Field Notes, Week of 05-24-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of May 24, 2022

What a great workshop. 10 poems in two hours. The only thing missing from the Zoom-iverse—and sometimes you really miss it—is going out for drinks after the intense conversations, and the sudden aloneness when the meeting ends, and you don’t even get to walk out into the Rutherfordian night and walk one another to one another’s cars.  Yet, we persist.

Yana Kane’s “Hive Hymn” about bees, is a concrete poem; it’s shape on the page was intended to echo the subject matter of the poem, in this case, beehives.  Though none of us saw the hives in these word mounds (or Aztec pyramids), Don saw the shape as a callback to George Herbert, the 17th Century English metaphysical poet’s “Easter Wings”,  I was reminded of some of Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer.”  But the poem is more than a concrete poem; it’s a poem in praise of the “hive mind” as well as the “honey and wax” that they produce.  The sense that emerges is that the bees have got it right, and we would do well to notice the magic of their lives.  With bee populations all over the world under threat of collapse from environmental degradation and climate change, the poem also serves a political purpose, a purpose that is somewhat obscured by the prayer in the final lines: “May our roses merit visitations by the winged messengers,/ May our strawberry blossoms find favor in their faceted eyes.”.  Actually there was never any doubt that the roses and strawberries were worthy.  The problem, once again, is with the humans.

Howard Prosnitz brought “WASP,” a poem that starts with an epigraph quotation from Milton’s Paradise Lost about the exile from Eden, and more specifically, Satan’s exile from Heaven, which preceded it. Howard finds an objective correlative for Milton’s “new created world” in the fate of a wasp trapped between a window screen and window. The poem is arranged in one word lines, and the slender verticality of it appears to be a concrete representation of the narrow strait in which the wasp finds itself. There’s also a lovely pair of near homonyms—“screen” sounds like “scream” and “pane” sounds like “pain”—that really deepen the connection between the wasp and Satan—and so interesting too to hear waspishness and Satan conflated that way. 

Carole Stone (WHO WILL BE THE FEATURED READER AT THE RED WHEELBARROW READING FOR JUNE 1, THIS WEDNESDAY, SO COME – WE’RE GOING BACK TO ZOOM THIS MONTH BUT HOPE TO BE BACK IN THE LITTLE THEATRE AT FELICIAN UNIVERSITY IN JULY) brought a rewrite of a poem called “No Happy Ruins” in which she imagines the pain and suffering of the people trapped in the war in Ukraine.  The poem is in four parts, which come at the war from several angles – the present suffering in Ukraine, the recognition that our lives are not nearly as burdened, a longer view where the long-term cost of the war is contemplated, and a final surprising section that presents the sun as a “Pallbearer, immune to grief.” and, a few lines later, as the bringer of cherry blossoms. Finally, the poem ends on two domestic images, one of NYC seen from the heights of Eagle Rock, and one of daylight falling on the speaker’s arm:

                         The look

of the distant city

seen from Eagle Rock. 

The daylight

pulsing down my arm.

I wonder if these pure images are a distillation of the fluctuating emotions of the poem or an escape from them?

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “We Who Breathe” (not in the package) is about a funeral, or as Don said “it examines the experience of being at a funeral.”  It talks a little about the setting, notices the “rabbi’s cadenced voice”, “the widow’s muffled sobs”  and joins in the metaphysical appreciation of the mystery of death from a not-too-involved point of view.  What I loved about the poem was how easily and comfortably it inhabited the role of relative: “At the gravesite,/ green, with late-spring chirping,/ we took the spade/ and sprinkled mica-flecked earth/ on the lowered casket: your spirit?” The way the metaphysical question lives in the same sentence as the burial, separated only by a semi-colon is emblematic of the way this poem lives, moves, sits and carries on.  In fact, the last line –“The line of cars removes again” is a reference to the way that funerals proceed, with the mourners driving from the chapel to the gravesite and then onward to the shiva.  In other words, life goes on.

David Briggs brought a poem called “Resonance.”  It’s a lyric poem that takes place in a supermarket in which the items for sale and the sounds of the place make the sense, act on the speaker.  There’s a role reversal: “The smell of Columbian roast/ percolates my mask”.  There’s absurdism: “The price of honeycrisps/ seeps under my eyelids.”  There’s animism: the voice of a “big talker” placing bets on a football game “unnerves the beef jerky.” Throughout, the rhetoric of the poem provides the emotional spine: “Doesn’t anyone want to finger the dimples / of Ritz crackers?” has a surefooted sense of loss.  And an alphabet soup can is a surrogate for a time when writing came more easily.  Finally, the speaker tries to reassert hope: “I’ll try to take up the task again,” he says.  “I’ll try to whisper fizz into the sodacans, so you can/ hear my sigh each time you crack one open.”   Great work, David!

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Where I’m From, Politically” tells a family story about an ancestor who acted nobly and humanely to an enemy soldier during WWI (at least the trenches make you think so). Everyone loved the title, which I recognized as a prompt from the Brevitas group, and one that had been fructifying for me too.  Frank noted that the poem had a longish setup, getting the genealogy right.  But even with the orientation set, the story of the ancestor’s decency (comforting the enemy soldier and setting his leg with a rifle for a splint) lacked a real connection to the occasion of its telling.

Don Zirilli’s “Grace, Faith” had a far flung lyricism that required the group to propose theories that would explain it all.  Grace is a state of being that comes from down from god, while faith is a human attribute that travels in the opposite direction.  I personally opted for Grace as the prayer at the start of a meal and saw the contents of the poem as conversations during dinner.  But I really loved the first stanza for its swift acceleration from what appears to be current events — “Dad tells me Notre Dame/ is on file” – directly to a son’s deep knowledge of his father — “his wry smile/ gone forever.”  And just as Janet’s poem was about the experience of being at a funeral, Don’s was about the experience of being at dinner.  His speaker hears, and reports, and waits for his head to be still, and when “Dinner ends” he hasn’t “asked a single question.”   I get the grace; and in a different, patient way, I also get the faith.

Then there was Brendan McEntees poem “Never Save the Drowning Man” which was about the experience of learning to disengage. It posits two test cases for leaving not-so-well-enough alone: the drowning man who returns to the ocean and the burning woman who likes to burn. The central syllogism of the poem conveys the futility of intervention:  “And by save I mean “try to” save./ And by “try to” I mean fail.” Brendan’s poem, like Carole Stone’s end with two sentences that either distill or abandon the project:

Now I watch the horizon – his hand disappears.

Now I watch her embers swirl to the sky.

Raymond Turco’s poem, “I Met a Man Today” engages self-consciously in the oldest story-telling strategy, the one we see in The Rime of The Ancient Mariner, where the wedding guest meets the ancient mariner and forwards his strange tale to us; or the one we see it in Shelley’s Ozymandias (“I met a traveler from an antique land”), where the traveler tells of a ruined colossal statue in the desert; the strategy of putting the wondrous tale into the mouth of another:  

I met a man today

who told me

he never learned to be alone…

And what’s the effect of this act of deferral? This act of hearsay?  This act of ‘story laundering?’  — On one level it enhances the credibility of the speaker.  He’s not saying, as in Shelly, that there was a ruined statue of a great king in a desert; he’s only saying he heard of such a thing; he’s only vouching for the truth of the report, not the truth of the underlying tale; and yet this distancing gesture frees the listener to enjoy the story as story, pushes it into the realm of myth or fable, makes an emblem of it.  In Raymond’s poem, the story of that the poet brings to our attention is not a story of a monstrous run of bad luck (Ancient Mariner) or the monkey Time makes of men (Ozymandias), but the simple emotional handicap of never having learned to be alone.  That structural incongruity (big frame/little truth) is reinforced (or strategically undermined) with a set of paradoxes or oxymorons: (1) the “man” who never learned to be alone was “an only child who slept/ in his brother’s bed;” (2) his suffering took place in “vociferous silence”; and (3) he played a game of “see-saw for one.” – And these oxymorons become the “wonders” that the poet/speaker presents through the tale of the man he met. This strategy of successive oxymorons is used to comic effect in Tyler Rager’s  “Two Dead Boys”  (“One bright day in the middle of the night/ Two dead boys got up to fight. Back to back they faced each other,/ Drew their swords and shot each other.”) But Raymond is using this strategy to convey the sorrow, frustration and dread that attend a self-involved existence. The combination of these two strategies (hearsay report and oxymorons) makes me wonder if the “man” that the poet “met” is really a surrogate for speaker, as in all of those “I’m asking for a friend” stories. 

I love all of these poems, and I loved the conversation they prompted. Enjoy the last week or so without mosquitoes!

—Arthur Russell

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