What Our World Lacks, We Lack

I think Sommer Browning is one of the most talented young poets writing, and I know I am being a Bad Feminist, but she’s also super pretty, which doesn’t even seem fair, because COME ON HER POEMS ARE REALLY GOOD TOO. Anyway, we follow each other on Twitter and I think she’s a riot.

What We Have 

The earth’s crust
is like a cooking pancake
in a black iron skillet, exceptinstead of sitting on the stove
it shoots around the kitchen.
It’s amazing how sturdy it feels

on top, in our dim museums.
With just enough light to make out
a why, a what, and a how.

Ignoring how much we ignore,
like fish living in underground lakes ignore
ignoring their eyes to ignore the dark.

How desperate life is to live
that it shapes itself so readily to the world,
so that what our world lacks, we lack.

Take a Step Out of Your House

Today, the first day of National Poetry Month, I reaped the ultimate reward of the used book collector. I opened up this dogeared Rilke traslation and out fluttered someone’s efforts. I haven’t read it yet, but I desperately want it to be good. I’m going to share a poem with you every day, and I think this is a good one to start with. So many people think they don’t “get” poetry, but take Ol Rainer’s advice on this one, and take a walk out of your comfort zone.

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The Way In

Rainer Maria Rilke, trans. Robert Bly

 

Whoever you are, some evening take a step

out of your house, which you know so well.

Enormous space is near, your house lies where it begins,

whoever you are.

Your eyes find it hard to tear themselves

from the sloping threshold, but with your eyes

slowly, slowly, lift one black tree

up, so it stands against the sky: skinny, alone.

With that you have made the world. The world is immense

and like a word that is still growing in the silence.

In the same moment that your will grasps it,

your eyes, feeling its subtlety, will leave it.

You Must Not Let Peter Peter Out

We’re winding down National Poetry Month, yet I still have so many poems I want to share with you. Alas!
Sandra Beasley and I have near-missed each other innumerable times; she left UVA as I came, I left Ole Miss as she arrived, etc., etc., etc., ad infinitum. I enjoy her work and our mutual friends are convinced we’d get along, but so far, no dice. Anyway, please enjoy this funny and smart poem she composed.

Let Me Count the Waves

by Sandra Beasley

We must not look for poetry in poems.
—Donald Revell

You must not skirt the issue wearing skirts.
You must not duck the bullet using ducks.
You must not face the music with your face.
Headbutting, don’t use your head. Or your butt.
You must not use a house to build a home,
and never look for poetry in poems.
In fact, inject giraffes into your poems.
Let loose the circus monkeys in their skirts.
Explain the nest of wood is not a home
at all, but a blind for shooting wild ducks.
Grab the shotgun by its metrical butt;
aim at your Muse’s quacking, Pringled face.
It’s good we’re talking like this, face to face.
There should be more headbutting over poems.
Citing an 80s brand has its cost but
honors the teenage me, always in skirts,
showing my sister how to Be the Duck
with a potato-chip beak. Take me home,
Mr. Revell. Or make yourself at home
in my postbellum, Reconstruction face—
my gray eyes, my rebel ears, all my ducks
in the row of a defeated mouth. Poems
were once civil. But war has torn my skirts
off at the first ruffle, baring my butt
or as termed in verse, my luminous butt.
Whitman once made a hospital his home.
Emily built a prison of her skirts.
Tigers roamed the sad veldt of Stevens’s face.
That was the old landscape. All the new poems
map the two dimensions of cartoon ducks.
We’re young and green. We’re braces of mallards,
not barrels of fish. Shoot if you must but
Donald, we’re with you. Trying to save poems,
we settle and frame their ramshackle homes.
What is form? Turning art to artifice,
trading pelts for a more durable skirt.
Even urban ducklings deserve a home.
Make way. In the modern: Make way, Buttface.
A poem is coming through, lifting her skirt.

Pecking, Pausing

I’m trying to give you a hint about what my fantasy life update will be today, but also to honor National Poetry Month.

Peacock Display

by David Wagoner

He approaches her, trailing his whole fortune,
Perfectly cocksure, and suddenly spreads
The huge fan of his tail for her amazement.
Each turquoise and purple, black-horned, walleyed quill
Comes quivering forward, an amphitheatric shell
For his most fortunate audience: her alone.
He plumes himself. He shakes his brassily gold
Wings and rump in a dance, lifting his claws
Stiff-legged under the great bulge of his breast.
And she strolls calmly away, pecking and pausing,
Not watching him, astonished to discover
All these seeds spread just for her in the dirt.

A Quick, Nervous Bird

Billy Collins is one of my favorite living poets, mostly because he’s so, so funny. I don’t want to reduce his insightful, smart writing to just humor, but I think it’s great that he gets the joke of being a poet. There’s so much handwringing and black beret-wearing in the realm of Serious Literature, so I find it really refreshing.

ANYWAY, in honor of yet another day of National Poetry Month, I bring you A Paradelle for Susan. The paradelle is allegedly a formal poem from medieval France, similar to a villanelle, though actually, it was just a poem that Collins invented to make fun of excessively formal writing exercises. The best part? The writing establishment believed him and started writing their own paradelles. Please enjoy!

 

Paradelle for Susan

by Billy Collins 

I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
I remember the quick, nervous bird of your love.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Always perched on the thinnest, highest branch.
Thinnest love, remember the quick branch.
Always nervous, I perched on your highest bird the.

It is time for me to cross the mountain.
It is time for me to cross the mountain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
And find another shore to darken with my pain.
Another pain for me to darken the mountain.
And find the time, cross my shore, to with it is to.

The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
The weather warm, the handwriting familiar.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
Your letter flies from my hand into the waters below.
The familiar waters below my warm hand.
Into handwriting your weather flies you letter the from the.

I always cross the highest letter, the thinnest bird.
Below the waters of my warm familiar pain,
Another hand to remember your handwriting.
The weather perched for me on the shore.
Quick, your nervous branch flew from love.
Darken the mountain, time and find was my into it was with to to.

Part of Every Particle

Y’all seem to really be enjoying the poems I’ve been bringing you for National Poetry Month, so I thought I’d bring you this one. I worked with Malachi for awhile, and I didn’t know he was a Big Deal Poet, just that he was a sweet, gentle smoker prone to making excited, declarative statements in blooming prose and that he taught the kids things about dystopian futures. Enjoy this, his work.

This Gentle Surgery

by Malachi Black

Once more the bright blade of a morning breeze
glides almost too easily through me,

 

and from the scuffle I’ve been sutured to
some flap of me is freed: I am severed

 

like a simile: an honest tenor
trembling toward the vehicle I mean

 

to be: a blackbird licking half notes
from the muscled, sap-damp branches

 

of the sugar maple tree . . . though I am still
a part of any part of every particle

 

of me, though I’ll be softly reconstructed
by the white gloves of metonymy,

 

I grieve: there is no feeling in a cut
that doesn’t heal a bit too much.

Book Club: Stateside

My wonderful friend Kat sent me a copy of Stateside when I emailed her a few weeks ago about some Iliad/ancient Greece questions, and honestly, I can’t remember the last time I loved a poetry volume so much.

ImageStateside came up in our conversation because Jehanne Dubrow writes a lot about Penelope and Odysseus in her work. Currently a professor at Washington College, Dubrow is a child of the foreign service. She is also married to a guy who is in the navy, and that’s what this book is about. Unrelated but amazing: she also has a blog about perfume and poetry, which is fun and I am so into it.

If you aren’t familiar with the story of Penelope and Odysseus, the extremely brief rundown is that Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War and Penelope waits for him for basically an eternity, refusing all suitors and hoping he’s alive. It’s a very sad, but very touching story that is pretty applicable today.

Dubrow casts herself as a modern-day Penelope, and she’s sharp, hopeful, bitter, funny, smart, romantic, mean-spirited, fearful, wistful– I could go on. She’s all the feelings you have when someone you love is somewhere unsafe. Her overall style is very formal– she tends toward traditional formats and rhythms– but the feel of the book is decidedly modern.

Rather than just taking my word for how great her work is, I thought I’d offer you a poem from the collection, with my attendant apologies about how the line breaks worked out; I’m not sure why they aren’t working correctly.

Penelope, Stateside

On an island called America,

start fantasizing of the sex

you had with him. Go shop for bras

and lacy thongs at the PX,

black garters, bustiers, a cream

that leaves your body woven silk

a self-help book for self-esteem

a bag of M&Ms, skim milk

to keep you thin, a Lean Cuisine

(you hate to cook for one). Or buy

a pair of True Religion jeans,

the denim pressing on each thigh

so that there’s no sensation but

blue fabric like a second skin,

no lover’s touch more intimate,

than the zipper pressing in.

But don’t forget. He may come home

so torn that purchases won’t mean

a thing, not the Posturepedic foam

pillowtop mattress, or the sateen

duvet. He won’t be satisfied–

by the eiderdowns or bedspreads sown

by hand– still numb, because he’s stateside

and dreaming of the combat zone.

So there’s that. I couldn’t stop feeling the feelings when I read through the 57 pages that comprise the collection. Give it a try– even if you don’t know anyone in the armed forces, foreign service, etc., the writing is still tight as a drum and rife with beautiful allusions and imagery.

Next week, I’m going to read this graphic novel. Please join me.

The Curator by Miller Williams

In honor of National Poetry Month, I wanted to bring you one of my favorite poems of all time. I have a special fondness for poems about the blind.

The Curator

by Miller Williams

We thought it would come, we thought the Germans would come,
were almost certain they would. I was thirty-two,
the youngest assistant curator in the country.
I had some good ideas in those days.
Well, what we did was this. We had boxes
precisely built to every size of canvas.
We put the boxes in the basement and waited.
When word came that the Germans were coming in,
we got each painting put in the proper box
and out of Leningrad in less than a week.
They were stored somewhere in southern Russia.
But what we did, you see, besides the boxes
waiting in the basement, which was fine,
a grand idea, you’ll agree, and it saved the art—
but what we did was leave the frames hanging,
so after the war it would be a simple thing
to put the paintings back where they belonged.
Nothing will seem surprised or sad again
compared to those imperious, vacant frames.
Well, the staff stayed on to clean the rubble
after the daily bombardments. We didn’t dream—
You know it lasted nine hundred days.
Much of the roof was lost and snow would lie
sometimes a foot deep on this very floor,
but the walls stood firm and hardly a frame fell.
Here is the story, now, that I want to tell you.
Early one day, a dark December morning,
we came on three young soldiers waiting outside,
pacing and swinging their arms against the cold.
They told us this: in three homes far from here
all dreamed of one day coming to Leningrad
to see the Hermitage, as they supposed
every Soviet citizen dreamed of doing.
Now they had been sent to defend the city,
a turn of fortune the three could hardly believe.
I had to tell them there was nothing to see
but hundreds and hundreds of frames where the paintings had hung.
“Please, sir,” one of them said, “let us see them.”
And so we did. It didn’t seem any stranger
than all of us being here in the first place,
inside such a building, strolling in snow.
We led them around most of the major rooms,
what they could take the time for, wall by wall.
Now and then we stopped and tried to tell them
part of what they would see if they saw the paintings.
I told them how those colors would come together,
described a brushstroke here, a dollop there,
mentioned a model and why she seemed to pout
and why this painter got the roses wrong.
The next day a dozen waited for us,
then thirty or more, gathered in twos and threes.
Each of us took a group in a different direction:
Castagno, Caravaggio, Brueghel, Cézanne, Matisse,
Orozco, Manet, da Vinci, Goya, Vermeer,
Picasso, Uccello, your Whistler, Wood, and Gropper.
We pointed to more details about the paintings,
I venture to say, than if we had had them there,
some unexpected use of line or light,
balance or movement, facing the cluster of faces
the same way we’d done it every morning
before the war, but then we didn’t pay
so much attention to what we talked about.
People could see for themselves. As a matter of fact
we’d sometimes said our lines as if they were learned
out of a book, with hardly a look at the paintings.
But now the guide and the listeners paid attention
to everything—the simple differences
between the first and post-impressionists,
romantic and heroic, shade and shadow.
Maybe this was a way to forget the war
a little while. Maybe more than that.
Whatever it was, the people continued to come.
It came to be called The Unseen Collection.
Here. Here is the story I want to tell you.
Slowly, blind people began to come.
A few at first then more of them every morning,
some led and some alone, some swaying a little.
They leaned and listened hard, they screwed their faces,
they seemed to shift their eyes, those that had them,
to see better what was being said.
And a cock of the head. My God, they paid attention.
After the siege was lifted and the Germans left
and the roof was fixed and the paintings were in their places,
the blind never came again. Not like before.
This seems strange, but what I think it was,
they couldn’t see the paintings anymore.
They could still have listened, but the lectures became
a little matter-of-fact. What can I say?
Confluences come when they will and they go away.
So what do you think? What are you favorite poems?