Field Notes, Week of 07-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of July 13, 2021


Hey, everyone, last week Arthur was back to the workshop, and here are his insightful weekly Field Notes. Welcome back, Arthur!



It was great to be back after a 6 week hiatus for a workshop through the Brooklyn Poets with Jay Deshpande, part of the year long mentorship program.

Shane Wagner brought a prose poem called “Beautiful Japanese Man” about an encounter on a commuter train between the ungendered speaker and the person he refers to as the titular “Beautiful Japanese Man.” As seems appropriate, the encounter is presented mostly as a choreography of movements and a meeting of eyes, a dumb show of strangers that could, at first, have been out of a spy movie or a police procedural, until the speaker and the man “looked away then met each other’s eye several times until we eventually gave up and just started at one another.” The remarkable thing is how efficiently the poem moves through its narration, from gaze to stare, and then, quite powerfully, how the man is able to summon the speaker back onto the train when the speaker gets off at 14th Street.  The intimacy of that moment is great, and once they are restored to the train, the poem’s sole line of dialogue, indirect but obvious, “I have an apartment” brings the poem to a nearly silent boil.  There’s a lovely moment after that, too, when the speaker, considering the proposition, “wondered if it was a company apartment and if he was there only part of the time.”  The real debate about this poem, it seems addressed how much of a lead-in the poem needed/wanted, and how to frame the final shot after the speaker “made a slight no gesture with [his] head.”  Everyone had an opinion on that, but the group did not discuss the gender of the speaker or how the speaker “knew” that the beautiful man was Japanese.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “Turning over in his grave” is a narrative about a cab ride in Romania, another traditional poetic form, strangers meeting here as they do in Shane Wagner’s “Beautiful Japanese Man” in a public mode of conveyance.  While Shane’s poem was about an almost-sex event, Ana’s poem is about generational ignorance, a cabbie who voices the popular complaints about the shortcomings of government, and a passenger who is evidently from an older generation, who knows better how bad the former government was, and, after listening to (and reporting to us) all the ignorant shit the cabbie says, delivers a sarcastic rebuke from the back seat in a final stanza mic drop.  

Claudia Serea‘s free verse poem in short line stanzas of variable length, “The cemetery is full” depicts a cemetery full of broken and lichenous statuary that the poem animates to create a scene of somber decay, so ultimately the poem creates a picture in which “the cemetery is full” but the speaker “suspect[s] all of the souls are gone.” Rather than end at that firm bottom, however, the poem continues with what might seem like a reaffirmation of life, as the speaker lines their “pockets/ with portulaca seeds,” which, as Lia pointed out, can produce the most vivid and colorful of flowers.  

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “Flag on an Overpass,” a free verse in two eight-line stanzas of varied length, though the second stanza has longer, more even lines.  The first stanza imagines a car trip.  The second stanza takes place in a cemetery (two cemetery poems in a row!).  Claudia’s cemetery was full of statuary, but empty of souls.  In Don’s poem “Every grave, car, stone, parking space, mourner,/ gate, bird, flower, and window is empty.”  Claudia’s poem lingers on the details of decay that make a somber picture of the cemetery, while Don’s poem lists the categories of cemetery stuff and calls them empty.  Claudia’s poem has no first person narrator until the end with the portulaca seeds, and presents its message of uplift (if that’s what it is) in the gesture of the seeds, while Don’s poem establishes the speaker long before they reach the cemetery, driving down the highway, and is overt in presenting the speaker’s emotional state in the first stanza “I remember why I love/ or forget why I don’t love, and my heart fills up.” And in the second stanza, “I forget what I feel.  I remember what the tree feels.” So Don’s poem is more “argumentative” in the sense that however abstractly it moves, it works by overtly drawing parallels between speaker and scene. Neither poem tells us specifically why the speaker is in the cemetery, but the workshop seemed to accept that the graveyard does a lot of the centering work, and that’s been true since long before Thomas Grey and his “Elegy in a Country Churchyard.” And it’s good in our discussion to notice these canonical moves of setting and all of the allusions, shared assumptions, and other baggage they bring to a poem.

Carole Stone‘s “Sweet Dreams” has no cemetery, but it has elegy, and if not grief,  “breather/ from grief….a fit of pique.” In short line, rather incantatory, sometimes rhyming free verse, in four stanzas, it moves around a widow’s poolside world, considering the lost husband, absence, and presents us at the end with “the unpaid bill of loss.”  

My own poem, “New Sponge Trilogy” is a three part poem that begins with a facebook post in couplets about the day he changes kitchen sponges. This section begins with a form of general address about what “we” do, as though the tribe of kitchen sponge changers was a religious group, but ends up abandoning the “we” for a first person address about how the speaker’s daughter will someday find all of the old sponges in the basement ‘shop’ in the house. Part 2 of the poem continues the social media thread, but speaks in the voice of a single bacterium living in the speaker’s sponge, a bacterium which tells of seeing the author of the poem eating a fried egg sandwich at his kitchen sink and relating, knowingly, not only who the author is, and what his marital status is, but distinguishing the author from a more famous homonym. If there was dry humor in the first section, there is a certain degree of wet humor in the second. The third section also continues the social media genre, but takes on a third voice, that of an old friend of the speaker/author, who writes to the speaker/author privately in a message to remember being urged by her mother (back in h.s.) to consider the possibility of taking on the speaker/author as a boyfriend, which she rejects, and in rejecting reveals that the speaker/author holds onto a lot more than sponges, which she urges him, for his own sake, to let go.  
 
Lia DiStefano‘s poem “Secrets from The Deer Head” creatively imagines that the jazz music played at a somewhat well known but not famous jazz club/bar at the Delaware Water Gap had a mystical connection to the mites and woodworms living in the old building’s walls.

Brendan McEntee‘s poem “The Great Wave” is blocky and substantial on the page, long lines, almost paragraphs that give the poem a certain visual heft and even a sense of foreboding with the title looming above it like the great wave it names ready to crash.  It is always good to be aware of the look of the poem on the page and what it is telling us before we begin to read, because these impressions guide us into the poem and set the mood in ways that we, as poets can be aware of and use to our advantage, or ignore and pretend that it doesn’t matter how the words are arrayed.  The first line of Brendan’s poem is a big turn from the title.  Look how it engages with the title, in quiet argument:  “The Great Wave”—”It’s a rogue wave, really.  So says the literature: the rest of us see tsunami.”  So we already know that this poem, unlike, for example, Claudia’s, which moves through depiction to create emotional effect, or Don’s which engages in emotional counterpoint of speaker and scene, this poem is a talker, an explainer, a knowledger.  Between the title and the first line, the poem has invited us into something calm, reasonable, patient, and then, almost immediately backs this up with a reference to a woodblock print of the wave, so the poem takes on an ekphrastic quality, which reinforces the impression of thoughtfulness we have about the speaker, so that when the speaker locates the print of the wave inside “one of my favorite restaurants,” the poem allows the owner of the restaurant to perform the analysis of the woodblock (clever, that) and is already moving on a couple of tracks to introduce the subject, tell us about the speaker and give us a way into a narrative that will, eventually be about a failed romantic encounter followed, years later by a distressed call from the former date/companion, who relates a dream that takes us back to the ocean, to waves and parents, and deep familial distress, back in fact to the very restaurant where the woodblock print was hanging.  This poem is something special, a rich stew.

Yana Kane‘s aphoristic “Be free!” is a poem in the imperative, directing the reader to appreciate life with all its contradictions.

Frank Rubino‘s “Mom the artist reads to Brother Bill”  is a domestic inquiry into childhood, not exactly a nostalgia, but an unwinding and rewinding of two brother’s relationships to their mother, to the story of Noah and the Ark, (and look how the Great Flood here, as a resort of parable resembles Brendan’s reach back to the Great Wave for both anchor the poem.  We’re always looking back to shared origins.).  In Brendan’s poem, the great wave invades the dreams of the failed companion.  In Frank’s poem, there is it becomes a heavy-handed metaphor conveying the sibling roles played by speaker and brother (you’re the Flood and I’m the Ark because I’m good).  Another interesting aspect of this twisted reflection on the classic is the role played by “Mom the artist” in the title, who is presented not only as the reader of the “Bible story book with lurid illustrations.” And the poem brings mom back twice in a way that is obviously unsettling, first, at the end of this sentence drawing the boys into equal preadolescence:

We both wear dirty underwear the same
and know each other’s drawers and striped crew socks
& the degree and provenance of each other’s stink,
as Mom, too, well knows.

And it seems to me in that first tag of “mom” syntactically appended to the equivalence, reasserts the role of the mother, maybe not as artist, but as intelligence, awareness backup, support.  Then the next sentence does the same trick again; both boys watched monster films in a very specific way in a very specific place evoked with the kind of deep love that can only apply to home, and then again, at the end, “as Mom well knows,” and that “well knows” and now the awareness has developed into a kind of “presiding” over the boys, and we, as readers are asked to notice, and having notices the mom’s second appearance as president, should we also notice her absence after the third parallelism between the boys which immediately follows, which reiterates the good brother bad brother conclusion with which the poem started—should we notice that mom, the president, does not well know that Frank is the good kid and Bill is the bad kid?  

There are things not fully worked out in this poem.  Should they remain not fully worked out?  That seems to be the question Frank asks over and over in his work.

Hey, everybody, we need to hear from everyone in the workshop about the poetry that takes place in our workshop. From everyone on virtually every poem, with respect for one anothers’ different styles and different pacings and different comfort levels.  The workshop is a place for work that we all share for one another, through observation and intelligence, and no one voice of the group is more important than another, so please pitch in.

Arthur  Russell