Just a word before I get to the workshop, about Howard Nemerov, former poet laureate of the United States (1988), winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his collected poems in 1978, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Bollengen Prize, and the Aiken Taylor Award for Modern American Poetry. How did we ever forget this guy? And speaking of forgetting, I got my copy of Nemerov’s New and Selected Poems (1960!) when I was invited to raid the library of one of our great (and not frequently enough remembered) New Jersey poets, Madeleine Tiger, when she moved out of her house in Bloomfield, and it, the book, has sat on my bookshelf unread for a dozen or more years since then until alphabetical swelling required a shift of volumes and Nemerov fell onto the floor. I love the guy! Not just for his mid-century swag, but for the steady formalness of his mind and his willingness to announce a theme and go for it. The poem, “Runes” in this volume, is a fifteen-part poem in which each part has fifteen lines—and Nemerov tells you in line one of part one (no less exactly than Milton announces his purpose in line one of Paradise Lost), exactly what he’s going for: “This is about the stillness in moving things.” And from there, he’s off, talking about “winter seeds, where time to come has tensed/ Itself,” and Ulysses, and sunflowers, and how winter makes water a captive “in the snowflake’s prison”—on and on with an unapologetic embodiment of ideas past and present in things, things, things. Of course, you can’t read that first line without hearing an echo of Eliot’s “still point in the moving world”—all of the Midcenturies had to be aware of Mr. Big, but Nemerov had his own point to make and his own, to me, accessible way of making it. I literally had to stop reading for the day when I read part X of the poem, which, if you’ll indulge it, I’ll quote in full. It embodies the idea of thaw, since one of the themes of the larger poem is seasonal change and begins with a direct address to “white water”:
White water, white water, feather of a form
Between the stones, is the race run to stay
Or pass away? Your utterance is riddled,
Rainbowed and clear and cold, tasting of stone,
White water, at the breaking of the ice,
When the high places render up the new
Children of water and their tumbling light
Laughter runs down the hills, and the small fist
Of the seed unclenches in the day’s dazzle,
How happiness is helpless before your fall,
White water, and history is no more than
The shadows thrown by clouds on mountainsides,
A distant chill, when all is brought to pass
By rain and birth and rising of the dead.
I particularly love “history is no more than/ The shadows thrown by clouds on mountainsides.” So limpid for an image about clouds, so cloudless, so uncomplicated and complex, and such a lesson to learn in times when the shadows seem to hide the mountainsides. This is great stuff; And there was more great stuff at our workshop on Tuesday, including, but not limited to…
Claudia Serea’s poem, “Claudia, listen,” starts in the title with the speaker’s mother’s voice asking the speaker to listen to the sound of a nightingale (introduced by its Romanian name, “privighetoarea”). It’s a brilliant move starting that way because ultimately the poem is about hearing the mother’s voice as much as (or even more than) it is about the nightingale’s song. Interesting, though, the thing that reminds the speaker of her mother’s direction to “listen” is not a nightingale at all, but a branch of a bush “tugging on [her] sleeve”. The nightingale is gone, and, as Don suggested, the memory of the mother has become the nightingale, as in the myth of Philomel.
Don Kreiger brought a political poem called “Juneteenth at Carter-Howell-Strong Park” that was preceded by an italicized explanation that the Juneteenth holiday is a remembrance “of the past and ongoing disgrace that is America.” Having announced its perspective so confrontationally, the poem proper is freighted with its politics as it describes a visit to the eponymous park in Frenchtown neighborhood of Tallahassee, Florida, and that politics is made personal because the speaker tells us he grew up in Tallahassee but never visited Frenchtown as a kid. Yet, here he is, visiting as a adult who can spend $20 for a hat and $20 more for “a case of coke and a lemon” and then, with or without his burden of soda pop, “[take] a turn round the pond/ shirtless in that Tallahassee sun.” What he finds, perhaps predictably, is a town looking pretty shabby, with “rusty metal roofs,” “an overgrown lot,/ a pickup on flat tires, the driver’s door/ lying on the engine.” The park itself is a more welcoming place, filled with birds on or around a lake, and men on the benches around the lake, men who wave hello to the speaker, and even offer him a beer. So, is this visit to Frenchtown a form of ceremonial penance for a white person performed on the occasion of Juneteenth? If so, how interesting that the poem reenacts the segregation of his youth; his is a visit without any human interactions; though he buys a hat and a case of coke, he speaks to no one. He never even returned the wave to the men on the benches, or responded in any way whatsoever to the man who offered him a beer. This hopeless isolation and separation are reinforced in the last line of the poem, where the speaker cannot even understand the offer of a beer unless it is repeated. The bleakness of this vision of race in America is as unremitting and grim as Clarence Thomas’s.
Frank’s multiverse/poem, “I grew up with my mom’s meatloaf” brings together a vision of fetal development in which ontogeny recapitulates both philogeny and forest life; it is enacted in a natural landscape (a forest) and lives as both a political act (there are different Parties) and a personal narrative (chronic pain). In somewhat the same fashion as Don Kreiger’s “Juneteenth”, Frank’s poem announces its political stakes at the start. Don’s came as a sort of pre-poem “argument” about a “depraved” America, while Frank’s comes as a footnote to the title, a footnote that quotes in disbelieving wonder from Samuel Alito’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and leaving decisions concerning the legality of abortion to the individual States. Frank’s footnote is a straight quote from the opinion of the court, but the fact that it comes as a note to the title “I grew up with my mom’s meatloaf” carries the emotional weight of living in a moment when everything Americans have come to rely on for the last 50 years has been overturned, and in that sense, it’s quite brilliant. The poem never mentions Frank’s mom or meatloaf again, but the point is made, with the added implication that meatloaf is a crazy stand-in or avatar for the bloody, dangerous butchery of illegal abortion to come. The cadence at the end, “Our government has failed” fell too heavy handedly for most of the group, but the density and complexity of Frank’s achievement is pretty awesome.
Tom Benediktsson’s “Grannie’s Revenge” is a free-verse (free-range) narrative about an absurd dinner party with Grannie as the host who has spiked the professor’s food with knock-out drops (a “mickey finn”). The professor, possibly Grannie’s kid, is accompanied by the professor’s graduate assistant dressed up as a chicken.
Some of the finer points of ethics discussed at the dinner and in the poem were out of my ken, but I know a free-for-all when I see one, and this one was entertaining.
Kellie Nicholiades brought “Blood for Gas” , a narrative (narratives are a big big deal in poetry today) which someone in the group described as an ‘essay on giving blood,’ an it certainly was an eye-opening experience that most people have never had, so the information was welcome, but as usual, with Kellie, the joie de vivre is in the voice, the sure-footedness that comes from having one’s facts straight, and the eye to know what we need to know if we want to know about humanity. Check it out.
Brendan McEntee brought “The Tyranny of Aceticism” a poem that spoke about stripping all of the life’s indulgences away through the metaphor of a house that is disassembled to leave an empty pit where the foundation was, and a person employed to take on the sins of others standing where a birdbath should be. This be some cold shit.
Shane Wagner’s “Your Touch” was a beautiful poem about needing and accepting help from an intimate. Set in couplets (like so many of our poems tonight), the poem begins, “When I was spiraling/ I was afraid to ask for help.” What I love love loved about the poem was that it doesn’t really try to explain what “spiraling” is except to say that it involves the inner rehearsal of the past that accompanies sleeplessness. And to this, the intimate brings an intimacy of legs and arms and bellies that “holds” the speaker “in place,” and help him to “slow.” The bare bones of the situation are so elegantly handled. The ending, when the intimate falls asleep, and the spiraling continues is only a little wry. The surcease was crucial and welcome.
Howard Prosnitz is back with another Fishman poem. The last one was about camp life in Nazi Germany; this one, in seven rhymed couplets, in the 3rd person, is called “Fishman in Love” and is ostensibly or nominally, about love, however Fishman’s love is not very emotional; it has a bandy-legged, arms-length satirical, even snide, talking out of the side of your mouth feel, right from the start: “Late in the afternoon/ Fishman visits the moon./ Not alone in the dust/ A girlfish answers his lust.” Tom found its energy attractive. I was left wondering what was at stake for the speaker. The poem reminded me of a misogynistic remark my father made about boy/girl relationships when I was a teen: “Platonic? Yeah, “play” for me; “tonic” for her.” I still cringe when I remember it.
Tracy Tong’s “Revlon Toast of New York (325) Never Discontinued” was an ode to a shade of lipstick full of love, nostalgia and great lipstick names: Burnt Toast, Strawberry Jam, August Romance, Love Potion and Cherry Bomb. Cheers!
Nick’s poem “Sestina reworked Prompt1” was no sestina, but a powerful free verse anti lynching poem, in which the soul of a lynched person is sent back to live its life and “tell the world that you still had work to do” and that “we” the managers of the afterlife “reject their offering.” The ending is bold and emotional: “Go home and live oh mighty soul/ Go the Fuck home and live!”
Carole Stone brought a light narrative verse arranged in tercets in the voice of a grandmother attending a granddaughter’s piano recital and going out with the family for Chinese food afterwards. It turns out the kids can use chopsticks but grandma can’t, so she goes for the fork. Though we love specific details, they need to advance the poem to earn their place, and for me, granular details like the name of the restaurant, San Tung Restaurant, and the name of the opera from which aria the granddaughter played, had come, “Die Meistersinger,” seemed to add unnecessary weight without enlivening the anecdote.
Come back next Tuesday, and we’ll do it all over, and don’t forget to come to the LIVE RWB reading on 6/7 at the Little Theatre at Felician University in Rutherford at 7 pm. It’s gonna be great!