Field Notes, Week of 08-02-22

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of August 2, 2022

How about that Marina Carriera reading at The Little Theatre at Felician U sponsored by RWB on Wednesday August 3? Great lyricism, great earthy (earthy = sexy) romanticism, and an important stand as a joyous first-generation Portuguese queer woman. 

Pity the poor fool who wasn’t at the workshop Tuesday, where Janet Kolstein’s “I Used To Think” blew the roof off Zoom. It was a list poem of things the speaker “used to think” beginning with her previous belief that “a pot belly was gross” and very gradually moving from this comic instance into more and more serious material until we catch her admitting that dreams don’t come true: “I used to think you could live like an artist—/ not caring for jewels or cars,/ mortgages or debt – your hands your gift,/ you clothes speckled with paint…” She ends with a great sigh, saying, among other things: “I used to think . . . that my parents would always be living/ and time was a great Buddha sleeping with one eye open.” Someone pointed out that the poem doesn’t talk about the things the speaker thinks now, only what she ‘used to think’ and this creates a wonderful poetic state (or space) that allows something like nostalgia for delusion to become the emotion of the poem.  Janet’s poems don’t go out in these notes, so if you weren’t there, you’ll have to wait till it’s published someplace BIG!

Yana Kane’s poem, “I did not want” is a curious pairing with Janet’s “I Used to Think”  Yana’s poem is also a list poem, where the ellipses that begin each stanza signal that each stanza is part of a list beginning with the title’s words “I did not want.” And like Janet’s poem, Yana’s poem also addresses the past, but in a very different register than Janet’s, because Janet talks about personal history and the feelings associated with leaving innocence behind, but Yana focuses on feelings associated with extinction (i.e. group death) through the example of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, whose final member “Martha,” as the epigraph tells us, passed away on September 1, 1914, and was stuffed and put into the Smithsonian Institution. (Interesting, too, how Janet’s “Buddha” has one eye open, and Yana’s Martha is known for her “glass-eyed visage”)  However, the speaker of the poem, which one might suppose from the title that bridges into the first line, to have been Martha, is not Martha, but, as we learn in the final stanza, another stuffed animal “one case over” from Martha’s, and although the speaker may also be extinct, we don’t know who they/she/he is.   The bigger unanswered question might be what the story of the bird and the speaker as stuffed animals is a metaphor for?  Human extinction? Or just how humans do not learn from their mistakes.

Brendan McEntee’s poem “In Lavender” is about a summer day sitting in an Adirondack chair in a patch of lavender out on Long Island. The poem has an O’Hara sort of present tense that grants us easy entry while setting the scene: “When the wind drops, the heat shows./ There’ll be rain later.  Right now, it’s me in lavender…” Brendan’s style seems to be to put us in a place—a seaside, a graveyard, or here, a public garden—and tell us about the moment to moment in a way that suggests but doesn’t discuss the underlying thing that brought him there.  Recently, his poem described a father and son driving silently around a graveyard until the father is ready to leave. In this poem, Brendan alludes to garden rules—“We’re not to pick the plants, or touch them/ or do anything that disturbs this universe.” But then, semantically exonerated because the lavender touched him, not the other way around, the speaker gathers a palmful of lavender smell and breaths it between his hands. And that awareness of and respect for rules and his use of the word “universe” very subtly freight that solitude with sadness, a sadness he never discusses, but carries in this diction, and gives a home in the solitude of a garden.  I admire the way what he never says becomes the real feeling of the poem. And this is what I mean by connotation, suggestion or implication, one of poetry’s latent powerhouses.

Ana Doina works differently, denotatively; everything the poem wants to say, it says outright. In “Painted Stones” which, like Brendan’s “In Lavender” takes place in a leisure-time outdoor setting, she carefully narrates a walk in the woods taken by the speaker and a painter of stones. Eventually we learn that the painter of stones lost loved ones in the holocaust, an historical surprise, a narrative surprise, but not poetical surprise, and learn that the stones stand in for people lost in the horror (in other words, the painted stones are explicitly the metaphors for the people; the poem reports on those metaphors without having metaphors of its own). And this is a poem that tells us exactly what the underlying feeling is: “You believe/ the ciphered language is enough to hide/ the bitterness of your heart/ from any chance intruder” or the “refuge” and “safety” the painter found in the woods, and the rolling cadence of the final stanza describing the “fear that a loved face/ might have been lost, consumed/ by the hate-fueled fires/ of the war that orphaned you.” 

Speaking of bitter hearts, Howard Prosnitz’s “After Reading Yeats” draws a distinction between the “pleasure” a reader can derive from a “gut punch” line in great poem and the “delight” the speaker feels remembering the early death of an Irish boy who literally punched him in the gut while they were both in junior high school a half century earlier. The cruel joy it celebrates—“the delight/ in knowing that the bastard died young”—is quite inexplicable and alienating.  Happiness today for the forty-years-ago death of a fifty-years-ago childhood combatant?  Fuck mellowing with age. Those seeking revenge, the Japanese proverb tells us, “should dig two graves, one for yourself.” In this poem, Howard has buried the speaker’s bully and has unearthed the speaker’s bitter, vindictive heart. I wondered if Howard meant to invoke the “alienation effect” described by Bertolt Brecht, in which familiar contents are presented in an unfamiliar way to get a new effect so that the audience does not empathize with the story of a drama and can think profoundly about the issues it raises.

In “United We Stand,” Don Zirilli presents a sardonic view of the “stand your ground” laws that excuse homicide when a person feels threatened. Most famously, this type of law led to the exoneration of Trevon Martin’s killer in Florida. The poem uses an ordinary font for the speaker of the poem and italicized font for material he has copied from internet sources related to people who have “stood their ground,” thus exposing the stupidity of such laws.

Raymond Turco’s poem “The Gods Who Rule the Earth” very effectively borrows the cadences and register of a public speaker exhorting a crowd. What he is exhorting them to do is not clear to this reader, but the rhetorical framework is very strong; even without knowing what the poem is about, we can feel the oration in a crowded square.

Frank Rubino brought  “Radio in My Pocket,” a poem that seemed to me to follow a sleepless man around his house carrying either a transistor radio or a phone streaming a radio station while he wonders the midnight usual: who he is, and how men, who can erect an empty swimming pool shell in a desert, are different from animals, who can ‘read sand dunes.’  The speaker’s wife is sleeping, and there appears to be something sacrilegious about approaching her with his radio, source of the “sonics, semantic, information” of the outside world, in his hand. He is a deeply thoughtful man who reads the runes in the flotsam of his life. 

John J Trause delighted us with “Gretta in the Yum-Yum Palace” a poem in the long tradition of poems about girls in gardens, with the quasi-important distinction that John’s “girl” Gretta may be a full-grown lady, and that her “garden” is a candy shop.  Still the net effect of the effervescent, alliterative verses describing all sorts of candy (“There are the goo-goo clusters,/ and fluffer-nutter Sundays, the hot fudge brownies,/ and here the krispy krunch and crackled krokant…”) is not very different from a profusion (or orgy) of flowers.  When you read it, have a box of chocolates handy.

My own poem, “Fallow, He Reported, When She Asked,” is a narrative poem in the form of iambic pentameter quatrains rhymed abab (cdcd and so on), that tells a fragment of a tale about a man named Bob who has come down from the prairie to the plains to visit his Aunt Sally, only to find that her barn was the scene of a grisly killing. A philosophical or moral discussion on the porch of Sally’s house ensues.  Someone said it had an air of Robert Service’s poetry most famously, “The Shooting of Dangerous Dan McGrew.”   

Nick Davis’s prose poem “When Summer Was Good” (not attached) addresses the youthful summer before the departure of a father.

Remember, this is August, the month for Nicole Sealy’s Sealy Challenge—read a book of poems a day for 31 days.  So far, I’ve read Max Porter’s Grief is the Thing With Feathers, Howard Nemorov’s New and Selected Poems (1961); Monica Youn’s Blackacre; Marina Carriera’s Tanto Tanto; and Marwa Helal’s Ante Body.  In addition to individual collections, I plan to mix in a few of the journals that I receive in hard copy, which I too infrequently read from cover to cover.  You might want to read RWB 14 that way, if you haven’t already.  RWB 15 is in the works now, due out in October, and you don’t want these puppies stacking up like New Yorker magazines.

If you haven’t already purchased Marina Carriera’s Tanto Tanto from which she read several love poems at the August 3 RWB reading, please do. You’ll be supporting Marina as well as her publisher, CavanKerry Press, a North Jersey joint that has also provided several features for our reading series.

!Hasta la proxima vez! 

—Arthur Russell

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