Field Notes, Week of 06-21-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of June 21, 2022

Super workshop last Tuesday.

Don Zirilli brought a poem called “2 Samuel 3:38” with an epigraph quoting that biblical verse, concerning King David’s mourning the death of Abner, killed by Joab (in verse 28 of the same chapter) in which David, who has cried at the funeral for Abner tells his servants to pay attention to this great loss—and then the body of the poem follows in three free verse quatrains that seemed to branch off in three not-obvious directions from that stem. First there is an acorn rapping at Norma’s window which she mistook for the call of a suitor, and the speaker of the poem is unable to get an explanation from her as to why.  Second the speaker was present at the collapse of a church that went unnoticed by 21 people walking into the bar next door. Third, the speaker speaks of his mule, who is both humble and demanding, and “sometimes… needs a kick.” The theme of not noticing, and of needing to be reminded is strong enough in the second and third stanzas, a little harder to track in the (Norma) first. Tom said “the individual stanzas are tight, but there’s a riddle at the heart of the poem that requires great patience.”

We had a new workshopper this week, Tracy Tong, (Hi, Tracy) whose poem “Helene” seems to follow the speaker’s train of thought as they sit in an apartment, listen to steam hiss and growling motorcycles pass, remember the dementia of an aunt who has passed away, and a conversation with their mom about a French sitcom. The poem suddenly develops a strong emotional thrust five lines before the end, when it asks, somewhat plaintively, “How long can I randomly google how long/ Can a moth-orchid persist/ In mid-winter. Babies cry/ In the womb, why” before ending with the evocative, intriguing, and yet only distantly approachable: “Where to burn five miles/ Off 11218, the red denim roses”. No period, no question mark, maybe the truest broken off thought in poetry. Poems that assemble thoughts this way get the great benefit of multiple turns and shifts and of genuine thought, but also carry the burden of making their own senses. By the way, zip code 11218 includes the Windsor Terrace and North Kensington portions of Brooklyn, where I spent a ton of time working at the Hollywood Car Wash on the corner of Church Avenue and Coney Island Avenue. Surprising, notwithstanding the tv show 90210, how evocative of place a zip code can be.

My poem, “Tiki Torches Very Reasonable at Costco,” presents a series of aggressive confrontations with the social order, recommending lawlessness at times, and asking the reader to recognize that their privilege is built on the suffering of others. Don Z said it “succeeds as a political poem because of attitude, not virtue.” Tom said that the speaker of the poem was an asshole who is saying ‘you think you’re not an asshole, but you are,’ implicating everyone.   Don Kreiger said that ultimately, it’s a list poem, so ordering the list is what matters, and he saw some opportunities for modifying the order to enhance the overall thrust of the satire.

Jennifer Poteet has been working on a book of poems about her mother, recently one about how she was a familiar face on Montclair’s Church Street.  This one, “The Judaism I Knew” talks about her mother as the proponent of a not very observant form of Judaism that left the speaker a little bit at sea, maybe wanting more, maybe wanting more of any explanation.  Don K called it “the start of something” suggesting it could be much more if the shards of memory were connected to a “transformation”.

Howard Prosnitz’ “Fishman” was about a particular Jew or an emblematic Jew named Fishman during WWII.  In a single stanza of short, irregularly rhythmic lines, it had a hint of song to it, some rhymes (shaker/ maker), irregular intriguing half rhymes (taxi/Nazi, speck/kike) and one perfect rhyme (heir/air).  The point, rhetorically, was elusive, but the music was enchanting.

Frank Rubino’s poem, “I flew out to the pine-green woods” is about the speaker’s brother, whom the speaker has come all the way cross country to visit, and yet he regards his brother’s life and home from the outside: “I looked at my brother’s house from the clearing…”  The speaker is ambivalent about his brother at least in part because of the brother’s passion for guns, and hunting (he has a skinning room he calls the “Meating Place).  The speaker could do without the guns but remembers as “fun” shooting at cans of expanding foam insulation.  The poem is in couplets with a couple of monostiches.  The monostiches, such as “& I saw a good house with food and new appliances” are isolated for emphasis; the couplets make the poem easy to read,  but so far lack oppositional completeness, the way that couplets can measure the way forward by opening and swiftly resolving little bits of learning and allowing us as readers to assimilate them before moving on. If all brother poems are versions of the story of Cain and Abel, this poem is written from the perspective of a meditative Abel standing outside Cain’s home and wondering what the heck.

David Bragg brought a poem called “A goose observes a train at dusk” – a goose POV monologue that is also a critique of human activity, in particular the human addiction to light. All the stanzas are seven lines of roughly equal length, but nonmetrical.  The poem has great lines: “Why/ do they not welcome the darkness/ that comes to shelter them from peril?”  and “I would soar the long distance/ to the cold egg moon/ and wander the black lake of night,/ bobbing for sunken stars.”

Elinor Mattern was back (hi Elinor) with a poem about an illegal abortion in 1963 (timely, right?) called “A is for After, 1963.” The poem, in the third person, speaks about a 12-year old, carried, after “the procedure” (which is never explicitly named) “out to the car.” And as the narrative moves towards the rest she needs, a story, not explicitly named, of a possible unpunished rape, possible unpunished incest, emerges of which “she can only remember little bits,” including “a stranger in the living room,/ her mother crying, the lights of the bridge twinkling outside the car window.” The poem’s strategy of speaking in the third person, but adopting the limited knowledge available to the young girl pushes what might be an unbearably horrible story to a distance where it can live, but that strategy also has costs in terms of immediacy.

Finally!  We got to hear a Kellie Nicholaides poem, called “D’s Deli and Liquor in Carlstadt” a poem that, along with its speaker, wanders into the eponymous liquor store and starts recording. It’s a kind of ode, a kind of celebration of the accidental moment, including the customers and counterman she knows and the strangers she only kind of knows. Of course, the liquor store setting conveys a slice of life that carries it’s own complex societal and emotional landscape, but Kellie deals with these lovingly. Welcome back, Kellie!

Yana Kane’s “Peapod” got great reviews from the group; a prose poem (or, as DZ said, “just prose”) it recounts a childhood memory of being introduced  to picking and shucking peas. In the fourth paragraph, the speaker reveals that “this is my earliest memory,” (could we have known the stakes earlier? Is the description of the process joyful enough to sustain us till then?), and the final stanza converts the peas that the speaker plants as an adult into a Garden of Eden without an “angry God.” It’s an excellent start.

Barbara Hall’s poem “The Tulip Tree in Four Parts” is an elegy of sorts about the tree in the neighbor’s yard, a subject beautifully addressed in Zorida Mohammed’s “Two Pines” (See RWB 14). Barbara’s poem, Part I, begins with the phone call informing the speaker that the tree is coming down tomorrow, because it just got too big. Part II delivers the tree to its executioner with a series of onomatopoeic “buzzes” “CRACKS” “Grrrs” and “SPLATS” and ends with a baby opossum falling from the tree. Part III anthropomorphizes the birds into town criers who spread the news of those who have “lost their perch” while Part IV delivers a eulogy for the tree: “Erased: the tulip tree and trunk. —/ Erased the tulip stump from the earth.” Eulogy within elegy is traditional last step.  Here is how Dylan Thomas handled the move in his “Refusal to Mourn the Death By Burning of a Child in London;” “Deep with the first dead lies London’s daughter.”

Most of the group loved the onomatopoeia.  With its sound effects and overt emotionality, it would make an excellent illustrated children’s book.

Come back on Tuesday, y’all.  We’ve got plenty more poems—some we didn’t get to on Tuesday, and new ones—to read and love on. Poems about recent SCOTUS decisions are welcome!

—Arthur Russell

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