Field Notes, Week of 02-16-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 16, 2021

Good morning and welcome to the Field Notes for the February 16, 2021 RWB Workshop.

Janet Kolstein (no copy included) brought a rewrite of her poem “Did you know Neil Lasher?” about one of those odd apartment house elevator acquaintanceships that ends in learning of the person’s passing, and a concomitantly odd form of mourning that ensues. I thought of it as an elegy pulling the slender threads of that incomplete portrait. So much information and the contours of the emotional gap revealed in these two lines: “I’d interviewed him in a Meet Your Neighbor segment/ that aired on our (now) cancelled condo channel.” And so much reverence (I think that’s not the wrong word) in this lovely quatrain:

He was always pulled together;
grey cashmere around his heck,
navy blue sweater, or a smart suit cut to his roundness.
A nimbus of stylish white hair

The kindness of “smart suit cut to his roundness” slayed me.

Claudia Serea’s poem, “If I could go back in time” imagines a time before the speaker was born, before her parents met, when her father as a young man was arrested by the secret police in Romania for what he’d written in poems in a high school notebook. In this poem, the unborn speaker imagines herself a gust of wind that blows that notebook off the table and out of sight of the secret police, thereby saving her father, but also, coincidentally, insuring that her father wouldn’t meet her mother and she, the speaker, would never be born. There is a wonderful moment in this wonderful poem when the narrative ends (“the Securitate would never find [the book]” and the poem leaps to two images in a couplet: “The flame would crawl into the match,/ the spider would swallow back its web.” They are images that illuminate time moving backwards, or undone cause undoing effect, and they are followed by the monostich: ‘and my father would be spared.’  Great story telling move, I think, and it is followed, ironically, with the new effect, that the speaker, the daughter, as savior, presented as a gust of wind would, by logic, have “swelled the curtains, exhaled,/ and disappeared.” So the sacrifice comes home in the last word of the poem. Nice work.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Fetish” talks about a guardian angel who “is neither.” Presented as a story in free verse with variable line lengths but a slender overall appearance, the poem portrays the ‘angel’ as a kind of pet or disruptive and sexually perverted child who masturbates hovering in front of a shoe store window. Funny as anything, the poem mostly avoids talking about the speaker, this parent/pet owner, except in the lines that reveal their superstitious nature: “so the other day I’m walking/ into town, busy avoiding the cracks/ in the sidewalk while counting back/ from a hundred by sevens.” And that’s really all it takes! I think that what energizes Tom’s work beyond the bizarre imagination of the supernatural, is his excellent management of lines that keeps his odd tales moving. Look at all these great line ending words: neither, levitate, ground, breaststroker, incontinent, cracks, staring, rubbing, inappropriate, swat, angel, revolving, embarrassment, shoes! And look too at the fabulous break at “three” in the compound word “three-legged dog,” which so zazzes the funny line with additional expectation, or the breaks between “rubbing” and “himself” and between “inappropriate” and “way,” that enliven each new line with impetus and momentum. So, it’s not just the story, but the lines that include fresh surprising details in an entertaining and engaging and surprising way. And, as the workshop pointed out, the title “Fetish” applies not only to the angel’s love of shoes, but can be a slantwise reference to the angel itself under the definition of fetish as “an inanimate object worshiped for its supposed magical powers.”  Thanks Tom.

For a different approach to narrative, Raymond Turco brought another of his hagiographic sketches, this one about the assassinated PM of Italy “Aldo Moro.” In all of these sketches, this one included, Ray writes in the second person, but oddly forfeits the proximity of that mode of address with an impersonal voice and a narrative style. The net effect can be somewhat “Dragnet-like,” the historical importance of the hero’s life, the chilling circumstances of their death circumscribed in a just-the-facts mode. The poem part of the poem is in prosy free verse, and is followed by an actual prose paragraph reciting more or less the same facts. The slight difference between the poem part and the prose part lies in the some details included in one and not the other and in ‘commentary’ such as “A mystery surrounds you, Aldo,/ the details are still unclear,” which is true.

Barbara Hall’s poem “HAIKU Visions for Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Seashell” is a rewrite in tercets of Barbara’s praise poem for seashells. Now the poem leans on both Wallace Stevens and on the form of haiku for support, and could possibly lose itself in the ascription. What does this series of tercets risk and/or gain by calling itself haiku? And how has it answered Wallace Stevens’ invention? The group was happy to take it on its own terms independent of the title as a series of recollections about finding shells, eating shellfish, using shells as art, and even getting a gash on one’s knee that needed stiches. 

Shane Wagner’s poem “Robert Frost, Jennifer Poeteet and Shane Wagner in the Woods” starts off alluding heavily to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” but moves on to discuss the speaker feeding his son, and the challenges of having special needs children, and ending on a question about mortality. In that diffuse sense, it accepts and rejects Frost’s dichotomy concerning paths through life as there are roads, but the only choices are local. I love the way the poem alludes not just to Frost, but to Jen Poteet’s series of what she calls anachronistic poems about dead poets revived as interlocutors. And I love the way Shane made a party out of it by inviting a person/poet named Shane Wagner to come along for the walk.  It would be interesting to see Shane excavate this poem for its mineral wealth. 

Susanna Lee’s poem was a prose/poem called “Locks of Love” that was a waggish satirical take on Viking lore, that spoofed (or was it an homage pretending to be a spoof) the hyper sexuality of the type. “The men’s manliness oozed and anointed these, their holy women, all over.”

Jen Poteet, fresh from her appearance in Shane’s poem brought one of her own called “On Valentine’s Day, Everyone’s a Poet.” Though she never delivered on the promise of the title, there was a spritely insouciance to the portrayal of cupid as “a chubby little saint” who “aims an arrow” and the monosyllable one-word italicized, exclamation: thwack! 

Yana Kane’s poem “Unbinding” came in three parts separated by dots. The first presented the interesting proposition of the speaker as an old woman emerging from a chrysalis. The second and third segments proposed variations (no, not 13 variations) on the idea of metamorphosis. The third segment was a haiku in at least a couple of ways: its adherence to the American syllabic count for the lines (5-7-5) and also the grab of a moment out of time, this one so clearly depicted as an afternoon light phenomenon:

Holding sunset light

above the rising shadow,

a rusty pipe glows.

Frank Rubino’s poem was called “Mary.” Like other of Frank’s work, centers (?) on a reality of suburban home life, the speaker’s place in the world and leaking water, and veers away to consider other things: a Russian language singer, the speaker’s wife’s decorative lights, and a woman named Mary. I loved the homeowner’s mystical relationship to his home in these sweet lines:

I opened the tiny hatch in the basement ceiling, and reached up into the dark super-ceiling,

Somehow my hand knows which pipes are full:

the more lightly you touch, the more you know.

And I also loved the way the name Mary became a lambent unknown in these lyrical lines:

I was washing a pot from dinner,

and the smell of bay leaf

arose on the steam, and reminded me of Mary.

And I said, out loud, “Oh Mary.”

And my wife asked me, What made you think of Mary?”

I also liked the way the poem came back to the image of reaching for a valve in the dark to refer to the way memory works: “I reached my hand into the dark compartment of my brain.” 

On the overall, I think it would be good if we as a group spent time talking about how a poem does what it does and doesn’t do what it doesn’t. A poem has available to it the huge range of devices, modalities and tools that poetry has invented over the last ten thousand years: form, line, sentence, argument, rhetoric, image, voice, diction, assonance, resonance, repetition, allusion to other sources, drama, narrative and lyric modes; subject, theme, irony, sarcasm (?); and we, as poets, as practitioners rather than simply as customers, have a greater awareness of what’s going on in a poem. And we can learn and the writer of the poem can learn more from us talking about what is going on—even if it seems obvious to us—than they can learn from finding out what we are or aren’t bothered by. Yet so often, instead of talking about what a poem is and how a poem is and where a poem seems to want to go and whether it seems to get there and if not why not—from which we can learn a lot—the first thing out of our mouths is “I would” instead of “you did.” Praise is important, but “I love” is only the beginning of informed praise. Don’t we ever worry that we’re imposing our own ideas of what a poem should be on a poem without exposing what those ideas are or figuring out what the poet has made? Isn’t there some sort of homogenization process going on when we jump to edit along “traditional” “modernistic” lines as though we were repairing a Ford for which a greasy dogeared manual exists rather than meeting a poem—a fucking creation—on its own terms?  Can you imagine saying to God—“love the universe, but you should have ended at Jacob?”

—Arthur Russell