Field Notes, Week of 02-22-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of February 22, 2022

Hi: We had a good hardworking workshop on Tuesday and got to hear good poems and learn from them. After all, it’s not our job to make other people’s poems conform to our tastes, but to dive into a poem, come up with some ideas about what it wants to be and how it wants to become that.

Rob Goldstein’s poem, “Charlie McCarthy” has a wonderful first stanza that allows the mind to enter a field of fruitful deduction and leave behind the earthbound work of connotation. It’s up there with his best stuff. 

Grafted onto awful stillness
is this self-conscious dandy—
a dissonance of spirit and hickory,
essential to the uncanny.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Hospice, with a Friend” takes us right into that fraught place at that fraught moment, and does so not with a physical description, but by sharing the bizarre emotional and moral questions that run through a visitor’s mind, such as this, in the opening line: “Should I write you off early while you’re on your deathbed?” Questions like that continue for the first half of the poem, but when action does replace wonderment, it’s so we can hear about the speaker getting drunk: “I drink myself under./ You’re on your deathbed.  I swig extra slugs, one for one…” I thought the last couplet of the poem threw up its hands and said something somewhat drunk, slurred, abject, ineffable and beautiful: “You’re on your deathbed/ Roses and honey and dew.”

Frank Rubino’s poem “Have a target for your kindness” was about two things, needing kindness and exhorting/promoting kindness, even offering “a voice for your kindness.” The poem, whose argument is fractured that way, between ‘you need kindness’ and ‘do kindness’ drives forward with a seeming unwillingness to let go of its central intuition, talking about eyes that need kindness, arms, legs, and genitals that need kindness, accurate and false words that need kindness, and then offering help from the other angle: “If you want to be kinder/ here is a voice for your kindness.” And the picture that emerges is that this business of kindness is a lot more complex and delicate that volition, and the poem culminates with a beautiful suburban image that bodies forth the whole without trying to define it: “How lightly can you touch the shopping cart & make it roll/ to its nesting place in the other shopping carts.” That’s the good stuff we come to workshop to cultivate.

The thing that’s so promising about Barbara Hall’s “Dear Dead Husband [DDH]”, is the invitation it offers the reader through its form and tone to decipher the poet’s attitude to the expired spouse. Is he missed or is she glad he’s gone? Is there irony, sarcasm, affection? It’s clearly an elegy in the form of an epistle, but the things she writes about, the day-to-day business of life, the sleeping, the laundry, the very long trips to the grocery store, seem to miniscule to support a full scale, happy-you’re-gone. 

Janet’s “Google Earth and Beyond: Alexandria, Egypt” like several other Google Earth poems Janet has written, travel poems for the covid bound, takes us to Egypt, and the first line just about sets the stakes and suggests the limitations for this kind of journey. “I’m seeking Cleopatra and come upon a man with a blurry face.” The poem (not in the package) tells us what we can see (“the magnificent new Biblioteca said to be/ on the side of the library burned circa 48 BC”) and what we can’t (“the spots of the hoi polloi/ in the vast beige grid populated by 8 million”) and there’s a real sense of frustration and resignation, but also loss in the last line, “condemned, as I am, to an eternity of digitality.”

Tom Benediktsson’s “Panopticon”—a word referring to a circular prison with a central courtyard designed by Jeremy Bentham in the 17th C, in which a single guard could watch all the prisoners arrayed in cells around the circumference —imagines imprisonment.  It has a traditional prison reference to the bird overhead as a reminder of freedom, but also imagines prison as a place of stories, stories that challenge traditional perspectives of incarceration. The jailer and the jailed are mirror images of each other, and the speaker may be the prisoner. A pair of old women skipping in the snow pursued by their nurse may be the prisoner’s dream, but it is also a metaphor for the way identity works, as is a sock puppet worn by the prisoner, whose name is Tom, who challenges the jailer to define the identity of the prisoner.      

Shane Wagner’s poem, “Shake Me,” a prosy piece, appears to be a sort of surreal dream too, in which the speaker is an honoree in a tickertape parade, riding in an open convertible with two beautiful movie stars from the 1970s, but the ticker tape scraps of paper, printed with words like “Terms of Service” and “Usual and Customary” suggest a darker, perhaps sinister undercurrent. Why else would he want to be awakened?

Jennifer Poteet is starting a new series, poems about or taking place in towns and cities of New Jersey, and the first visit is to ”Atlantic City” and it’s a poem about class, fear and class-related guilt in a city whose public face is about gambling. The speaker goes there for a writer’s conference and is forced to wonder about her safety, decaying cityscapes and privilege. It’s a good beginning for the new project.

My poem, “Happy Ending” is a prose poem imitation of another prose poem of the same name by the poet “Jay Meek” from his Book Windows. The exercise was to mirror the rhetorical and tonal and thematic moves in the original while borrowing none of the content. This kind of exercise is based on the insight that to some extent every poem, even the least traditionally formal poem, is a form unto itself, a “nonce” form, so what I’m trying to do is reverse engineer the poem, find its underlying form and then imitate it.

Joanne Santiglia’s poem was called “CO 10, 11 and 12” and it was an ode to the perfume Chanel No. 5 on the occasion of its 100th birthday, with the title referring to the chemicals called “aldehydes” used to create it.  It’s a joyous poem, and that’s a good thing.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Translator” talks about the process of translating poetry, portraying the translator through the metaphor of a bridge in which “I sway over the chasm/ into which a word can fall and fall, and never make a sound,” and prays for a meeting, facilitated by the bridge, between poem and reader, whom, she hopes, will “fall in love.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Romanian village, 1946” about children who’d been sent to dig up some extra good clay for their uncle to use in his pottery finding the corpse of a WWII soldier decomposing in the forest, and the villagers coming together to give the remains a decent burial. A strange nostalgia in the form of an anecdote.

Thanks to all of the hardworking poets and thanks for the poems. See you next Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

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