Our Red Wheelbarrow #15 is still making waves, and we’re still in a celebratory mood! It’s because this book, besides being the biggest one ever (100 poets published!), is a really special issue that includes a section of Rutherford High School poets. We were so excited to publish these young authors and hear their poems at the launch! Click here to read moreabout the 19 high school students and their Creative Writing teacher, Melissa Dougard.
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!
Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop ofJune 14, 2022
The workshop is here so a poet can present a poem to their peers and get to hear what those peers think (1) what the poem wants to be, (2) how the poem goes about becoming what it wants to be and (3) how the poem is doing on that journey. There’s praise for what’s made an impression and “shakes” (or suggestions) for things that may not be working.
In this conception, the poet doesn’t participate during the discussion. They’re Tom Sawyer at their own funeral, but at the end we open the discussion to questions from the poet, such as “I was trying to imitate Robert Frost’s The Road Less Travelled; did that come across?” Or, “What did you mean when you said my reference to the War of 1812 ‘took you out of’ the poem?” Or, “I’m a little concerned that the poem is too personal, to self involved; did anyone feel that way? Or, “What about the title? No one said anything about the title. Does the title work?”
We don’t encourage the poet’s advocacy on behalf of the poem or explanation from the poet because those things don’t benefit the poet; sometimes when the poet talks about the backdrop to the poem, or the circumstances it was meant to address, we just say: “oh, that would be good, put it in the poem” because the poem is the poet’s ambassador to the world, and the poet doesn’t generally get to accompany the poem out into the world providing an introduction or post script (although it was pretty common in Milton’s time to have an “argument” before the poem, and I’ve always been charmed by fiction with ‘in which’ headings as in “Chapter 17, in which Tom eats a snake.”
We had a searingly good workshop on Tuesday, charred on the outside, rare on the inside.
Brendan McEntee brought “At Sunken Meadow.” Poems that start with a place name are great because they give the reader a little ground to stand on, but they still don’t limit what the poem can do. They suggest an openness to what the poet noticed, and Brendan’s poem was like that, about the speaker standing on the beach throwing rocks, noticing a gull, noticing the clouds, noticing two boys walking by “carrying a bucket awkwardly between them” and picking up a fragment of their conversation, which may or may not be significant before “the rest of their conversation is lost to the waves.” Brendan does that very well.
Don Zirilli’s poem was “Fool Me Twice” and it was a difficult formal poem, a sestina, which uses the last word in each line of six, six line stanzas where the last word appears in a different prescribed sequence. The seventh and final 3-line stanza features all six of the end words in medial and line end positions for a saturated burst of whatever the poet was getting at (think last minute of a fireworks display). The form is immensely difficult, primarily because of the challenge of making the repetitions interesting, but also because Don has chosen to present his sestina in the form of iambic pentameter. Don’s poem’s six end words were “twice” “oath” “know” “time” “fool” and “heart.” What struck me about the poem was how the first stanza has an almost metaphor free-statement of the poem’s theme – how we humans fool ourselves, particularly when it comes to marriage, when it comes to knowing ourselves or others. As the poem moves on, it becomes more allusive and more reliant on metaphor, personification of the elements, and becomes less plain spoken. This can be delightful, but it can also make the poem more elusive.
Howard Prosnitz’s “THE L-SHAPED ROOM” presents as a first person narration, with the eponymous L-shaped room as its topic. But this L-shaped room is a metaphor for the difficulties quotidian and existential of fitting into and being comfortable with living.
Susanna Lee’s “Steel Rains” comes hard after the tragedies of war, first anchored in references to the Ukraine war, and then in relation to gun violence in the US. The poem has a strong iambic bounce, some strong iambic pentameters (e.g. “Upon the baby’s cheek, the mother’s tears,” and “they’d bring to murder him, his kith and kin”) but varies line lengths and moves away from meter entirely with lines like “lips and kisses” or “Never surrender!” Another noticeable feature of the poem is its irregular use of rhyme, such as “Courage, bravery, all that’s good./ A fighter earns the right to fatherhood.” We talked about how the poem creates expectations with regard to matters like meter and rhyme, and how the savvy reader will notice changes and expect them to be significant.
My poem “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” joined Don’s and Susanna’s this week as poems that used iambic pentameter; mine was a blank verse (non-rhyming iambic pentameter lines) essay on the persistence of class divisions and the limitations of empathy when the world is seen from a partially self-aware position of privilege.
Tom Benediktsson’s poem “Who You Talkin’ to In There” starts out as a kind of philosophical or possibly epistemological discussion about sources of authority in “our tradition,” a discussion among the speaker, and “Daniel” “Mark” and “Janelle” who may be in a class in which the speaker is the teacher or may not. Midway through the poem, the discussion becomes a groan-worthy tale about how someone named Harvey boiled a chicken down to its bones which he then reassembled to a chicken skeleton with wire for a science project in the eighth grade. It was grotesque and funny, but what interested me was (1) how it raised the question of poetic authority: “In our tradition the inner voice is god.” This is a direct invocation of the Romantic norm which replaced the Enlightenment norm of verifiable fact with allegiance to subjectivity. That’s the artistic world we live in to this day, where identity is a font of authority. In a way, this was the same subject I tackled in “There Are People Who Lack Decent Housing” which follows this declarative by immediately declining to be a member of the group: “I am not one of them.” Maybe this is a new “old farts poetics.”
Claudia Serea’s “Veined hands reach into my dream” is a poem that uses the eponymous hands in the eponymous dream to draw together elements of the speaker’s life, attachment to their parents, their overseas past, their gardening present and a sense of the nearness of death.
John J. Trause’s “Lemon Yellow Limoncello” was a concrete sonnet based on a 14-times repeated four beat iambic line with an internal half rhyme between “lemon yellow” and “limoncello” made concrete or “chromatic” by having all of the lines highlighted in computer yellow. The last line breaks down visually to what might be the stem of an upside down (i.e. empty?) Limoncello bottle or an emblem for fractured sense, or possibly, a visible musical symbol for retard or slowing down, to bring an end to the chant that has gone on for the thirteen previous lines. Brilliant stuff.
Jen Poteet’s “Church Street” is an ode to the speaker’s mother, a regular fixture on a particular street in Montclair, a woman who knew everyone (and their dog) and was known by everyone (and their dog, for whom she carried treats in her “enormous purse.”
I have to apologize to Carole Stone. She sent her poem “Au Clair de Lune” by email, and we discussed it, but I can’t find it on my computer, so please forgive me.
Thanks again to everyone: we had more poems than we could get to, and we’ll keep chugging along next week. See you then.
We had a chockablock workshop on Tuesday, 10 poems in two hours and great conversations. The workshop works best when we spend a lot of our time digging into what the poem “WANTS” to do and “HOW” the poem goes about its work, WHETHER and HOW it is succeeding and failing with considerations of the syntax, metrical features, allusions, rhyme or no rhyme, how metaphors are employed, and only secondarily considering editorial changes to the poem. Why? Well too many reasons. When we edit before we know what the poem WANTS, we are more likely to be making the poem into one that “WE” would have written rather than attending to what the POET has written. Also, though we/you/I may take for granted that we know what the poem is doing, and how it is doing it, we really get to talk about POETRY when we talk about what we see going on structurally and sharing that becomes and broadens our understanding of what poems do, where editing elides that process. And on Tuesday, it was all going pretty well!
Jen Poteet’s poem, “What Comes Back” starts out as an innocuous list poem of things that repeat on you, like boomerangs and black eyed susans (though she leaves out salami). But about halfway through, it reveals a curious residue of the speaker’s mother, the smell of perfume that resides, abides, and persists in certain inherited linen shirts. There’s a lot of heat in that recognition, and maybe the poem was always headed towards this particular call-back; at least it felt that way to one or two of the members of the venire. It’s a curious dilemma: lists have a way of leading to tangents and those tangents can lead to the truest of surprises, but, as Frost said, “no surprise for the poet, no surprise for the reader.” A preordained conclusion can deprive what comes before it of its honest significance. We want to know more about those linen shirts, more about the mourning molecules of sandalwood and oolong migrating from the interstices of the linen’s warp and weft, into the tuneful nostrils of the lyric speaker!
Claudia Serea’s “When she’s off to college” starts out as an amorous take on the empty nest syndrome: “When she’s off to college … the way you lean against the sink … and we can watch the dusk fall,” but then it gets slightly tangled in a metaphor (who hasn’t had that happen?) of a certain pink and peach light turning on and off as a lighthouse signal. The point seems elusive, but it may be about the couple finding their way back to the source of their love (now that the beloved brat is gone). Anyway, with CS, we’re almost certainly going to see this again, because she takes NOTES!
, “Love Poem Re Teachers (Part I)” is a first step in a blank verse essay about the way loving teachers is central to character formation. Frank (the intellectual) loved the subject, and the way it divides different kinds of love. He said it was “unassailable” referring to the concrete memories associated with teacher love. Janet liked the references to “mimeographed” pages and “embossed” birth notices. Jen liked Mrs. Rice’s “iron grip and angry nose.” Speaking of noses Carole sniffed a bit when she asked if this was anything more than “Sentimental Education,” to which Frank replied that the “material is so sticky” and Brendan thought that “the desire to please and being allowed by teachers to please them was love. My main question for the group was whether this poem could tolerate being extended, and Brenden was quick to say: “bring yourself into the poem more” and it can work.
Frank’s six-pager called “The Clover” ends with “and now you know a little about me,” which felt like a real New York School of poetry ending, though also a bit of a ribbon around a bouquet of diverse flowers, worries about the speaker’s daughter’s mental/emotional health, the comforts of marriage, intergenerational personality formation at the hands of parents, and suburban life; in other words, Frank’s usual jams, but here presented in six separate poems not obviously connected and set in different dictional registers. For instance, the first line of the first poem, “There seems to be less connectivity between the amygdala and the frontal cortex” used medical diction that appeared emotionally distanced to me, though Don found it direct and emotional. There’s a fundamental feature of Frank’s work that I call the Roger Sessions attitude. Sessions was a modern classical music composer. In an interview I heard long ago, when asked about the inaccessibility of some of his music, he said (and I’m super paraphrasing). I am here. I am accessible. The listener needs to come to me and will be richly rewarded, but I will not come to them. One thing I felt as a subtle but purposeful part of this poem was the title, “The Clover” a reference to the ribbits who jump over the clover outside the speaker’s house, “playing, but also maybe horny,” and is also a reference to “being in clover” or having it good. I think the poem could rely on that title even more.
Don Zirilli’s “Weeding” is a free verse in two balanced stanzas of ten lines each, and it examines the whole notion of ‘weeds’ and our human relation to them, which is why I loved the first line: “I call them weeds. I don’t know what they are.” And these weeds become a powerful agent/metaphor for our human relationship to our companions on this here earth. “Popping them out saddens/ and satisfies me,” he says near the end of Stanza One. Stanza Two continues in much the same way, but connects weeding to the speaker’s personal life “my world/ with work and worry, bouts of attention…” and the wonderment as to whether “what I do is any use.” Carole saw the imagery of the second stanza as turning to a very dark place, employing words like “chaos” and “trail of destruction” but I never saw the turn that way. Rather it seemed an event tempered look at the margins of quotidian suburban life.
Ana Doina’s poem “What was his name?”—a retelling of an oral history story told in sporadic blank verse—about a war, perhaps WWI and “a sailor gone overboard”. The group found the narration lively, aided by the distillation of blank verse. I’d love to see it all rendered as blank verse.
Howard Prosnitz brought a poem called “Three Songs From a Play” which, as Frank pointed out, appearing outside ot the context of their “play,” were difficult to contextualize.
Brendan McEntee’s “Building 93”, is a touristy kind of poem about a very untouristy place, an abandoned mental institution. The title starkly refers to a building at one such place, and the poem seems knowledgeable about the “great patient release” that took place when New York’s mental institutions were more or less emptied out, leading, far down the line, some would argue, to the homeless population of people in need of some support our city faces now. The poem relies on physical description to underline concepts of abandonment and lack of care.
But by far the most intriguing line is the one that connects back to Brendan’s comment about my Teacher poem. The line says “Like love, the vandals and the weather/ left disfigurement in their wake.” That line brings the speaker into the poem in an ambiguous but intriguing way, mirroring the comment Brendan made about “Teachers.”
Carole’s “Chamber Music Concert” describes the view of the eponymous musical event from outside a church, and suggests a connection to the music heard while looking in through the window, akin to “a second language” and ends with the vision of the violin’s bow coming down “without pity.” The group appreciated the evocation of “grey-haired women, streaked blondes,/ in long tunics and loose pants” and the “director, slim as a pencil / in her long red evening dress”, but puzzled over this poem, the possible significance of the Schubert Quintet to which it refers, the meaning of “second language” and the pitiless descent of the bow. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see this one again, too!
The invitations to submit to RWB 15 went out yesterday. Find it and do it. We can’t wait to read your stuff.
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”, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44361/easter-wingsand. I was reminded of some of Dylan Thomas’s “Vision and Prayer.” https://allpoetry.com/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:
of the distant city
seen from Eagle Rock.
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” https://hellopoetry.com/poem/841116/two-dead-boys-my-favorite-poem-of-all-time/ (“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!
It was an intimate group, just five of us, for the workshop this week. No time limit to discuss the poems.
Janet Kolstein’s “When You Fall” (not included in the attachment) had a title that could have led anywhere – from a work-related accident to a moral comeuppance—but the first line told us exactly what kind of fall we were in for:
“Who among us could lift the frail elderly”
and yet the second line told us we were not in the desolated kitchen of some Life Alert victim who has “fallen and I can’t get up”, because Janet’s “frail elderly” were
“bronzing on the private beaches of late life?”
and just as suddenly, the third line acted out the tourism of those “private beaches,” with a voice telling us or the elderly
“Watch! Over your shoulder! There goes an African Parrot.”
And as if those first three lines were not enough of an immersion into the COMPLICATED world of aging, the next line, ending the first quatrain of the poem, is a direct address to the reader that poses a question about the persistence of memory and establishes the speaker as the true, and trustworthy guide to her ambiguous underworld:
“We can’t unsee the past, or can we?”
I just loved this poem, which continued on more and more deeply into its world of aging with a combination of surefooted lyricism and intellectual strength. Hopefully, the rest of you will get to see it, perhaps in this year’s RWB Journal #15.
Tom Benediktsson brought a poem called “Iowa Sunset” that was an experiment in taking the advice of another poet, the poet Cynthia Cruz, whose advice is paraphrased in the first two lines of the poem to the effect that “Involuntary memory is the wellspring. . . but we must find the right state of mind.” Tom’s riff punned on “state of mind” by referring to the “state of Iowa,” and the poem continued with more wordplay in its exciting and delightful second stanza about Belarus, balaklavas and the Mediterranean dessert, baklava. Following the stream of its “wellspring” the poem then moved on to consider the color of pig’s blood on a fence and the memory of riding the subway “when a woman next to me falls asleep/ and slumps with her head on my shoulder/ and way past my stop wakes up, all embarrassed.” It’s an exciting draft, and it may also be a warning about following the advice of other poets.
Brenden McEntee’s poem “Highland Paddy” is a tremendously ambitious poem that considers ghosts while the speaker walks across The Walkway over the Hudson, a steel cantilever bridge spanning the Hudson River between Poughkeepsie, New York, on the east bank and Highland, New York, on the west bank. It calls the wind over the bridge “everyone’s poltergeist” and touches on Irish folksong or ballad concerning the death of one “Fenian.” Then, passing two dogs on the bridge, the poet turns to remembering his own dog who died a few weeks, seeking the solitude and privacy of a space behind the sofa to die. In its last movement, the poem returns to the think of the bridge and how it endures, how the towns on either side wither, and how he finds comfort in his Irish ballad. But the poem ends on a disturbing image of the other walkers on the bridge behind “sun-shaded eyes.”
Yaka Kane’s brought a poem named after the nesting Russian dolls called “Matryoshka Dolls” in which the nesting dolls become a metaphor for intimacy in relationships, and the passing days are represented as nesting dolls, and the faults, evasions, silences and so forth of the relationship are embedded or embodied in the inner dolls as each new day buries them deeper and, one might suppose, less available to revision, in the body of the relationship. It’s a terribly ambitious poem about a frightening development.
Hopefully, we await the return of our co-leader Frank Rubino.
Janet Kolstein has many poems that she ripped more or less literally from the New York Times, and this week brought a poem ripped from her dreams, “Sometimes Dreams are Poems That Write Themselves,” that literally challenged us to follow her dream’s logic and find a ready made poem, but someone challenged that thesis, saying that because the poem is the rendering of the dream in words, the poet is more than an algebraic translator, and the poem is more than a record, it’s a recording.
Susanna Lee brought a poem that was a literal record, a transcription of the voices of several men on a podcast talking about war: “Podcast: Retired Marines.” The discussion jumped to the conclusion that the poem was a persona poem, sometimes called a dramatic poem, where the poet speaks through a mask, though Susanna said it was three voices. And while Carole called it a poem of witness—about war, Don said, if it’s a poem of witness, it’s a poem of second-hand witness. Because the speaker was mostly engaging in hearsay, it was more barbershop than battlefield. And yet, the podcast struck a deep chord in Susanna because it resonated with the world she sees around us. I wonder if the poem could benefit from having a first person narrator to make those stakes clear.
I was just delighted by Don Zirilli’s “The Adventures of Superlady” a narrative in four quatrains that records a disorienting encounter with the needy Superlady of the title outside a supermarket; delighted because it’s a superhero poem (right, Frank?) at least as crazy as Deadpool, but also because of the naked need that Superlady (ret.) had to be needed. “Why didn’t you save me?” the speaker asks, and Superlady responds “Everybody asks me that” but as she persists, the poem ends with a surprisingly heartrending “How about one more cry for help?”
John J. Trause brought something of an ode, something of a travelogue, something of an ironic celebration that is truly ironic and truly a celebration of a dinner at the chain restaurant “Grade Lux Café.” And I think what made the poem a delight was how lovingly knowingly the poem appreciated the restaurant’s “Viennese Secession” décor and plausibly continental menu. The tone work of the poem starts with its first, pinky-raised line: “I am one to dine alone” and continues with the allusion to dialogue from a Rodney Dangerfield’s “Back to School” “Your wife was just showing us her Klimt.” It even extends to punctuation, i.e., the extraneous but necessary comma between “asparagus spears” and “cooked to perfection.
Jen Poteet’s poem, “Unexpected” has been like a studio visit for the group, as she’s worked on at least three revisions of it that some of us have seen over the last few days. The poem’s bombshell is the riddle posed in lines 4 and 5: “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband,” but the genius of the poem is what Tom called the “objective correlative” to the unexplored emotion stirred by the unopened letter. Because the poem turns away from the letter completely to talk about a fox seen through the kitchen window stealing through the yard, and somehow our experience of the fox that “fixes her pale gold eyes” on the speaker, and ”disappears under the fence” takes the place of whatever emotion the letter stirred. It’s also a great lesson in simplicity. Those two lines “A handwritten letter came yesterday/ for my deceased husband” are so plainspoken and yet so fraught” they don’t need any “poetic” embellishment. But the real question was whether the poem could begin with it’s bombshell a strategy against which some warning flags were raised. But I come from the Ricky Jay school of poetry that says “Grab their attention” and “reward them with a surprise,” and I can’t think of a more attention grabbing start that the letter for the deceased husband, or more of a surprise than diverting the overflow of feeling into a fleeing fox.
Tom Benediktsson’s “Leon’s Riddle” was, he explained one of 6 or 8 poems he’s done with the characters “Gregor” and “Leon.” In it’s combination of comic intellectualism and cockroaches—in this case Kafka’s Gregor Samson— it reminded some people of Don Marquis’ Archy and Mehitabel. I loved its playfulness it’s metawareness of its prosody, and it’s surreal setting—Also Krazy Kat (“L’il angel”).
My poem was called “Grandma Ann,” a tiny little narrative that captured one tiny little piece of my paternal grandmother’s hundred year old dialogue as told to me by my father. The surprise of the poem (which was just accepted for publication by Ephemeral Elegies and will be published on their site on May 2—Thank you, Tiffany) is how suddenly, the poem becomes about how this little fragment of a woman survives.
Brendan had what I’d call a traditional family driving in the car poem called “On the Way to the Agricultural Fair.” It’s told in the third person which gives it a kind of allegorical feel, and it’s presented in the shape of a justified prose block, which, predictably, adds to its solidity, and the mother of the family is the main character; she speaks to one of the kids about the farmers he sees burning their fields from the car window, but then she retreats into her thoughts, where she wonders a little bit about the way her son’s mind works, and then goes on to fantasize about a fire in her own garden to make way for (perhaps) a Zen Garden. The poem ends with the benign image of the family at the fair visiting the butter-sculpture pavilion. Allegory?
Carole Stone’s “Trip” was a bit of a trip itself. It starts out in as a kind of Thanatopsis, with a valedictory air: “I will go on a long trip,/ meet my ancestors,” but in summoning the foreign born, immigrant ancestors to this imminent meeting, the speaker realizes she has nothing in common with these people: “Why should I care, brought up American?” And then carrying forward on that American identity, she comments on the current war in Ukraine, but that Eastern European vibe only returns her to those ancestors carrying suitcases when the boarded trains to death camps. And then, the poem starts to disabuse itself of its “victim” stance when the speaker notices that her granddaughters are successful, and it culminates by grabbing its own lapels and telling itself to snap out of this negative mood because life is a blast. That poem did its yoga, that’s for sure; it was as limber as they come.
Hey, I wanted to mention again that I’m reading Muriel Rukeyser’s 1968 collection “The Speed of Darkness.” She’s very formally inventive and audacious, as I pointed out that she included in this collection an experiment where she took a poem by William Cullen Bryant “Monument Moutain” and, as described in a footnote, ran the poem in reverse, picking out the phrases that spoke to her and reassembling them into a new poem called “Mountain: One From Bryant.” And think about it, this was 50 years before erasure poems became a thing. And she was audacious enough about it to include in the explanatory footnote a conversation she had with Denise Levertov about the experiment she was performing. I also mentioned a fabulous poem of Rukeyser’s whose name I couldn’t remember but I looked it up and the name is “The Ballad of Orange and Grape.” I also listened to a You Tube video that captured a track from Rukeyser’s Caedmon Records recording of her poem “The Speed of Darkness” totally worth checking out, if for no other reason than to hear her sweet Bronx accent, though there are many other reasons—the poem is a world view in 13 short sections. And one last thing, for now, about her—that she has a wicked relentless sense of song, which you can hear in her poem “Song: Love in Whose Rich Honor.” You can hear that King James lilt in the title (which is also the first two lines), but where she takes that energy is to a fearless personal challenge——that love would split her open and give her the gift of writing about death and madness. It’s CRAZY!
In whose rich honor
I stand looking from my window
over the starved trees of a dry September
deep and so far forbidden
is bringing me
to claw at my skin
to break open my eyes
the gift longed for so long
out of the desperate ecstasy at last
death and madness.
I love the unrelenting unpunctuated concise form of this poem on the page, its use of capitals to signal sentences, and its Donne—like desire to be broken apart by love, the way its syntax breaks open at the end, with “death and madness” lying on the floor of the poem like candy out of a pinata. And I’ll say this about Rukheyser. Lots of people talk about Elizabeth Bishop as the heir to Marianne Moore’s line of Modernism, but take a look at Rukeyser’s “Believing in Those Inexorable Laws” actually read it aloud and I think you’ll hear some of the selfsame self-assuredness, rhythmic complexity, erudition, and slyness that is so evident in Moore’s work.
Just a note to say, sorry I missed the March 8 Notes, and sorry too to have missed Barbara Hall’s poem the week before that.
This week, Frank’s poem “Edison Nutley” had the feel of a meditation on first kissing and it found its most authentic voice at the moment it stepped back from the corduroy sofa and the Frankie Valli soundtrack and the 9 year old’s tongue in his mouth and said: “Attraction’s funny, you know./ It’s mating.” And with that turn, it found a moment of unexpected heat, a moment that could have revealed something new about the depth of emotion that passes in what passes for innocent play. I loved that moment, but it was almost too much for the poem to digest or hold. Instead, the poem widened centrifugally. The speaker confessed to being attracted to “anybody with the living tongue,” which was gross but intriguing, then it went back to add a literal postscript to pre-teen kiss story—an incident in which the 9-year-old kisser had written to the speaker and her letter was delivered even though she had hand-drawn a fake postage stamp. Then, finally, the poem moved on to another first kiss, this one with a “woman who pained erotic paintings.” And in the last few lines, there’s a repetition of the meditative reprise: “A kiss is funny, you know…” but we never find out what really comes after “you know./ It’s mating.”
Barbara Hall brought a spluttering rant of a poem against irrationality and protesting the current war beginning “Words words Words.” We all shared the sentiment.
Carole Stone’s poem, “What Me Do I Like the Best?” takes a whack at defining four younger than 20 versions of the speaker, clipped aspirational recollections, maybe tinged by nostalgia or philosophy, but also tinged by the haunting uselessness of being older, wiser and still impotent to do anything about the current war.
Jen Poteet brought another installment from her new project to write about towns and cities in NJ, this one called “Jersey City” that talks about an early roommate situation the speaker had there. This poem, like Carole’s has a hint of nostalgia, ok, maybe more than a hint, as it ends “We made less than twenty grand a year/ and I don’t think we were ever happier.” Poems like this, and like Frank’s kiss poem and like Carole’s avatar poem all depend on the taste of the bait and the point on the hook. Why should the reader follow you into the past, what reward do you promise? In this poem, Jen’s most gorgeous and authenticating knowledge is the speaker’s memory of how one invites burglars by announcing the purchase of a new appliance, and one announces the purchase of a new appliance by putting the box out in the trash. And she rewards that attention by telling us that they tried to fool the thieves by putting their boxes in the Pathmark dumpster. Good stuff.
Claudia said that my poem, Love Poem, was notable because it went outside my usual narrative comfort zone. Well, maybe so, but Claudia’s poem, “Black Sea spoils” was also a deviation for her usual lyric mode. It’s a list of adjectives and adjectival phrases to be applied to the riches and/or relics thrown up by the Black Sea, a poem in which the music of the words provides a sensorium, a landscape of textures that move from maritime words like “bearded, barnacled” to mineral words like “opaled, alabastered,/ tourmalined and carnadined,” and onward to strange biomorphic words like “salty cauliflower heads,/ bloodied and boned, buried in red pubic hair of algae…” It’s an audacious album of assonance and suggestion. The challenge of a list poem that audacious is that each item in the list has to relate back to the title—in this case, Black Sea spoils—and start to build or imply a narrative, or a larger picture of some sort, and this poem is well on the way to doing that.
My poem, the one Claudia complimented for going out of my comfort zone, was called “Love Poem” and it set itself the impressionistic task of assembling very new, short suggestive brush strokes in a way that built an emotionally accessible whole.
I’m a couple of weeks into my reading of Stephen Crane’s bio by Paul Auster (Burning Boy) and the side-by-side reading of the Norton Critical Edition of “The Red Badge of Courage.” It’s funny. A few months ago, I thought I’d encountered the most modern of the Modernists in Marianne Moore, because she had shed more antique baggage than the others, but here I am with Crane, a writer born 18 years before Moore, who died of tuberculosis by the time Moore was 13, and seen against the background of his age, through the eyes of Auster and the fabulous lineup of essayists who provided the Norton commentary to accompany Red Badge, I think I’m joining the consensus that sees Crane as the first, and most irrevocable Modernist. He’s certainly the best sentence writer I’ve encountered in American English, and a positive genius of metaphor and simile. Within one or two pages of Chapter XXII he had phrases like the guns “denouncing” the enemy, or men who “filed a plumping volley at the foes” and sentences like: “There was much blood upon the grass blades” And he ended chapter XXIV with a striking tautology: “He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.” I was astonished today to read in Auster’s bio that Crane, who seemed to have no tutor was deeply moved and affected in the writing of Red Badge by Leo Tolstoy’s Sevastopol, three short stories written by Leo Tolstoy and published in 1855 to record his experiences during the Siege of Sevastopol (1854–1855). It does nothing to dent Crane’s originality, but it does confirm a belief of mine, that there is no poem without a prior poem. And Crane had not red War & Peace or Anna Karenina until much later.
Come back tonight, and we’ll do it all again. —Arthur Russell