Field Notes, Week of 04-27-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 27, 2021

We had a very welcome surprise guest at the workshop, Bridget Sprouls, whose poem “Fresh Pasture” closely observed the aftermath of a farmyard accident, a lamb kicked by a steer: “She didn’t fall, just shook her head/ then walked on slowly after,/ nibbling a few blades./ Soon she simply stood there/ ears back, unable to mask the pain.”  The direct, unadorned simplicity of the narration allowed us, the readers, to care, to worry about the lamb, so that the next line, also unadorned, locked us into the moment: “Something had happened to her.”  The poem follows the lamb, who “sat quietly,/ breathing perhaps a little faster than normal;” the two adverbs, “quietly” and “perhaps” did a lot of work, which is unusual for adverbs, keeping the tension high.  And the concern we felt for the lamb reached a high point as the poem paused to educate us a bit about the lamb’s usual routine – experimental chewing and calling for milk – to then let us know that “Today she didn’t chew.  She didn’t baa for milk.”  Just a lovely poem.  Some of us thought the last line “The world had grown so very dangerous” was unnecessary precisely because we knew that from the careful caring exposition, but that’s for Bridget to decide.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Topanga” (no included in the package) was just amazing as looks back at youth go.  It was about that time in the early 1970s when Topanga Canyon and Laurel Canyon in California were magnets for the indy pop musical idols of the day, but those were just the backdrop to the young speaker’s place in that charged universe, and ended with; “I was always going back to New Jersey/ when summer was over/ and I needed a job as cashier or behind a counter,/ and there was our home in Halcyon Park as a backup/ where I could secretly lick my wounds when I failed.”

John J. Trause brought an untitled poem that began “I picked a flower in Britain once,/ the color of your eyes.”  It was written in ballad meter with the second and fourth lines in each stanza rhyming and an added internal bonus rhyme in line three.  It was hypnotic metrically and hilariously sensual.

Tom Benediktsson was back after a few weeks away with “Freely Fly” a poem that anthropomorphizes an “LL Bean Wicked Good flannel shirt.”  I can’t summarize it, but it was wildly imaginative, satirical and just plain nuts. Welcome back, Tom.

It really was comedy night; not just JJT and Benediktsson either—Don Zirilli‘s poem “Stand Up” was shaped like am actual comic’s standup routine, starting with a quick reversal of an old comic’s standby: “I just flew in from New York/ and boy is the sky tired.”  And throughout, Don pushes the routine towards a slightly more surreal kind of humor; one section tells a joke about a snake who gets hit in the face by a dandelion stem; another tells a castle-with-a-moat joke; and it ends with a twist on a typical stand-up ending: “You’ve been fantastic./ I loved you in another life.”  My only wonderment was whether any of this material was beyond the ken of today’s standup comics.

Brendan‘s poem “Ta Republique” also featured a moat, albeit one around a sandcastle, a sandcastle on a beach outside a convalescent home whose windows were filled with sick people “some in wheelchairs, some bandaged, some with their fists to their mouths, their sounds lost/ to the flash and scream of a fighter jet, heading in.”  And the overall picture was jarring, arresting, and disturbing, but in a memorable way.

Ana Doina‘s poem, “The Cruelty of Youth” was a narrative about a summer idyll that was not ideal.  The speaker went swimming every day with a childhood friend of the speaker’s mother, and the friend goaded the speaker to swim the whole width of the lake, until one day, having had enough of that, the speaker challenges the friend to talk about his youth, spent as a child victim of the Nazi Josef Mengele’s cruel experimentation.

Jen Poteet brought a poem called “Wildflower or Weed” about dandelions.
Susanna Lee brought a sonnet called “Corona Stole Our Love Sonnet” that focuses on a guitar.

Claudia Serea’s poem “If this fever were an old-fashioned war” a direct address to a sick child, that includes the kind of fantastical storytelling that parents allow themselves to indulge in when it’s their kid and their kid is sick. Very nice poem.

Raymond Turco‘s poem was an Italian original and an English translation that had been accepted for publication.  We loved hearing Ray read it in Italian, and then we tore into the English, which had one of Ray’s unexpectedly strong metaphorical twists at the start: “In search of my son’s heart,/ I find it transplanted.”  We loved wondering what that could mean and where the poem could go.

Turns out I’m posting these notes just fifteen minutes before our next workshop. So, if I gave anyone short shrift, I apologize.  Our workshop, as Frank says, is the best thing anywhere.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-20-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 20, 2021

I’d like to start off tonight’s notes with a little prayer for two of our local poets who died in the last week: Laura Boss, editor of LIPS, and a mainstay of the Northern NJ poetry scene passed away after a battle with cancer. I knew Laura Boss only slightly, and yet from the few times we met, I came away liking her. Also, sadly, Brooklyn Poets’ reining Yawper of the Year, Robin Romeo, a young man, died; I’m not sure of the cause. After only a year or so at BKP, Robin had become irreplaceable, a poem of the month winner, a solid supporter of other poets’ work. Irreplaceable and now gone. May he rest in peace.

Clearly, if we still had a poem of the week, it would have gone to LanChi Pham for “The length of a line is the length of a human breath, Tom told me.” It’s a daughter’s love poem to her father who loves all poetry but his daughter’s poems particularly. Completely unadorned by fancy poetic language, it shows us the father “Lying in his hospital bed/ With the oxygen tubes/ Running up his nostrils/ And two tanks/ Always next to the nightstand.” And then father and daughter share poetry and conversation, “Until he wheezes,/ And can barely catch his breath anymore./ Then we stop…” A poem of short lines for a father short of breath.  Didn’t Stephen Sondheim write “Send In The Clowns” in short phrases so that Hermoine Gingold, the getting-up-there-non-singing-star of “A Little Night Music” could make a go of it? This poem enacts the very love it speaks of.

Claudia Serea, the master, was back with a garden as god poem called “I’m helping my grandmother pull from the earth potatoes and onions.” The poem proceeds directly from the title to tell us “It’s hard because the earth/ doesn’t relinquish them easily,/ because it never does,/ once it snatches something from us.” Sly work, but the poem doesn’t linger on that easy mortality; instead it enacts a Marx Brothers routine: a tug of war between the speaker the dirt, ending in the triumphant speaker showing off her “trove of potatoes,/ glistening amber piglets,/ and the onions,/ hanging in the air,/ rare golden birds.” Thank you, Claudia.

Yana Kane’s poem, “Filling in the blanks” tracks the speaker’s family’s migration story. From where to where is omitted though ‘from oppression to freedom’ seems like a fair bet. The poem is a verse narrative whose lyricism resides in the clipped, vaguely teletyped sequencing: “Permission granted.// No coming back would be allowed./ Every goodbye is carved in stone.// Three weeks to put our affairs in order.” In the last segment, the migrant family of 3 (two parents and the speaker) sitting three across in the plane “are entering this world/ together,/ as if we were triplets.” 

Ana Doina brought a polished up version of her poem “Bilingualism, a legacy,” which intersperses a lecturer’s spiel about the benefits of bilingualism with language-based memories from the speaker’s past. 

John J Trause brought a concrete poem called “Dementia,” that enacted the descent into dementia by writing the word vertically in a typeface of diminishing density acting as an erasure that mimics the supposed erasure of memory or self or whatever is erased in the course of the disease. Recently in a controversial 40 page poem published in Poetry, called “Scholl’s Ferry Road,” Michael Dickman used an analogous technique, of dedicating more and more of each page to white space reflecting the dementia that overwhelmed the speaker slipping into dementia. 

My poem, “Chains to the Sea” was a sound poem riffing on the famous final line of Dylan Thomas’ famous poem “Fern Hill”: “though I sang in my chains like the sea.”  It was intended as an homage to that triple anapest line of Thomas’, which has astounded me since I first memorized “Fern Hill” with Thomas’ Collected Poems propped open on the steering wheel of my 1973 Monte Carlo while I drove north and west on Route 17 from NYC to Alfred, New York where my then girlfriend was learning to be a potter.  It was a five hour drive, and I had the poem down cold by the time I got there. So this poem is an incantation rolling that phrase around until it seems to make new meaning. 

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “For Those Who Are Wretched” which takes off from the Victor Hugo novel, Les Misérables, suggests that the wretched of the world should “find the Jean Valjean” (a character in the novel) in themselves.

Susanna Lee wrote a comic poem about how hard it is to write a sonnet called “How to Write the Modern Sonnet.” It was super well received, having inside poetry jokes like “Only fourteen or so of the sonnet’s lines need words” and “Sonnets follow a metrical pattern when they feel like it” and other attitudinal humor as in “Shakespearean sonnets are the best, tres cool.” The poem ends with a line of the driest, morbid hilarity a poet can reckon: “Follow all these sonnet tips and you still die.”

Jen Poteet’s poem “Woman and Whippet” sounds like the name of a painting, and here the dog in the painting is the speaker, narrating from inside the frame what the unrecognized viewer of the painting must be thinking the dog is thinking. It’s a clever conceit, which starts off with some rudimentary observations about the sitting, the dog’s relation to his mistress with her “ruffled silk dress, gloves/ and elaborate feathered hat…” and the requisite unfulfilled dog desire to “terrorize mice,” etc. But then, almost exactly 2/3 of the way through (where the turn would be in a sonnet), there’s a ferocious turn.  The dog in the painting who has been enacting the viewer’s thoughts throughout suddenly says: “I don’t know death. I don’t know guilt or pride./  I’m the sort of chap that’s here now…” That is where the poem catches fire, as the energy ping-pongs between dog and painter and poet. Dogs don’t philosophize about a sense of mortality they don’t have, but someone does.  Fascinatingly, after that moment of surfacing passion, the dog goes back to wondering what (spoiler alert: garbage) is for dinner.  Thank you Jennifer Poteet!     

Shane Wagner brought a provocative poem called “Would You Fuck Me?” that jumps directly from the title to a confrontation.  A movie theater manager is propositioning a young usher. Hot as a pistol, the poem proper starts: “He repeated the question several times.” As that first stanza ends, the question repeats: “Would you fuck me?” After that, however the poem cools off considerably.

What Frank Rubino’s poem lacked in a title it more than made up for in poem.  It reads as a grab bag of disparate ideas: a meditation on (or by) one of the speaker’s toes (“I am toes”), an overly long one, a meditation that morphs into a consideration of adhesion or binding, which transmutes into a discussion of the painter Delacroix’s ability to paint water droplets, and then section 1 ends with the memory of a long ago taxi ride to Newark Airport during which the speaker sees the demolished building that once housed his father’s diner on Route 21. In section 2, the poem almost wills itself to fly. The speaker is still his toes, but his toes are in the Southwest on a hiking trail, perhaps a tour of butte country, and here, in this environment the speaker (c’mon, it’s not the toe), engages in a series of reframing observations: looking down he sees “the small figures on the road below” and figures “that was us.” He hears a cute exchange in the men’s room between father and little boy; he tells us the sat thing he saw and the happy thing, which was the same boy “lying limp across his father’s shoulders.” Some of the workshoppers wanted to cut away everything about this poem that didn’t sing with the easy impact of the demolished diner, or cut the poem into sections that could be separate poems. I say if John Donne were in the workshop, we’d be a little more anxious to figure out what he was trying to accomplish and how he went about accomplishing it, and a little less quick to give it a nip and a tuck. My point is that John Donne’s not coming, but Frank is here, so let’s treat him with the same respect we’d show to Donne.

Janet Kolstein’s poem “Miss Pink” was a tongue-in-cheek updated/fractured fairy tale, a sort of version of Little Red Riding Hood, a kind of ballad. It’s strength came from its densely artificial language, such as “The train screeched into the station like a Chinese Dragon,/ and opening all its metal jaws sharply and at once,/ commanded, “Clear the doors and step in.” The poem’s not in the package, but it’s got a lovely ending.

Thanks to everyone who brought poems, and thanks to everyone who assisted in the discussion to help these poems on their way to coherence.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 04-13-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of April 13, 2021

Happy Poetry Month, workshoppers: 

We had a great workshop last Tuesday.  The truth was delivered by the poets and then the truth was delivered by the workshop.  So much truth.

My poem, “A Mortician’s Stitch” touched on a daughter telling a father’s story then retold by the speaker of the poem, about the life of a guy who was in near constant motion, whose daughter caught his momentum and the speaker who saw it in her.  It was a blank verse poem which means unrhymed iambic pentameter, and I must say that the form is fluid enough to capture discourse without unnatural compression, but the constraint of the iambic line, and the pentameter line in particular, provides just enough back-pressure on the writing process to measure out the poem’s progress in lines of consistent density and tone; the cadence is satisfying to the ear.  I recommend it.

Shane Wagner’s “For a Lifetime” was a prose piece – JJT called it a short story –  about life in the neighborhood with children who face developmental challenges.  That “know-a-little, not-a-lot” feeling that comes from living down the block is well captured, with the children as advance guards or avatars of friendship when they meet at the door for trick or treat on Halloween.  The details all ring true, and the line that rang the truest for me was the one that described the excitement of the girl who gave the juice boxes on Halloween when the speaker’s son arrived in his wheelchair: “The girl filling the doorway.  Holding a tray of juice boxes.  Shifting her weight in anticipation.”  Poetry or prose, it’s details like that that ground a piece.

Don Zirilli brought “Labyrinth”  a poem hearkening back to the story of Orpheus, the Minotaur and Daedelus, but told, according to Don, from the perspective of the labyrinth itself: “Every night, no matter how diligently I was debased,/ I walked backward into myself again.”

Ana Doina brought a poem called “Bilingualism, a legacy.”  The poem sets up as a dialogue in which the science of bilingualism is set out in italics, such as “It’s about changing codes,” and each italicized piece of the lecture is filled with an autobiographical rejoinder to the thought in the voice of a speaker who grew up speaking Romanian, German and Hungarian, and who now has a “toddler grandson.”  Everyone in the group found the final paragraph/stanza of the poem – the one that introduced the grandson — to be the most engaging, where the grandson is quoted saying he doesn’t like to say certain words in Romainian, but we feel the grandparent’s satisfaction that he “goes on listing in Romanian, all the colors he doesn’t like to say.” 

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Queen of Corona” was about how the last year of evenings have gone for the speaker, reading poems and the paper, following social media, watching movies and tv game shows and eating “corn chips, cheddar and salsa.”  Which is described as a kind of hell from which vaccination may provide relief if the speaker can move up on the list.  We learned that the speaker had indeed moved up the list, and has now been vaccinated, but not whether her activities list or her address had changed.

John J Trause brought a poem, an ode perhaps, called “To Thoth,” the ‘thoth’ being an Egyptian deity of wisdom, writing, hieroglyphs, science, magic, art, judgment and the dead, often depicted as a man with the head of an ibis or baboon.  John’s poem was hilarious.  Read it.

Frank Rubino was back from vacation and back with a rewrite of his poem about men talking around a fire, “Pete & Stan’s.”

The dialogue had the offhand terribleness that one automatically associates with men, such as “Did you ever have to fuck someone, said Pete, or they’d fuck you?”  But the real heat of the poem is in the speaker’s feelings of discomfort with the fireside regime and more generally, about secrets (“(I can’t give the secret that I’m bad at the stock market)/(I can’t give the secret of my true numbers)/(I can’t give the secret when I last had sex)”); and that discomfort is vindicated, oddly, when the speaker’s “wife and the ladies come by the fire,” and the speaker can confidently report on the men’s good behavior with goofy smile emoji to emphasize the relief: “No secrets dropped about them all night (goofy smile)/ They are funny and high.”     In a way, the setting of the poem, with the women withdrawing to what was known in Victorian England as the ‘withdrawing room’ and the men retiring to the billiards room (which often had a fireplace) for a game of snooker.  Frank is clearly our poet most comfortable with the familial tensions of midlife.

Janet Kolstein’s poem, “Golden Shovel 1” was written in the form of that name invented by Terrence Hayes, who took the words in a line of Gwendolyn Brook’s poem, and made them into end-words for a poem of his own.  Janet used the words of the title of an article from the Sunday New York Times (“Music and Meditation Fuels Laura Donnelly”) to provide her with end words, and the connection between the inspiring title and the ultimate poem turns out to be the name of a friend of the speaker who recently died, Laura.  What’s particularly wonderful is how Janet used the name “Laura Donnelly” from the newspaper headline and got two line endings, one for her friend “Laura” and the other a reference to a line of poetry by another Donnelly, Tim. 

Come back again on Tuesday 4/20/21, and we’ll rip into a few more poems. 

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-15-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 15, 2021

We had a good time at the old Zoom last Tuesday, with poems of metamorphosis, dreams, nostalgia, you know, the stuff we . 

Claudia Serea’s “At 3 a.m., I held my parents” is a dreamlike free verse poem in nine couplets in which the parents are depicted as metamorphic presences that the speaker holds, loves and loses. When the poem begins, the parents are held like children on the speaker’s lap, then compared to weightless birds who wriggle free, “spread their wings and swoosh[ ] off.” 

Don Zirilli’s poem, “How to Remember a Dream” enters the same landscape of dreams that Claudia’s poem occupied, but rather than presenting the content of the dream, it is presented as a ‘how to’ poem, that focuses on the process rather than the content of the dream. Like many poems in the ‘how to’ genre, there’s a bit of tension between the title’s promise of an easy-to-follow set of instructions, and the more difficult emotional content that follows. Three imperatives — “walk” “feel” and “report” – carry the ‘how to’ device forward, but particularly in the ‘feel’ section, the instructions illuminate rather than resolve the difficulties of remembrance, as they show us the imagined student receiving the content of the dream like a “frosty night of weather” transdermally through a their forehead resting on the cool glass of a window:

Feel the cool glass against your forehead

until you’re transparent, no longer

in the way

of the story you’re telling

to the person who is actually having the dream

and slowly pours a frosty night of weather

into you.

Janet Kolstein’s free verse poem, “Black Cat on a Cobblestone Street” was a lovely ekphrasis of a 1927 silent film directed by Walther Ruttman, called “Berlin, Symphony of a Great City.” While Ruttman’s film is famous for being the first or one of the first “city films” (here’s an article about it: https://www.popmatters.com/berlin-walter-ruttmann-2620911194.htmlabout) which can be seen as a celebration of modernity and urbanity, or a partly Marxist social critique on the on the dehumanization brought about by industrialization, Janet’s poem is more of an ‘ubi sunt’ poem, a contemplation of mortality and the transience of life, in which she considers how the people depicted in the movie  are now dead and gone.

Speaking of old movies, Shane Wagner brought a poem called “A Pretty Good Team,” you might call a free verse poem, but not really, since it was written, in part, under the constraint of following the versification of the song “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” by George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin (1937), for the movie “Shall We Dance” where it was sung by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers while dancing in roller skates. Shane takes this lyric about incompatibility (toe-MAY-toe/ toe-MAH-toe) and makes it about domestic compatibility. 

My poem, “I Imagine the Earth Absconded” is set up rhetorically as Petrarchan sonnet (octave and sestet) in unrhymed lines that hearken (loosely) back to iambic pentameter. The subject of the poem is the traditional one of leaving home, coming back and remembering the journey. The poem hinges on the two sides of a simile (tenor and vehicle) which are deliberately conflated: (1) the fanciful device of the Earth leaving the solar system to visit a faraway galaxy, and (2) the teenager who leaves home to go to California, meets a girl in a health-food-store and returns home with artifacts (serape blanket, old car) and a souvenir of his time away (a pillowcase). The intergalactic imagery of a planet leaving its orbit provides some emotional substance to the difficulties of leaving one’s assigned orbit, and the powerful pull of gravity that brings one back to their “endless falling groove” and the pillowcase souvenir with its embroidered “border of yellow stars” embodies the way those journeys live on in a domesticated life.

Barbara Hall brought a pair of haiku “Haiku for my parents.” Both halves of the poem, mom and dad, dealt with death, the dad piece with a startlingly self-aware moment of gentle punning self-mockery by the dying father who says his hands are “the ends of me” and the mom piece with a detail of the funeral – lipstick color – that illuminates the intimacy of a daughter’s knowledge. Don Z commented that it was interesting that the haiku for the father follows the haiku rules, but the one for the mother did not. There was some discussion as to what the poem gained from presenting itself as haiku.

Susanna Lee’s poem, “Ruckus” is a poem, like Barbara’s about parental mortality, in which the speaker’s father, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, is furious about losing the ability to read, and tears a paperback apart. The description of the “tortured” book being torn apart becomes a metaphor for the father’s losses engendered by the disease.

Raymond Turco brought a poem called “The Chef” written in the second person to a “you” who is the cousin of the speaker. The poem has the candor to recognize the cousin as “”harsh/ like bitter dandelion greens” the respect to admit that the speaker is humbled when she chides him, and ends by celebrating the comfort that the speaker feels when he sees her act of kindness in making his bed. The poem is written in short free verse lines that are set up in three long stanzas; we didn’t have time to discuss the way this form relates to the content, but it would be a good thing to look at.

Frank Rubino’s poem is called “Gasoline is a living chemical.” The poem is in three free verse sections separated by bullet dots. It starts in the Covid present with the “we” of the poem, possibly husband and wife, getting vaccinated at an old Sears store they had visited (together or separately?) as children, and “played… in its overcoat racks…” Within that moment, the speaker reminisces about the connection between that old Sears store and the people who frequented it being possible workers at a clothing factory who might have been customers of his father’s lunch truck, including perhaps the foreman at the factory who  had “put aside some dresses for my sister.” The poem returns from those reminiscences to the vaccination moment where the ‘we’ waits for possible adverse reactions to the shots while listening to muzak on the old Sears music system, and then returns to the domestic scene at home, talking to kids. The second and third sections of the poem ruminate on the moment: the vaccination event held side by side with the situation in Novogorod Russia when the couple adopted their baby, and in a larger sense, the idea of being in a strange public space. 

Jen Poteet’s poem “With Authority” is full of humorous observations about idiosyncrasy and trivia, such as how different sorts of columns (Ionic and Doric) can lead to remembering a (very very old) tv car commercial featuring the actor Ricardo Montalban talking about the rich Corinthian leather in a Chrysler Cordoba.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 03-02-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of March 2, 2021

Hey everyone.

Tom Benediktsson’s poem, Allegory, told an allegorical tale in two free verse stanzas of 8 lines each more or less iambic, more or less 4 beats per line. The tale he tells is of a couple, known only as A and B evidently at a bistro “sharing a small table.” A’s gluttony is the subject of stanza 1. B’s finickiness (to put it mildly) is the subject of stanza 2, which ends with her leaving the bistro, “walking at a calorie-burning speed…” Maybe this poem is an allegory because A and B are universal characters, but I think, too, you can see the allegorical scrim as a distancing device or shock attenuator for the disturbing scene of B “grimacing with revulsion,” after “toying with a single bean/ on the black and white checkered tablecloth.” 

Janet K brought a poem called “Tall Ships” (not attached) that addressed “unrequited romance/ experienced as a kind of exile forever from love itself” and the strategy of acquisition that offsets the unhappiness: tchotchkes. “They turn to objects,” she writes, which are, themselves “meditations on the human touch,” whose effect is “mysterious, like the tall ships.. coming down a fog-shrouded river,”  called “a succor for the heartsick” that keeps them, chilling, “far from that trip to the chemist,/ the rope.” And then, in the conclusion, she imagines the heartsick consoling themselves saying “I own you,/ you’re mine,/ you’re my moon-faced mantel clock,/ my kimono embroidered with a field of jonquils.” And as I think it was JJT, who pointed out, that jonquils was such a powerful last word for the poem, known but unusual. My only quibble with this poem was the verb “spy.” Great work, Janet.

Lan Chi Pham brought a delicious poets-only poem about falling in love with poetry and then trying one’s hand at it, called “Poem a Day”, which envisions the speaker having poetry prescribed as a treatment for the blues. “Better do what the good which doctor says,” the speaker says, then the next two stanzas describe in an evolving poems=food metaphor, how she accelerated from “free verse” for lunch to “the heaver stuff” which she “devour[ed] like a bottomless/ Hurricane of word-hunger.” Finally, she tries her hand at “homemade poem” which is “Yum yum” though the poem ends humbly saying her poem was not as good as “The store-bought stuff.” Zirilli, who wasn’t there last night would say, it’s a poem that sticks to a single metaphor all the way through, and that’s a comfort but more than a comfort, a pleasure to the reader.

Yana Kane brought a poem called “Trees dreaming in winter.” Well, now you know pretty much all you need to. Just kidding. Yana’s trees dream, but their dream is the poet’s imagination of the world in winter embodied in trees that “drink in the stillness that pools/ beneath all layers of the ground,” and whose “crowns bloom with constellations” (someone said this is like looking up through the bare branches on a starry night). In the poem’s last movement, Yana has the trees veer further into fantasy with “winged beings” and “luminous fruit” that “flows far beyond the shores of the known world.” It seems as though Yana reaches for the mystical as confirmation that her poems have done that too.

Shane Wagner brought a rewrite of the piece from last week in which he, Robert Frost and Jen Poteet took a walk in the woods; now it’s called “Turn Home.” (By the way, ignore the last paragraph on the page. Shane says it’s not part of the poem.) This version is prose too, prose poem maybe, and it starts essayisticly noting that the country and world have had a lot of anxiety lately, and he’s feeling relaxed, noting that a cactus rescued from the neighbor’s trash last summer is “feeling comfortable enough to produce lewd fuchsia blossoms” and the “icicles seem more willing to hang.” Cute joke. But then the piece turns to the speaker’s special needs child care duties, and from that to a scene at a “special needs picnic” where another father did what was needed for his special needs child, before landing heavily in the double edged worry about who, in a special needs family, will die first, father or child. Nice prose piece.

Way at the other end of the “is-this-poetry-at-a-poetry-workshop” spectrum, John J. Trause (who will be the featured reader at tonight’s Williams Center Poetry Reading (on Zoom): be there) brought a graphical poem called “Untitled” which consists of the word ‘untitled’ written in big letters down the middle of the page, the word broken up, two letters per line, and presented in a stencil typeface. This is concrete poetry, defined as an arrangement of linguistic elements in which the typographical effect is more important in conveying meaning than verbal significance. For more on that topic, you may want to look at Charles Olson’s essay “Projective Verse” and/or Brian McAllister’s critical piece “Narrative in Concrete / Concrete in Narrative.”

Frank Rubino’s poem had a really long title!  “Shift toward helping, shift toward light, and, soon, in four or five breaths, sleep.” Someone called this an internal monologue, which led to a fistfight (just kidding). Whether it’s really internal, or a piece spoken to this audience, it’s a ruminative piece, like many of Frank’s poems, in which he toggles between declarative truth reach (“My words are my mind”) and close attention to his body (“the way my wrist moves”) questions (“Isn’t that such wasted time?), natural observations (“The robin sat in the dogwood trying to see through the window./ I don’t think birds can./ His body is fluffed for the cold.”) and genuinely lyrical moments of love (“My hauntedness is the same hauntedness as yours./ Our hauntedness is the forward movement of time./ I wish there was a time syrup that would end time forever.” So beautiful). And Frank is dedicated to not privileging one vector of his speech over the others, which makes it tough for lovers of his sweet lyricism, but hey.

Raymond Turco, fresh from the completion of his Italian Heroes manuscript brought a song lyric called “New York is” that tried to capture the spirit of NY in some of its well worn cliches: it has 8 million people none of whom would stop if they saw a corpse on the sidewalk, it is dirty and smelly and, its people all “chase Fortune.” As Brendan pointed out, that may well depict Manhattan, but there are four more boroughs and nuance out there.

Barbara Hall brought a poem called “The Birth of Virtual Reality,” about the death that came with covid, which she represents in the death of an uprooted apple tree, compares to the ivy on Snow Whit’s castle, and finally in a “story” he tells that is both made up and “too real.” And then the story:

she died last fall.

I picked up the shovel unceremoniously,

dropped dirt on her pinewood casket,

Never to see her again.

Virtual Reality took her place:

No face, no mouth, no eyes, no smile.

That’s one hell of a story.

Brenden McEntee brought a five-stanza poem in unrhymed tercets called “Before Bedtime”  that Tom B described as having a three stanzas that start “before bedtime” and two stanzas that start in dream (a dream city and a dream desert) all of which share a dank and brutish view of life. If he overstates (or if I misquote him), there’s no doubt it summons up a life in which the family is the insular protected center of a dangerous world, and even in that protected center “You go to disaffected prayer and childhood/living; I double check the locks and night-eclipsing clouds.” And the poem ends chillingly in its last tercet, which still somehow the family at the center:

Every night, before bedtime, you tell me: “come the new day,

We will bless what needs to be blessed and we will kill

Who needs to be killed and therefore, ourselves, stay safe.

My own poem was a re-write and supplement of my unnamed last week poem about mothwing newspapers. Now it’s called “Mothwing Trilogy” and each of the poems in the trilogy (all circling around sonnet length) has its own name: (1) My Grandfather Read a Newspaper for Moths Which, Oddly, Was Printed on Mothwings” (2) “Which Fey Light?”; and (3) “Butcher Paper Tally On the Use Of “Oddly” In the Title of My Mothwing Poem.”  In some sense, poems two and three are midrashim on poem one, but in another sense they are a triptych in whose center panel a scene of comforting domestic scene unfolds, and in whose outer panel, pandemonium. I think I’ll leave it there.

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-26-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 26, 2021

We got the news yesterday that Mark Fogarty, the Editor in Chief and the Publisher of the Red Wheelbarrow Journal and the MC of the Gainville Café sessionss, and a stalwart member of the RWB workshop since its beginning, is retiring from his posts after work for the last 13 years at least on the journal, many excellent Friday nights of love and music, including his bass playing and singing.  Losing both Mark and Jim Klein to retirement in one year is a big loss for the group, so I just wanted to shout out our gratitude to both of them for their work, their spirits and their love of poetry.

Brendan McEntee’s poem, “A Last Act” is a fifteen line narrative piece of free verse in two stanzas, each of which presents the facts of a different part of the day of a burial.  The poem begins when most of the mourners have left the gravesite and “the men moved in” – the men who do shovel the dirt.  The speaker’s family, including girls who “played hide-and-seek among the monuments” remain behind.  At the center of the poem a strong declarative places the day in the context of a survivor’s life: “It’s the last, firming act of adulthood when your parents die,/ though I don’t confuse it with maturity.”  The poem never tells us whose parent died, which gives the voice a certain internality and adds to the sense of stillness that the poem generates from beginning to end. 

The second stanza, of four lines, brings us back to the graveyard later in the day, “after dinner and recollections,” as the speaker drives by, looking through the green gate, looking for the grave, taking note of the flowers that the men had set on the mound “nicely,/ a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.  Tom B said that the speaker of the poem was hiding their feelings. The way the speaker doesn’t tell us the relationship between the decedent and themselves but declares the place a parent’s death takes is one example.  And look at those last two lines again: the speaker, driving past the cemetery sees the grave through the gate and declares, in a very third person way that the flowers are  “a momentary reminder for anyone who might pass and see.”  Well, there IS a person passing and seeing right at that moment, and it’s not “anyone”— it’s the speaker.  So whether they are hiding their feelings  as Tom says, or presenting them through the filter of distancing effects (and through the green gate), it gives the poem its enduring sense of stillness.  (Frank didn’t like the title.  Neither did I, and there were a bunch of other editorial comments on syntax and word choice.)  I for one would love to see this near-sonnet again.

Speaking of maintaining a distance from emotion, Raymond Turco’s poem “Nilde Iotti” brings his book of Italian heroes more deeply into the twentieth century that some of his others.  The subject was a lifelong member of the Italian Communist Party, who (spoiler alert) had an affair and child with a married man.  As always, in this collection, Ray works in free verse, does not eschew archaicisms, and addresses his subjects as “you” while maintaining a third-person-ish distance that frequently, as here, creates a jarring contrast of familiarity and anonymity.  Like Michelangelo’s slaves, they only emerge halfway from their stones. 

Speaking of poems written in the second person that maintain an emotional distance from their subject, Susanna Rich’s poem “e-ro-teme/ n. 1. A mark indicating a question” is a lyrical love poem in free verse stanzas of three lines each that magnifies the adoration of a loved one’s hair curling around their ear.  The magnification is achieved through lingering on the possibilities of the moment, and the distancing is achieved through a kind of intelligent coyness, allowing the fascination of the peculiar word – eroteme — that describes a question mark, to dominate, even going as far as presenting the word, separated (in the title) into its syllables in a way that sneakily calls out the “eros” lurking in “eroteme.”  Tom thought the poem digressed. Jen must’ve agreed because she said to take out the comparison to “yin and yang,” and Claudia Serea asked in the politest way possibly, why the heck the poem needed three-line stanzas.

Shane Wagner, fresh from three consecutive rewrites of his last photo-based poem “Retouching” (about the broken bond between father and son) brought “Polaroids” a love poem (also in the second person) in which the love is shared between those old-fashioned Polaroids with a white border, and the subject of the poem, the “you” who is nude in the third stanza and pregnant in the fourth (talk about fast developing!).  The poem evoked a lot of nostalgia for the old technology (and Don said there’s an app that can make any photo look like it was taken by a 1970s Polaroid, and a lot of editorial comments. 

What would our work as a workshop be if it wasn’t about trying to fix a poem?  When we edit, we erase what we don’t like or don’t understand to make the poem conform to our norms; we substitute ourselves for the poet; we say, if I were writing this poem, this is how I would do it.  Well, hooray for that, and no doubt that can be helpful.  I’ve been an advocate in workshop for reading the poem twice and even three times before we say anything about it, because it keeps the poem in front of us in the poet’s words, allows us a chance to enter the poet’s intentions as hidden in a condensation of syntax, diction, line breaks, assonance, metaphor and a dozen other strategies.  Gives us a chance to say what IS happening in the poem instead of what SHOULD happen in the poem.  And that can be helpful to everyone, not just the poet.

Mike Mandzik, the inside of whose mind is a pinball machine, brought a poem called “RED FLAG” about an unfortunate misunderstanding in love, in which, as usual, the guy doesn’t know what went wrong, only that he’s not getting any pussy for a while.  Mike, want to come over to my place for the Super Bowl?

Carole Stone brought “Somewhere Else” a good poem (with a shitty title) where her plainspoken mid-century voice tallies the facts and artifacts of age: hurting legs, a bit of kindness from the guy in the liquor store, a beloved book on her desk, and hair getting long during the pandemic.  And remarkably, the poem is overtly about the very sort of emotional distancing that we talked about in Brendan’s, Raymond’s and Susanna Rich’s poem, except this poem records that difficulty as the turn that ends the poem:  “I think I’m closer to putting my emotions/ on the page.  I’ve almost stopped longing/ to be somewhere else.”

Yana Kane’s poem “Tai Chi Teacher” is a re-write of her triptych about a tai chi master whose lessons survive him.  It’s in four sections now (Quad-tych?) of varying length and uneven stanza lengths, still in free verse, and even more clearly now an elegy to this mentor.  It starts with the highly formal address: Our Tai Chi teacher,/ Master Yu,/ was in the eighty-first year of his life,” and as the poem proceeds, it adopts several forms of address all typical of the elegy form: narrative of an incident in which the aged teacher showed openness to learning, strong declarations of inviolable truths (“Life does not make bargains…”) and expressions of personal grief (“Now I gaze at the blank pages…But the pages remain empty”); grief in ritual (“Looking at a snowy hill… I see the shaven head of the nun/ Who recited the sutras”) and the consolation of memory (“Ten years have passed . . .). One of the traditional moves of the elegy form that this poem does not engage with is the effort to place the life and loss of the beloved in the wider context of the world. (see “Lycidas” by John Milton).    

My poem was a haiku:  “The cardinal ate/ the suet cake into the/shape of a cardinal.” In the hands of most haiku practitioners I’ve encountered on the dusty road to hell, the form has, until recently, been a mystery of shallow ironies to me.  But then a few weeks back, I conceived of the form as a three-line poem with two turns, and then I saw the potential for doing some real damage in it.  Hopefully this is just the beginning.

Don Z’s poem, “The New Ideas in Chess,”  Susanna said, recognizes chess’s role as a metaphor for life. 

Frank said it was about endless conflict.  Brendan more or less agreed. 

Moira’s poem, “Twitch, No Twitch” is about that whole suburban obsession with the animals that dare to live near us, and the fight for survival and the confrontations that come from it.  It’s free verse, seven uneven stanzas long, narrative, prosy, and concerns two different denizens of that suburban cosmos: squirrels and hawks.  The squirrel bit lets us see one in the jaws of a fox, confirming that the game is for keeps, but also wonders what the heck these rodents want, including the possibility of flirtation.  The hawk portion tells of today’s confrontation, which is almost surreal, between the speaker and the bird, who stare at one another, one with god’s standard ocular equipment and the other with binoculars, which leads the speaker to conceive of them as dueling snipers. 

Janet K’s poem “Starz Who’ve “Sadly” Died” is a rewrite of her poem “Gone This Year TCM Remembers” and like that draft, it wades into the questions of reality and fantasy that celebrity and movies always prompt, and those questions tie back to our own of mortality and memory.  It’s free verse, prosy, meditative, and as in the first draft, it takes place in the automobile, American home of such meditations (remember, Brendan McEntee’s speaker driving past the cemetery?).  What Janet handles so well is the way crossing currents of belief and cynicism cross, never better than in the lines:

The car radio sings step into eternity,

and I’m cushioned in a moving shell,

an intimate place to dwell on the passing of stars and time,

as the Subaru’s odometer marks mine.

I’d thing, get lost, nostalgia,/

even as I summon it.

Note the assonance/rhyme of shell/dwell, and time/mine.  What are they doing?  Is it the lyrical work of elaboration, stopping time? 

See you all next week, and don’t forget on Feb 3, 2021, Wednesday night at 7, to leave some time for the RWB monthly reading and open mic, with this month’s feature, Kyle Brosnihan!  (Zoom link forthcoming from Frank).

—Arthur Russell

Field Notes, Week of 01-12-21

Arthur Russell‘s recap of The Red Wheelbarrow Poets’ Workshop of January 12, 2021

I arrived at the workshop very late on Tuesday.  I was at the introductory or welcoming Zoom for a year-long Mentorship Program sponsored by Brooklyn Poets.  I’ll tell you more about it as we go along, share what I learn, but the basics are: there are twelve of us mentees (dementees?), various ages, backgrounds, located mostly in the northeast, but west coast too and one zooming in from Singapore.  The idea of the program is an alternative to an academic MFA, with coursework and regular conferences and “craft talks” from the Mentor, Jay Deshpande, elective courses with other teachers in the BKP staff (stable), with an emphasis that is sometimes missing from academic programs, on developing a cohort of colleagues (which sounds to me a bit like the RWB workshop, but hey).  Mostly it’s a chance to work.

I arrived at the workshop in time to hear the end of the discussion of Claudia‘s “About the past,”  which the poem both is and isn’t at the same time. On one level it’s a complaint about how the speaker’s family doesn’t talk about the past, how the true past of famine and death is silenced, but on another level it is very specifically about that family, including a grandfather who “count[s] the beans” in the mother’s bowl, and a grandmother who “counts the spoonfuls of cornmeal” hidden “on top of the cupboard for my father.” And in a lovely turn, the speaker finds herself talking about the past in the same masked manner:  I open my mouth and the past rushes forth/ with all its cornmeal and beans/ that I foolishly keep counting/ like the dead.”

Tom Benediktsson brought another family poem, “666”, which figures forth the Beast of the Apocalypse as a tired mayhem worker pooping out on the poet’s porch to complain about pop music and the good old days, when evil really counted for something in the world. Like most of Tom’s work recently, the avatars of evil are ridiculous, and satisfy his growling anger with Donald John Trump (that’s the way they address him when he’s being impeached). What’s sly about this poem is the way the poem ends with the Beast disappearing and the family of the homeowner/poet going shopping, at CVS! Where they find “fifty kinds of deodorant, each one with a different scent.” Could the Beast of the Apocalypse be within us?

John J. Trause brought a prose poem called “An Attempt at Describing an Embarrassing Occurrence in San Antonio,” that begins with the all caps word “PURPLE” as though it were the warning on a label for an over-the-counter drug, warning the reader of purple prose to come, and boy-oh-boy is it ever!  An over-the-top description of a family outing on a “bright and bonny Sunday in San Antonio” serves as a shaggy dog to the revelation of an XYZ moment.  

Yana Kane brought a rewrite of her poem about the hope for a bright spring, this time called “Breaking Trail.” If you remember the earlier version, the poem noodled into this observation that the poem only exists in words and the words become the experience. Here, that thematic observation moves into a deeper place, as a stand-in for the speaker’s own experience of winter struggles and the longing for springtime:

Struggling through the exile of winter,
longing for spring,
words break trail,
meander across blankness,
lose their way,
read the constellations,
press on.

It’s a fascinating transference, and an audacious move. Can the reader (perhaps another poet?) sympathize with the struggles and longings of words? And what do we make of the second “half” of this poem, which abandons the “words” as subject and looks outward at the objective manifestations of the seasons: “snow, wind, sunshine, ice” and the “wild geese glid[ing] to the melting pond”?

 Moira O’Brien‘s “Round Table” is a memoir in tone, about the speaker’s salad days (“a dewy nineteen-year-old”) as a waitress at the Candlewyck Diner.  Mark Fogarty has set at least one and maybe several of his poems at this venerable sling-hashery, including (I think) one that imagined an alien invasion.  (I feel a collection coming on).  Moira’s poem captures the “breakfast and bullshit” valedictory the overnight staff would indulge in before peeling off for home.  The poem exhibits its bonafides in the evocation of the clientele, including this description of the late/early arrivals:  “The rush closed with bar managers/ and the occasional exotic dancer/ not eating her scampi.”  

Frank Rubino‘s poem, “The Path,” is not about Communist ideology. It’s one of his suburban moments stretching towards truth; the front path to the speaker’s house has been relaid, and the speaker’s daughter has told the speaker that the speaker’s son has walked on it before it “cured.” So the speaker worries about his son’s behaviors, and this leads him to worry about his own life as a provider, and we see him looking out the front window of his house until that thought runs dry and he turns back into the room to see the toes of his wife, including their toenail polish, poking out of the covers. It’s all there. When I read Frank’s poems these days, I get the feeling that his poetry is like one of those old time “real” cameras with an numerous adjustments, for f-stop, focus, lighting, exposure time, and the rest, and that he’s experimenting with all the settings. I can’t wait to see his next exposure (there’s a revision of Frank’s poem in word attached).

Don Z brought “Five Haiku on the Winter Evening After Steve Died.” The poem uses the haiku form (5-7-5) in a new way that draws on the incantational strengths of other forms like villanelle and sestina; the repeated elements, “part of our brain” “whatever parts” “whole” “constructs” illuminate and populate the emptiness of loss.  

Speaking of villanelles, Charlotte Kerwick (who returned last week after an absence) brought “A Villanelle.”   Her repeated lines “I wish I was dead is on repeat in my head” and “keep me in bed all full of dread” lock us into an ambitious evocation of insomnia and sleeplessness.  

Raymond Turco can’t stop himself. His poem “Antonia Masanello” is probably the 30th or so in his poetic sequence of Italian heroes, this one about a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the liberators in the Battle of Milazzo.  

And then there was “The Neighbor’s German Shepherds Rush Me,” with the author’s name omitted, and me having missed the workshop, I’m thinking, Brendan? Is that you?  But how to explain the “stuffed ponies, Cinderella records [and watching] Lassie?”  The poem may be a cross between Tom Benediktsson’s horror stories and Frank Rubino’s suburban soul searchers. A pack of 5 neighbor dogs annoy the hell out of the speaker, who is nonetheless observant enough to see that one of them, Dog One, has a calm, observant demeanor.  That’s the wonderful moment of the poem.  There’s also a fuzzier evocation of the speaker’s relation to his father, who appears to have suffered from multiple personality disorder.
 
Anyway, sorry I missed some of the discussion, and hope to see you all again with fresh work or revisions on Tuesday.

—Arthur Russell

RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—Mar 10, 2020

Janet Kolstein

Conrad Heyer (1749-1856), The Earliest Born Man to be Photographed (in 1852)


He’d heard of the thing
and eyed images born of the contraption.
It wouldn’t take long for his own aged self 
to replicate on the silvered plate.

The man who’d crossed the icy Delaware 
with the Father of Our Country
had orbs reminiscent of the General’s.
His great, beaked nose had grown craggy with years,
his mouth indignant at the loss of teeth.

Maybe, it had been enough to see himself
in the mirror of clear lakes,
or to face his murky reflection on grooming.
He’d looked inward, and knew his character
forged with the gravitas of nationhood.

Changes come to those who live long lives,
some small, some monumental,
some bringing awe and trepidation.
As a farmer, he knew how crops grew from seeds
with the sun and the rain that nurtured his fields,

and that all living things are pitiful
when Death comes calling,
but this new machine, a camera,
miniaturized and memorialized
the very shades of his being,
and, in the beam of his eyes, 
brought forth a new way of seeing
and remembering.

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RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—Mar 3, 2020

Arthur Russell

Fellatio Salon


I used to think Japanese porn,
with its pixilated penises,
wasted the strengths
that this ethnic type 
perfected,
the ultra femme
squeaky female voices 
no other nationality
could do as well.
Pixilating the cocks,
the coitus, as well the uniquely
directional pubic hair 
of the actors, 
was a shame.

But tonight, I grazed
on a long video
about a sex worker
in a fellatio salon
giving head to five 
guys in forty minutes.
There were no booths.
The guys sat on a pair
of wide banquettes,
both facing the same direction,
waiting their turns
while the others
got sucked off
one at a time.

The sex worker gave 
each of them her full, 
coquettish attention 
for seven or eight minutes.
She started them off
with a bright caress 
of the face, but no kissing.
She’d help them 
get their pants and unders off
then enthuse
as though she’d
spontaneously come up
with the most delightful idea:
oral sex.

She’d entered the room
with a miniature
riding-hood basket
stocked with 
individually wrapped
moistened cloth towelettes
dangling from her fingers.
When she struggled 
to tear the wrapping,
her smile twisted a little.
She’d clean the guy’s groin
before, and again —
more gently —
after he’d come.

She opened 
a second towelette
to wipe her lips 
between patrons.   
What I particularly liked
about her blow jobs
was that she’d
bring a guy off 
in three, four 
minutes tops,
then, after lingering
on the display and swallow
of his cum in her mouth,
which did not appeal to me at all,

she would go back 
to sucking him off
while his dick 
was sagging down 
to limp for nearly 
as long as she had 
on the run up, and, 
for at least one guy,
the second round of sucking
had more impact
than the first.
He turned his head aside and shrieked
into his own shoulder.

The last guy
she blew 
had this cool 
bass baritone grunt,
and a short, thick dick
she seemed to like,
and she made 
a Tootsie pop sound 
each time she popped it 
out of her mouth.
She giggled 
in a slightly more 
delighted way for him
than she had for the others.

All the guys 
were super grateful
and kind of happy,
as though they’d 
just gotten 
a free car wash.
No money
changed hands.
They must’ve
paid outside,
like
a movie ticket.
Inside, they faced forward
and accepted her joy.

The big surprise
for me 
was that after 
the first few minutes, 
I didn’t mind
the pixilated dicks at all.
I didn’t 
need to see 
the lip-on-dick contact.
I could follow
the obvious progression
and read 
the implied emotion
in her courtesan face. 

Pixilated
dicks show modesty.
Her spaghetti-strap 
satin top—
which she hardly 
paid attention to 
for the first 3 guys— 
dropped off
one shoulder for the 
fourth guy. Her tit 
came out, 
but it was an accident.
She lifted it back 
with her thumb.

On the last guy, 
the one with the thick dick
and the baritone grunt,
both straps came off.
Her whole torso,
with its lovely clear
skin and her youth 
intact 
came into view.
You might have caught 
an accidental glimpse of her 
as you walked
past your teenage daughter’s
open bedroom door.

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RWB Workshop Poem of the Week—Feb 25, 2020

Frank Rubino

We Love Sad Songs
 
I play the songs she listens to over and over.
They help me get into her mind
because those songs are playing in her mind too,
and the voice they take is her voice
inside her thoughts.
 
The voice she hears in the songs in her mind
is resigned to loss.
So much, she hears that voice
that’s sad, that’s yearning to be soothed,
and it makes me think that,
within her private experience,
she feels this yearning, and needs someone
to reach her.
 
Anyone you’re talking to,
anyone you’re standing next to,
or walking up the stairs with,
on their way with you in the meek herd
through the iron passageways
under Penn Station, across the iron gangplanks
hanging over the underground tracks—
anyone with their devices in their ears like networked robots,
all of them, also, have their sad songs.

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