your life is a blue coal, a slice
of orange in the mouth, cut hay in the nostrils. The cardinals’
red song dances in your blood. Look, every month the moon
blossoms into a peony, then shrinks to a sliver of garlic.
And then it blooms again.

Tender Buttons

In a letter dated 15 April 1914 Gertrude responded to what the title should be: “Tender Buttons, will be the title of the book. On the title page after the general the three sub titles, Food, Rooms, Objects.” Abstract poems that are meant to be read aloud so you catch the sounds. Cubism in words (don’t forget she’d been palling around with Picasso and his milieu for years by then). Even the quasi sub-table of contents within food is poetic: ROASTBEEF; MUTTON; BREAKFAST; SUGAR; CRANBERRIES; MILK; EGGS; APPLE; TAILS; LUNCH; CUPS; RHUBARB; SINGLE; FISH; CAKE; CUSTARD; POTATOES; ASPARAGUS; BUTTER; END OF SUMMER; SAUSAGES; CELERY; VEAL; VEGETABLE; COOKING; CHICKEN; PASTRY; CREAM; CUCUMBER; DINNER; DINING; EATING; SALAD; SAUCE; SALMON; ORANGE; COCOA; AND CLEAR SOUP AND ORANGES AND OATMEAL; SALAD DRESSING AND AN ARTICHOKE; A CENTRE IN A TABLE.

Words are piled onto each other, spun around, made dizzy to topple and fall exhausted outside their normal meanings. Sounds are favored over logic, although it results in delights like “The sister was not a mister…. Replacing a casual acquaintance with an ordinary daughter does not make a son.”

CHICKEN.

Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.

And this:

South, south which is a wind is not rain, does silence choke speech or does it not.

 

The Best American Poetry 2019

I used to abhor anthologies but now I find them perfectly suited to my taste, my mood, my attention span(?). These are the best poems of the year, according to Major Jackson this year’s guest editor, a bold statement that invites raised eyebrows. And  of course leads to all sorts of squabbles in the comments/rating system of the book online, people who are pissed not to see more straight white men represented, as if we haven’t had enough of their droning. My own beef is with the ordering system, listing the poems by author’s last name, alphabetical. As someone with a name at the end of the alphabet, I hate this default ordering system. Why not zetabetical, mix it up a bit?

I loved poems from my continued favorite, Ada Limón (Cannibal Woman), along with David Lehman’s It Could Happen to You (I like the idea of taking the anniversary of an event and exploring what else was happening on that day, oh so long ago).

Ilya Kaminsky’s Last Will and Testament, Amy Gerstler’s haunting Update (what life is like after a death), Chen Chen’s I Invite My Parents to a Dinner Party wherein they are advised yet again that he is gay and his boyfriend will be attending and to please be interested in him. Victoria Chang’s Six Obits also great (I’m seeing my trend of loving death as a topic)—for friendships, optimism, affection, clothes, the ocean, and the clock. Margaret Atwood has a delightful Update on Werewolves which allows women to get wild and hairy. Jeffrey McDaniel’s Bio from a Parallel World: “Jeffrey McDaniel runs his hands along the two f’s in his name like elephant tusks and shakes his head like a bucket full of soggy trademarks.” The powerful Head Crack Head Crack from Willie Perdomo. Philip Schultz’s The Women’s March zapped me back in time to 2017 at my own march. And I like the idea of David Wojahn’s Still Life: Stevens’s Wallet on a Key West Hotel Dresser, where he describes the contents of Wallace Stevens’s wallet as he’s at a conference away from his wife.

A Poetry Handbook

Another book I’ve been sipping from for weeks, and one I’ll likely keep reading continuously. I picked up at the Beat Museum, on my list to buy after another poet (Hoagland) called Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” so I rose to defend her. This is a helpful book that drills down on technique, inviting students to mimic other writers to try on different styles, to pay attention to SOUND, to the line, whether or not to go for free verse or something more restricted, the role of imagery, tone, voice, the importance of revision.

She recommends consistent writing to allow inspiration to know when to show up. You “promise to be at your desk in the evenings, from seven to nine. It waits, it watches. If you are reliably there, it begins to show itself—soon it begins to arrive when you do. But if you are only there sometimes or are frequently late or inattentive, it will appear fleetingly, or it will not appear at all.”

Imagery

“The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely, or anyway that part of the world she has taken for subject. If a poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because she has not stood long enough among the flowers—not seen them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.”

Line length

“The pentameter line is the primary line used by the English poets not for any mysterious reason, but simply because the pentameter line most nearly matches the breath capacity of our English lungs—that is, speaking in English—and thus it is the line most free from any special effect.”

Tone

“In order for the tone of the poem to change, the line had to change. Now a line was needed that would sound and feel not like formal speech but like conversation. What was needed was a line which, when read, would feel as spontaneous, as true to the moment, as talk in the street, or talk between friends in one’s own house…. Speech entered the poem. The poem was no longer a lecture, it was time spent with a friend. Its music was the music of conversation.”

 

Leaves of Grass (1855 edition)

Almost a week of December has slipped away and I’ve only posted one book here, what could I be up to? I’ve been sipping slowly and deliberately at this delicious Whitman concoction for the past few weeks and finally decided to pop it up here, although I don’t think I’m going to ever stop reading it, a few lines a day maybe, briefly considering the effort it would take to memorize some of it, wouldn’t that be divine to be able to summon Uncle Walt’s words at a moment’s notice? So far I’ve only managed to memorize “Washes and razors for foo-foos…. for me, freckles and a bristling beard”—a line that Whitman excised from the “Deathbed” edition of his much-revised poems, which tells you everything you need to know about which version to read (this first one, of course).  This Penguin edition I’m reading has an intro by Malcolm Crowley from 1955 wherein he calls this first edition a “buried masterpiece of American writing” because everyone ignored it before his resurrection I suppose. Walt himself insisted that the 1892 Deathbed edition (a bloated 383 poems instead of the pure 12 included here) was the version he preferred and recommended, but I’m on Crowley’s side with this one.

This version seems more pure, a simple clarity with “no twistified or foggy sentences” as Whitman himself put it. After 1855 he fell under his own spell and thought himself a prophet, puffed up his prose and overedited things into shambles. Crowley calls this period when Whitman was “inflated.”

The only thing I’ve yet to really appreciate is Whitman’s original introduction to the 1855 edition, written after the poems and when he was catching a bit of the puff of himself. It’s 19 pages of blathering that I need to gird myself to go back to, when I’d much rather frolic in the verses themselves. “My words itch at your ears till you understand them.”

Sidenote, not from anything I read in this edition but my own convoluted knowledge of strange things: Whitman’s idea for the cover art (Flowery letters of gold overlaid on green) came after he saw his pal Fannie Fern‘s book cover- Fern Leaves from Fanny’s Portfolio (to whom he owed a bit of money that he never repaid, by the by).

 

Illuminations

Arthur Rimbaud’s Illuminations (1875), translated by John Ashbery in 2011, is a wonderous thing. I love Ashbery’s word choices and the decision (always wise) to publish the French and English side by side, allowing me to test my rudimentary French skills and roll the words around in my mouth.

In part 5 of the prose poem, Childhood/Enfance, “I am the learned scholar in the dark armchair. Branches and the rain hurl themselves at teh library’s casement window. I am the walker on the great highway through dwarf woods; the murmur of sluices muffles my steps. I gaze for a long time at the melancholy gold laundry of the setting sun.” (la mélancolique lessive d’or du couchant– gorgeous!)

I confess most of my knowledge about Rimbaud comes from The Day on Fire: A Novel Suggested by the Life of Arthur Rimbaud which was excellent.

 

Application for Release from the Dream

My wavering appreciation for Hoagland returned a bit stronger with this 2015 collection of poems. He’s still problematic, of course, but you can tell he’s trying to own up to his white male privilege, even if he gets to wink and nudge his way there: “I probably should not have called my class in feminist literature Books by Girls.” And his strange White Writer poem where he flips the designation, hating to be known as a white writer when he’s so much more.

“There is no single particular noun for the way a friendship, stretched over time, grows thin, then one day snaps with a popping sound.”

“The flaring force of this thing we call identity as if it were a message, a burning coal one carries in one’s mouth for sixty years, for delivery to whom, exactly; to where?”

The Art of Voice: Poetic Principles and Practice

Hoagland speaks from beyond the grave with this latest book of essays about poetry focusing on the voice of the writer. “When we hear a distinctive voice in a poem, our full attention is aroused and engaged, because we suspect that here, now, at last, we may learn how someone else does it—that is, how they live, breathe, think, feel, and talk.”

Great example poems in here and he seems to correct his gender imbalance a bit. Another reference to the Czselaw Milosz poem Ars Poetica? with this sentence: “The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person.”

I did not like the constant reminder after each essay to find corresponding writing exercises at the back of the book, it made it seem dumbed down.

Real Sofistikashun: Essays on Poetry and Craft

My crush on Hoagland is crashing and burning, no surprise. I waded through these lectures/essays and noticed a faint whiff of the stench that ubiquitous white male arrogance brings to the table, invariably. At least he’s dead and so won’t be horrified by my change of heart. At one point he calls Mary Oliver “the Miss Manners of poetic convention,” which made my misogynistic spidey senses start tingling. Then I started noticing that most of his examples of poems in the essays were by men, a handful of women sprinkled in. Rage simmered once I reached his treatment of Gertrude Stein; no one is able to refrain from poking fun at her awareness of her own genius.

A few things I did take from slogging through this: fragment is the unit, juxtaposition is the method, collage is the result.

And an introduction to the wonderful Matthea Harvey, whose poem is here:

FIRST PERSON FABULOUS

First Person fumed & fizzed under Third Person’s tongue while Third Person slumped at the diner counter, talking, as usual, to no one.Third Person thought First Person was the toilet paper trailing from Third Person’s shoe, the tiara Third Person once wore in a dream to a funeral. First Person thought Third Person was a layer of tar on a gorgeous pink nautilus, a foot on a fountain, a tin hiding the macaroons and First Person was that nautilus, that fountain, that pile of macaroons. Sometimes First Person broke free on first dates (with a Second Person) & then there was the delicious rush of “I this” and “I that” but then no phone call & for weeks Third Person wouldn’t let First Person near anyone. Poor First Person. Currently she was exiled to the world of postcards (having a lovely time)—& even then that beast of a Third Person used the implied “I” just to drive First Person crazy. She felt like a television staring at the remote, begging to be turned on. She had so many things she wanted to say. If only she could survive on her own, she’d make Third Person choke on herself & when the detectives arrived & all eyes were on her, she’d cry out, “I did it! I did it! Yes, dahlings, it was me!

Priest Turned Therapist Treats Fear of God: Poems

More goodness from Hoagland in his final book of poetry, poems about oncology waiting rooms and realizing things are better than expected, “I have outlasted the voluntary numbness I required in order to remain alive.” Letters to his father, “He is the language that you use when you speak harshly to yourself, trying to hide the fact that you are lost.” In Moment in the Conversation, after a woman drops a casual reference to her husband and realizing he’s probably been leaning in too closely, “Life used to be a whole subdivision of crazy possibilities but now it’s just a few quiet rooms on the second floor in the economy motel near the edge of town.” In Trying to Keep You Happy, I love this image: “On summer days, the southwest breeze will carry the drowsy mumbling of bees out of the corn and grapevines across the kitchen window sill where in a little tray above the sink the bar of soap your hands have touched repeatedly is waiting to be touched again.” In Frog Song, comparing the croak of bullfrogs to the voices of dead fathers, “at a certain hour of the night they begin to speak with disproportionate satisfaction from the warm porridge of the swamp, where they believe they are geniuses and kings, having discovered an unexpected gift for throat-singing, and an ability to love themselves they were denied in human life… Father—go take your place among your kind, content in the oily moistness of your skin, replete in your ability to catch the quickest bugs. I would have loved you more, if only I had known you were a frog—amphibious, mottled, and small-brained; not intimate by nature; preferring to stay half-immersed below the water line; so much a part of nature’s plan you are oblivious to it.”

And from The Third Dimension, this, after comparing himself to Odysseus:

I don’t know why I thought it was a good idea
to go through life hidden.
It must be something I picked up while traveling.
Clearly it has something to do with self-protection.
I just have this preference for keeping the edges blurry.

The only thing that confused me was the inclusion of the poem Playboy in here again, it was in his 2009 chapbook, Little Oceans, but nothing else was repeated.

 

 

 

 

 

From another book of poems that I skimmed but am not putting up here because I can’t stop thinking about it:

What Narcissism Means to Me: Poems

This 2003 collection contains a few of the poems people were chattering about recently that drew me to Hoagland. My initial flurry of swoon is waning a bit, as it is want to do, I can never sustain a writerly crush for long on contemporaries for some reason. I’m a bit put out by his weird racist-adjacent writing, rooting for the white girl in the tennis match against the strong black woman, anti-rap music in another. But then I come around again with poems like Hate Hotel: “Sometimes I like to think about the people I hate. I take my room at the Hate Hotel, and I sit and flip through the heavy pages of the photographs, the rogue’s gallery of the faces I loathe. My lamp of resentment sputters twice, then comes on strong, filling the room with its red light. That’s how hate works—it thrills you and kills you with its deep heat. Sometimes I like to sit and soak in the Jacuzzi of my hate, hatching my plots…”

Another favorite: Reasons to Survive November:

Little Oceans

Hello to a new poet crush who I read all the way home from the library, cackling with delight and reading poems quietly aloud as I strolled, only pausing to look up at intersections where death machines (e.g. cars) lurked. Someone mentioned Tony Hoagland in my digital world today, and, in need of a brisk walk, I hied down to the main library to scoop up his work.

His phrases are to die for, “swinging her credit card like a scythe,” “the guy on the rowing machine who is stroking across a cardiovascular ocean.”

A few hits:

The Uses of the Body

Deborah Landau’s book of poems from 2015 sparkles, flashes of light from the language that catch the tips of my eyes before twisting me around, dizzy. Her description of the chaos of a summer, beginning with a wedding, a death mourned in Paris, a birth, a relocation from LA to New York. An entire lifetime captured in a slim, bursting volume of poetry.

Meditations in an Emergency

Frankie soothes me with his 1957 book of poems. Gems include For Grace, After a Party (Grace Hartigan) and the eponymous Meditations in an Emergency.

For Grace:

You do not always know what I am feeling.
Last night in the warm spring air while I was
blazing my tirade against someone who doesn’t interest / me, it was love for you that set me / afire, / and isn’t it odd? for in rooms full of / strangers my most tender feelings /
writhe and / bear the fruit of screaming. Put out your hand, / isn’t there
an ashtray, suddenly, there? beside / the bed? And someone you love enters the room / and says wouldn’t / you like the eggs a little / different today? / And when they arrive they are / just plain scrambled eggs and the warm weather / is holding.

Blue Iris: Poems and Essays

A great collection of poetry and brief essays by Mary Oliver that I found while in the “O”s of the poetry section recently. Two favorites:

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I’m pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can’t keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another — why don’t you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don’t want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don’t want to sell my life for money,

I don’t even want to come in out of the rain.

 

and Blue Iris

Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Can’t fly, can’t run, and see how slowly I walk.

Well, I think, I can read books.

“What’s that you’re doing?”
the green-headed fly shouts as it buzzes past.

I close the book.

Well, I can write down words, like these, softly.

“What’s that you’re doing?” whispers the wind, pausing
in a heap just outside the window.

Give me a little time, I say back to its staring, silver face.
It doesn’t happen all of a sudden, you know.

“Doesn’t it?” says the wind, and breaks open, releasing
distillation of blue iris.

And my heart panics not to be, as I long to be,
the empty, waiting, pure, speechless receptacle.