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.
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.
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
Brendan McEntee brought a poem called “How We Dreamt in the Fire” lyric almost to the vanishing point (which I loved) but conveying a clear feeling of isolation and desolation, perhaps climate-change related, but did so by the least obvious means. Here’s the first stanza, which moves with an independence of will that resists paraphrase:
Six a.m. and the moon still holds its piece of the sky. Silence, a true silence arrives Plays like music in a shuttered mall.
It’s such a strange move to say that a silence, not any silence, but a “true silence” played like music, and it only gets stranger when that music is in a mall, and even more strange when that mall is ‘shuttered.’ And the way he uses two different verbs—plays and arrives—to describe the advent of silence, it’s as though everything that has been given—including the time of day and the moon above—has been, if not taken away, reconsidered—and yet the residue of this giving and taking is the essential feeling of the dreamer plopped down in an ambiguity. Read on, and in the second stanza see how the poem resists all explanation, moving in seemingly rational increments that test rationality, from “gardens” to “the bleaching of the world.”
Janet K brought an elegy about the ski slope death of an actor, Gaspard Ulliel, La Rosiere 1/19/22,” (not attached) that indulges in the language of obituary (“Gaspard . . . leaves behind a six-year-old son”) and the language of fan-dom (“I tore out the ad for the cologne [he promoted]/ and saved it.”), but what it really does, and what Janet does so well with her deadpan delivery, is to wonder – as she did in that poem about the near stranger in her high-rise who fell to his death from his balcony—about the how we can have real feelings about something we know only slightly or indirectly.
Carole Stone’s poem, “It Is Impossible to Be Alone in Language” is a “message-in-a-bottle” poem, in which the ‘messages of grief’ related to living alone are imaginarily found by a “wife” in a far-away country.
Don Z is our most courageous poet, sharing poems before he’s sure he’s comfortable with them himself. His “There is a Beautiful Sorrow I Must Attend To” takes the form of four short elusive couplets, the last of which – “I don’t have time for today./ I can’t make it to my life” – comes closest to answering the call of the title. The other three couplets suggest an arctic night of strong emotion but resist nearly completely providing context. The excitement that such elusiveness stimulates in the group, however, is a testament to the power of lyric substitution. We want answers and our minds suggest them, and when a poem gets our minds going, then, as Don might say, they become “flashing igloo[s]/ beaconing to toothy darkness.”
Barbara Hall brought a list poem called “Today I” that recounted the doings of the speaker’s day, and then relaxed with a cup of chamomile tea and key lime cookies as she watched the sun dip below the horizon.
Ana Doina got a lot of traction in the group with her “Although”, which can be summarized as a list of the crappy things that communism brought to her former country after WWI, things that did not stop people from experiencing the ordinary facets of life, music, love, and divorce. The setup is to use the word “although” at the beginning of phrases explaining the bad stuff, and the release is the final stanza saying that life went on despite the restrictions.
Frank Rubino’s “Sir, no man’s enemy” is a kind of prayer/petition/plea to an entity known only as “Sir” – for clean cardboard and pillows for homeless people, but on the way to that plea, it provides us with dozens of names of men out of context and tells a pair of anecdotes about the members of the speaker’s family giving up smoking, too late or not too late. What was interesting is how this “Sir” character refuses to be a god, and even becomes human enough to take the name “Jim.” Still the “cap-in-hand feel’ (Brendan) of the poem and its humility soar above its multifarious roots, and that must be the feeling and meaning.
Getting ready for Valentine’s Day, I brought a love poem called “Love Poem” that took the form of what Frank called “delicate little triplets”. It features a series of statements and metaphors, like “She does/ to me/ what a church// steeple does/ to a clear/ blue winter sky,” utterances that don’t connect to one another except through the title and the delicate little triplets. Some controversy broke out over the ending trope, about “happiness” which struck Susanna and possibly Janet and possible Claudia as to “telly” and remedies in the nature of machetes were suggested. Don Z liked the way the poem “sits in the romantic tradition.” And responded to the loppers thusly: “We need a strong end, but we need to end when we’re done.”
Hey, I’d like to shout out my daughter, Delaney’s podcast called “Only Child Syndrome” which you can get through Spotify. Delaney’s 25, and her podcast, which runs about an hour for each episode, has a lot of music, but her sound checks are about culture and womanhood. She’s far more articulate and insightful and easygoing than I am, so if you or a young woman you know likes insight, clarity, music and fun – tell them to check it out.
And a second “Hey” – I went to the Allen Ginsberg Prize reading yesterday to collect my Second Prize winnings (and adulation), and ran into a wildly divergent group of fantastic poets. As usual, in the corner of the poetry world governed beneficently by Maria Mazziotti Gilan, narrative poems were the order of the day. Through the ‘chat’ feature in Zoom, I invited two of my favorite readers, Marion Paganello and Lisa Cole Nicalau to sign up for these Field Notes, and they accepted. So, hey, Frank, I’m sending Marion’s and Lisa’s email addresses to you separately; please send them the invite to our workshop.
I probably won’t be at the 2-15-22 workshop, but Frank will, and I implore you all to write love poems, quickly, before it’s too late.
Jennifer Poteet‘s “Bird in a Box” compares good poems to skating, to eels, to electric current down the spine, to the thrill of being undressed by a first lover, to crashing a bike after learning to ride one, and the pounding of the heart in the chest after that crash, to a bird in a box. Then the poem screeches to a halt: Why? Because, it is revealed that the lover, the who one who unbuttoned of the speaker’s blouse, button by button, was a real person, one who, “after a third marriage” tells the speaker “the doctor gives him six months to live.” It is the boldest sort of strategy, in which the poem is pulled out of its conceit by reality and the crash of the bicycle morphs into a real life catastrophe. Bravo, Jen.
John J. Trause brought a movie commentary sort of poem called “Craning to See a Hotel Room” that mixed references to the movies “Psycho” and “Touch of Evil” to delve into the issues of exploitation and voyeurism.
The title of Frank Rubino‘s poem, “Days of rogation,” refers to meatless feast days in the Catholic calendar, and to a larger meditation on the modern meat industry, but at its best, it slides, meditatively, into a consideration of the unaccountable pain and solace of love: “no one/ will love my ear-wax, love my funny toe…./ no one / should be allowed in there, but here you are!/ One time you… showed me guyswith giant cocks and… I cried/ inside but …/I come from people with zucchini heads/ some of them… gnarled beautifully like mountain cedars…”
You can’t teach talent like that.
My poem, “Her Silver Rings in the Dish by the Bed” was a sonnet-length domestic love poem. Frank saw it as a sonnet. Yana said it changes the sonnet tradition by paying attention to an older woman. Frank liked the fact that it “starts with a thesis and proves it out,” somewhat metaphysically.
Susanna Lee‘s poem was also about domestic romance. It was called “Poem for the Rising of the Winter Solstice Moon.” It spoke in a “room of one’s own way” about maintaining private space in the home, but veered towards the sadness of isolation in life later in marriage, with couples sleeping apart and the speaker’s parents “gone.” Then, somewhat miraculously it slouched towards communion of a deeply mature sort, when the vibrant moon seen separately gave the couple something to talk about. Deft work.
Preeti Shah‘s poem, “My Name” was a purely lyrical piece in the form of a personal history. When she was young her “Name/ caught light the wet riggings/ of palak in some hesitant throat.” In India, it “comforted/ as Maa’s home dish…” In America, she comically compares it the Heimlich maneuver. And finally, in along lyrical passage, she conjures the feeling of her name in her own mouth as a beautiful meal “aching to be tasted/ by all tongues/ that still missed their homes.” Beautiful.
Speaking of foreign locales, Carole Stone‘s “Down Mexico Way” imagines the figure of Death in several disguises: as a guitar player, an American tourist, as a cyber researcher peeking at her “Facebook” page, and as a waiter at a Mexican restaurant, where her deceased parents show up and “light up cigarillos.”
Yana Kane‘s “The Doll House” takes dollhouses to task for their lifelessness, their obscuration of “any flaws:” for example the “mother in the kitchen” who is always and forever pulling “a blueberry pie from the oven.” And the father in the parlor, who “never tires of reading the same newspaper.” It was a creepy poem, for sure, something between Twilight Zone and Stepford Wives.
Raymond Turco‘s “Verona” creates a vibrant tonal sketch of the town with a curious allusion to an unproven theory that the name “Verona” is a bastardization of “Vera Roma” meaning “the one true Rome.”
JJT called Brendan‘s poem, “Waterfall in Winter” “high Romantic,” and “Tennysonian.” It depicts the hidden space behind a waterfall where a kind of shrine is maintained, literally maintained, as its “drooping lilies” are replaced —by the speaker—with “fresh ones” and the old ones are cast into the “crashing water.” Yet, when he leaves he swears he will never be back. Mysterious, and somber.
Janet Kolstein‘s “The White Bird” (not in the package) is either a dream, a surreal vision, or just another day on the Lower East Side. It presents a bird perched on the speaker’s shoulder that talks, shops for clothes, takes a bath in warm water, and is grabbed by barber who wakes up after sleeping on the street outside his shop. The speaker then pats the bird dry with a “paper towel, to avoid his getting chilled/ when he turns into a cat.” I’m voting for ‘just another day on the Lower East Side.’
Thank you all for coming; see you at the next workshop.
If you missed our virtual, soft launch of The Red Wheelbarrow #14, here is the recording of the event. Arthur Russell emcees as poets from The Red Wheelbarrow read their poems from the book. Frank Rubino is the featured poet.
For the month of May, the Gang of Five is excited to feature Jennifer Franklin, a NYC poet of exceptional talent.
Please join us on Wednesday, May 1st, 2019, 7:00 PM at the William Carlos Williams Center, One Williams Plaza in Rutherford NJ to hear Jennifer.
About our feature:
Whether ekphrasis or autobiography, Jennifer Franklin‘s hard-hitting poems make personal heartache universal through her choice of detail, imagery, and deep compassion. Her work has a hypnotic quality so breathtakingly immediate in its ability to engross the reader, one almost forgets how startlingly beautiful the visuals, the metaphors, and the language are, line after line.
Please note: We must now pay $100 per month rent for the use the Williams Center for our readings. This is in addition to the $100 per month rent the Red Wheelbarrow workshop must pay for the use of their space in the Williams Center.
We need your help to survive and continue to hold our monthly readings. We will be asking for donations. A $5 per person donation is suggested. If we all contribute, we can pay the rent!