Tuesday, April 30, 2013
In this last trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet humbly chases after L. S. Asekoff’s “Lyre.” While the Steiny Poet has tripped through poems on themes of death, love, poetry, the natural world, and design/creation (David Starkey’s “The Ways of God to Man” on intelligent design, Carmen Váscones’ sonic design poem “46)” as translated by Alexis Levitin, Melanie Jordan’s ekphrastic poem “The Kiss of the Cage,” and Andrew Sofer’s musically focused sonnet “Hautboys”), nothing reviewed so far matches the vast reach of Asekoff’s “Lyre,” a free-verse poem written in one stanza of 44 lines.
“LYRE,” A LOOK AT CIVILIZATION
As best as the Steiny Poet can understand, “Lyre” is about civilization and the morality and love that might happen in a chaotic universe. As the poem opens, the lyre is addressed by an unidentified narrator whom the Steiny Poet presumes to be Asekoff.
You have witnessed the sorrows of the rose-grower’s daughter,
The ivory grin of the lacquered beast
& where aging fingers once lingered lovingly.
The lyre is a stringed instrument of the harp family. Relative to the size of modern day harps, the lyre is small and hand held. In ancient Greece the instrument accompanied poets or entertainers reciting poetry. The lyre is a symbol for the Greek god Apollo, known as the god of music and poetry.
According to Greek mythology, Hermes crafted the first lyre from a tortoise shell and the intestines of cattle he stole from Apollo. Apollo forgave Hermes for the stolen cattle when he heard the music produced by the lyre and then traded more cattle for the musical instrument. Dear Reader, hang on to this image of the first lyre being made from tortoise shell.
For now, the Steiny Poet is stumped by the reference to the rose-grower’s daughter, but she thinks daughter is a critical element but only understood by the closing lines of the poem.
PERSECUTION OF THE ROMANI PEOPLE
So, shipwrecked on the shores of time,
They hauled their great stringed instruments
Upright over the wagons like sails.
The last two lines are a quote from Isabel Fonseca’s 1995 book about the Roma people, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey. The quote is about members of Papusza’s family who were harpists. Bronislawa Wajs (1908-1987), the most famous Romani poet and also known as Papusza ("doll") stood out because she defied her Polish Romani family and their people by learning how to read. During World War II, German Nazis and Ukrainian fascists murdered Romani people in Poland. Various governments also pushed Romanis to settle in one place and so many gave up their carts and horses but retained their heavy lyres. With this information at hand, the Steiny Poet thinks she now understand lines four and five:
The dream of a man wheels
Takes precedence over the gathering of colors.
The Steiny Poet thinks the gathering of colors might refer to national flags and the various European countries lining up for war. It might also refer to the gypsy predilection for brightly colored clothing.
THE CHANGING WORLD AND HENRY ADAMS
Lines six and seven are italicized and the Steiny Poet knows where part of the quoted passage derives.
So the prosodic hallucinarium,
Physics stark mad in metaphysics,
Physics stark mad in metaphysics comes from The Education of Henry Adams, a memoir by the same Henry Adams. Here’s the passage:
In these seven years [between 1895 and 1902] man had translated himself into a new universe, which had no common scale of measurement with the old. He had entered a supersensual world, in which he could measure nothing except by chance collisions of movements imperceptible to his sense, perhaps even to his instruments, but perceptible to each other, and so to some known ray at the end of the scale. Langley seemed prepared for anything, even for an indeterminable number of universes interfused – physics stark mad in metaphysics.
Historians undertake to arrange sequences,—called stories, or histories—assuming in silence a relation of cause and effect. These assumptions, hidden in the depths of dusty libraries, have been astounding, but commonly unconscious and childlike; so much so, that if any captious critic were to drag them to light, historians would probably replay, with one voice, that they never supposed themselves required to know what they were talking about.
This passage goes on to say that Adams was not satisfied with ignorance and he worked hard, but in vain, to uncover the meaning. Meaning comes only with breakneck force. Adams continues:
Where he saw sequence, other men saw something quite different, and no one saw the same unit of measure. He cared little about his experiments and less about his statesmen, who seemed to him quite as ignorant as himself, and, as a rule, no more honest; but he insisted on a relation of sequence, and if he could reach it by one method, he would try as many methods as science knew. Satisfied that the sequence of men led to nothing and that the sequence of their society could lead no further, while the mere sequence of time was artificial, and the sequence of thought was chaos, he turned at last to the sequence of force; and thus it happened that, after ten years’ pursuit, he found himself lying in the Gallery of Machines at the Great Exposition of 1900, his historical neck broken by the irruption of forces totally new.
Returning to Asekoff’s poem and picking up at lines six and seven, observe the interplay between the Adams text and “Lyre,” especially the line “Shamed into speech by such voluble silence”:
So the prosodic hallucinarium,
Physics stark mad in metaphysics,
The theorist in pain
Playing the black keys against the white
While across the long twilight this windowless room
Offers a door to the shoreline
With its abundant shifting sands
& self-delimiting sadness—
a glimpse of an eighteenth-century sea.
Shamed into speech by such voluble silence,
You think: The hand, a tortoise; the mind, a hare.
The Prince of Infinite Space inherits the Kingdom of Ends.
While the Steiny Poet is not entirely certain, she believes that prosodic hallucinarium refers to Asekoff’s poem “Lyre” and that the theorist is Henry Adams (1838–1918) though the imagery of the piano seems ascribed by Asekoff to the theorist and Adams was not a musician of any measure, let alone the piano. Nonetheless Adams acknowledged the importance of music in his education. In his memoire, Adams referenced the eighteenth century frequently though he is clearly a man moving into the twentieth century. However, he is formed by the Age of Enlightenment and his more famous grandfather John Quincy Adams (1767–1848) and great-grandfather John Adams (1735–1826).
THE TALE OF THE TORTOISE AND HARE
The narrator tells us the theorist, put on the spot, begins to ascribe the tale of the tortoise and the hare to himself, likening his hand (where action begins and is sustained) to the tortoise and his mind, which is quicker than the hand but undisciplined, to the hare. Then Asekoff makes a huge leap of imagination saying the prince of infinite space inherits the Kingdom of Ends. Shakespeare has his tragic hero Hamlet say, “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” (Act II, Scene ii) Therefore, Hamlet remains prince and seems to be bound in Asekoff’s statement by moral imperative. Why? The Kingdom of Ends is a thought experiment in the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and is tied to Kant’s categorical imperative. Rational beings live in the Kingdom of Ends and must choose to act and be judged by a set of standards that imply absolute necessity (categorical imperative).
DISCOVERING THE FLOWERING ROSE
From this point until the last three lines, the poem open out to the universe in a description that seems to chart ritual and chaos theory and then the Steiny Poet conjectures, that poem turns back to the gypsy life where two teenagers steal away for their elopement which is hinted at with these phrases: half-closed buds open over unfurled leaves, amorous awakenings, lilies afloat in a pool, final inscription. The Steiny Poet also believes now that rose-grower’s daughter may be someone depicted in Forseca’s Bury Me Standing.
Surfing the night’s black static, neon glow
Everywhere you see the golden section—
A keyhole into the lesser dark.
Wind blows over snowy windrows, rattles the corn.
The shaking of a buffalo blanket spooks an Indian pony.
As the range rises,
Fingers move across strings of an invisible lyre—
Heartbeats, flapping wings, water waves,
The periodic motion of heavenly bodies,
Chirr of cicadas, ticking clocks, a dream of stones.
Now a colorless hiss zeroes in on
Random fluctuations of electrical resistance.
Wandering beyond the keys, a pale melody
Remembers where it’s been;
The dark sea points to a lovely flickering curve,
Underground currents, spectral densities,
The nervous system of Tokyo traffic flow,
Daring conjectures of the changing landscape.
Haunted by such arabesques,
Half-closed buds open over unfurled leaves,
The longing of the asleep for amorous awakenings,
A frieze of water lilies afloat in a pool,
Adrift & drifting as they are towed toward
The perpetual velleities of their final inscription.
The Steiny Poet imagines there are other ways to approach this impressionistic and philosophic poem with it loose connections between lyre and the tale of the tortoise and the hare, between lyre and the piano which has an internal harp. For example, one could just talk about the engaging word choice and the music of the lines like “Wind blows over snowy windrows, rattles the corn.” Also Asekoff’s “Lyre” resonates with Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place.” Both have an other worldly dimension. One other observation is that Asekoff chooses to capitalize the first word of every line. While the Steiny Poet sees this stylistic choice as a throwback to the 19th century, other contemporary poets choose this style element. Those in BPR 40 reviewed during this thirty-day project who capitalize the first word of each line include Kathy Fagan in “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place,” Daniel Anderson in “Someone Is Burning Leaves,” and Erica Dawson in “Chinquapin Leaves on the Riverbank.”
SUMMARY OF THE BPR LIT TRIP PROJECT
To sum up the project, the Steiny Road Poet found the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 to be an exceptional collection of book reviews and contemporary poetry of varying styles, formats, and forms that also included translation. The eye-catching artwork on the cover “Man Pretending to Read Like a Hawk” by poet Debora Gregor makes a political statement about the state of poetry today—not enough readers! The BPR, printed on high-quality paper and beautifully laid out with an easy-to-read font, is worthy of a wider audience. This volume included 59 poets and the Steiny Road Poet reviewed one poem by 30 of these 59.
Poets reviewed included: Claudia Emerson (the featured poet), Deborah Ager, DanielAnderson, L. S. Asekoff, Ned Balbo, Chad Davidson, Erica Dawson, Caitlin Doyle, Jehanne Dubrow, Kathy Fagan, Joshua Gottlieb-Miller, Edward Hirsch, LesleyJenike, Carrie Jerrell, Melanie Jordan, David Kirby, Carmen Vásconesas translated byAlexis Levitin, James May, Laura McCullough, Nick McRae, Dan O’Brien, RicardoPau-Llosa, Todd Portnowitz, Jane Satterfield, Andrew Sofer, Jane Springer, David Starkey, David Wagoner, Charles Harper Webb, Amanda Yskamp.
Other poets included in BPR 40:Betty Adcock, Tory Adkisson, Jo Brachman, Gaylord Brewer, Robert Collins (founder of the Birmingham Poetry Review), JamesDoyle, Alex Fabrizio, Brett Foster, Jeff Hardin, Katie Hartsock translating St. Augustine, William Logan, David McLoghlin, Zachariah McVicker, Sandra Meek, Erika Meitner, Homer Mitchell, Mary Moore, Emilia Phillips, John Poch (also translating Enrique Barrero Rodriguez), Christine Poreba, David Roderick, F.Daniel Rzicznek, Martha Serpas, Megan Sexton, Patty Seyburn, Rawdon Tomlinson, Sidney Wade, William Wright, and Matt Zambito.
Monday, April 29, 2013
Andrew Sofer’s “Hautboys” captures moments of sound in William Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth. In this the next to last trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet’s project to celebrate National Poetry month, we encounter a nonce sonnet organized in four tercets and a concluding couplet. The rhyme scheme is ABA/CDE/DEC/FBF/GG. The end words are: blinks/appear/sinks air/woods/haut gods/blow/overture mousetrap/ear/stirrup heed/reed.
Like the focus of the poem on hautboys (high-pitched wind instruments that in our day we might call oboes), the rhyme scheme is rather exotic in that the ear knows repetition of certain sounds is occurring, but these similar sounds are far enough apart in the middle of the poem to make the ear strain to understand the sonic texture. Appropriately Sofer makes his opening line What noise is this asked by Macbeth in Act IV, Scene 1, where Macbeth confers with three witches as hautboys sound.
What noise is this? He blinks.
Shadowy kings appear
as the witches’ cauldron sinks
and hautboys fill the air.
Next come these lines that play with French words driven by the compound word hautboy where haut in French means high.
Whose are these high woods
whose voix are always haut
left in the wake of gods?
The Steiny Poet assumes the gods are the dead (shadowy) kings Macbeth sees in the dumb show while he is consorting with the witches. So the hautboys (also referred to as the shawm) play a grim overture that ushers in the dumb show, a chorus of presumable detractors, and Hamlet’s play The Mousetrap. Shakespeare set his tragedies of Macbeth and Hamlet in and around Elsinore Castle.
For Elsinore they blow
in a grim overture:
Dumb show. Chorus. Mousetrap.
The shawm enters the ear
past hammer, anvil, stirrup—
the note no one will heed,
ill wind in a double reed.
So the sound—the voices (voix)—of the hautboys (high woods) enters the ear going past the three critical bones of the middle ear— hammer, anvil, stirrup—perhaps a warning sound that no one pays attention to. No love poem this, as traditional sonnets have often been, but certainly a beautifully rendered poem showing control over the line and compression in its storytelling.
Sunday, April 28, 2013
In Melanie Jordan’s “The Kiss of the Cage,” a first-person singular narrator says, “Magritte’s Healer can’t leave me, not even/ with his cane.” In this 28th trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet observes an anguished soul whose father fears might suicide, but the narrator has taken solace in René Magritte’s bronze sculpture of a headless man whose rib cage is an airy birdcage. Still this person must be acting strangely because “the docents watch me, carefully unobservant,/ make sure I’m no defiler, no bomb.”
Like Leslie Jenike’s “I Am Love,” Jordan crafts a peripatetic meditation using art to talk about her emotional life. The main difference between these two poems is that Jordan spends time detailing a single piece of art and Jodan's poem is clearly ekphrastic.
Here’s how this poem of eleven tercets, three couplets, and one single line stanza opens:
Only a block or so to visit him, the sculpture
seated like a man: a birdcage for a torso,
gangling legs in littletramp shoes. Funny
The littletramp shoes bring to mind Charlie Chaplin and the word Funny following the shoes melds without levity as the narrator states she is being watched by the worried docents. (Though the Steiny Poet chooses the feminine pronoun she to discuss the narrator, the poem does not reveal the gender of the narrator.) The complete thought is, “Funny// how the docents watch me, carefully unobservant,/ make sure I’m no defiler, no bomb.” Beginning with the Healer’s cane, the narrator sketches the sculpture using a pen and then ruminates on an earlier part of the summer when her father stood watch worried she might take an overdose of pills. Then she returns to the present moment:
So here I stand, ask, dare: I smile
sometimes from the pressure, amused at the two
silhouettes on the blank gallery wall,
happy raconteurs. . . .
Who or what are those two silhouettes on the gallery wall? At first glance, the Steiny Poet thought it was the narrator and Magritte’s Healer, but as the poem progresses those happy storytellers (raconteurs) are more likely the narrator and her former lover, the one who has caused her this angst, the one who now seems to be represented by the sculpture with the birdcage torso that is a man without a head or internal organs like a heart, the seat of love.
happy raconteurs. Whatever poison is urned
in me burns like a floe. It looks for exit
from my catacombed head. I’m a room
with eight walls. I’m an ancestor asking
him to trepan. The ember moves up my spine;
I can feel him at the core, feel the thumping
call from my own chest, regular, meaning
I’m still here I’m still here
like a droplet of glass next to its lover,
a cracked window glittering the earth. . . .
Again, expectations for an uplifted mood are dashed when the line beginning with happy raconteurs moves to whatever poison. The narrator’s description of herself seems to mirror the sculpture in its oddity. Her body becomes an urn. Her head is catacombed (a set of burial chambers for all the happy moments passed?). And she is a room with eight walls. The octagon-shaped room—or should the Steiny Poet dare to think those walls are contiguous?—reminds her of David Wagoner’s “Poem” that has an exterior world of six sides. Both Jordan’s and Wagoner’s worlds are disorienting. Jordan’s insistent line in the first of the three couplets, “I’m still here I’m still here” socks in the disorientation and the desire to overcome that chaos.
The poem ends as the narrator observes the bird sitting on the ledge at the opening of the Healer’s torso-cum-birdcage.
a cracked window glittering the earth. The bird
could be hobbled, the way it hovers there on edge.
But it isn’t. She willingly meets her double there,
and the kiss of the cage which is always open.
The narrator expects the dove-like bird is waiting for her mate. The position of the bird seems to indicate she has left room for her double. The kiss of the cage might be the door of the cage closing but in this sculpture, the opening is without closure. The narrator, like the bird, seems to waiting for love to return and this is why she keeps "sapping the gallery,// regular as a junkie, not sure at first/ what pulled me to the bronze and satchel/ of a hollow man, to the cloaked cage// we're all made of."
Lots of musical lines in this poem to savor, starting and ending with the phrase the kiss of the cage. The Steiny Poet thinks this poem has operatic potential.
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Language as sonic design comes across clearly in Alexis Levitin’s translation of Carmen Váscones’ “46).” In today’s trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet approaches a poem of language that depicts art without reference to painting or drawing. The original poem is in Spanish and the translator is a man who loves words without claiming to be a poet—yet you, Dear Reader, can judge this for yourself in the following video interview.
Here is the original poem:
Un punto blanco en un fondo negro
un fondo blanco en un punto negro
un punto negro en un fondo blanco
el fondo de un punto sin blanco y sin negro
el punto del fondo sin fondo
un blanco fuera del negro
un negro fuera del blanco
(un negro y blanco sin…)
Un punto sin punto.
--by Carmen Váscones
Here is the English translation:
46) [from Life without a Name]
A white spot in a black space
a white space in a black spot
a black spot in a white space
the space of a spot neither white nor black
the spot of a space without space
a white outside black
a black outside white
(a black and a white without . . .
A spot without a spot.
--translation by Alexis Levitin
The poem is organized in one eight-line stanza and one single-line stanza that rhymes exactly most of the lines in Spanish using these four words negro, blanco, fondo, punto (black, white, space, spot). To understand this minimalist poem that is heavily abstract, the Steiny Poet began drawing what each of the lines described. Easy for the first three lines. The fourth line put a spot, which the Steiny Poet chose to color black, placed in a space of gray. The spot without space narrowed to a tiny dot into a tiny perimeter. The last four lines presented conceptual challenges and the Steiny Poet chose to consider the undefined white and black as spaces versus dots. The last line of the octet presented the biggest challenge and seemed to negate the choice of space and spots. Finally a spot of white seemed like the best rendering for A spot without a spot. It also made the Steiny Poet think of the invisible dots she uses when formatting indented lines of poems for her posts on her blog. The entirety of the poem seems to suggest celestial space not on this planet.
The Steiny Poet thinks that this poem has talking points with Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place.” In Fagan’s poem, these lines pop into the Steiny Poet’s head:
So once went my habit of mind: poppies, paper, stars.
Tonight the tenderer planets take cover,
Bodies abuzz in their own demise.
Also there seems to be a correspondence in a Rimbaud-like way (try his poem “Voyelles” where he equates sound with color) between the words place (in Fagan’s title) and space (Levitin’s translation of Váscones’ poem). Fagan’s poem talks about what the narrator’s thinking habit might have been and since it is hard to tell who or what the narrator of Fagan’s poem might be (the sycamore? A cottonwood? Fagan herself?), the Steiny Poet stopped her 25th BPR lit trip analysis at this point in the poem. However, Váscones’ poem seems to concentrate abstract thinking that goes beyond poppies, paper, stars. Perhaps Fagan is referencing the sound stars make in the universe as they wear themselves out of existence— maybe a black and a white without . . .
Friday, April 26, 2013
David Starkey’s “The Ways of God to Man” represents a transition from poems concerned with the natural world to something more nebulous that the Steiny Road Poet will call design. While the Steiny Poet has tripped through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 on weekly excursions dealing with themes of death, love, poetry, and a work week peek into poems drawing on the natural world, what comes next will go fast because the Steiny Poet’s project ends on the 30th trip at the end of National Poetry Month. To sum up the nature oriented poems, we looked at Laura McCullough's "Holy" on “snowpocalypse,” Jane Springer's "Forties War Widows, Stolen Grain” dealing with a murder of crows, Charles Harper Webb's "Rain-Out" another weather event interfering with human plans, and Kathy Fagan's cosmically mysterious "Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place.”
Two things about Starkey’s “The Ways of God to Man” that please the Steiny Poet a lot are the form and its political audacity. The Steiny Poet doesn’t know if Starkey’s form has a name but it can be described as a five-line stanza where the first and last line of each stanza are the same and the second line has an end rhyme matching the first line. Lines three and four are short and indented. In Starkey’s poem there are five stanzas and in stanzas three and four he punches up the rhyme to include a matching end rhyme in line four. In stanza two he has a visual (but not oral) rhyme of the words fumes and chrysanthemums. We also saw this kind of faux rhyme in Ned Balbo’s “Advice from a Friend,” loose translation of Paul Valéry’s sonnet.
The subject of “The Ways of God to Man” is a senator who is sorely annoyed with a bill currently on the senate floor pertaining to intelligent design (ID). Here’s the political audacity that so amuses the Steiny Poet:
The issue is intelligent design:
Alas, he thinks it’s asinine.
....His constituents, though
....Consider it Divine.
The issue is intelligent design
And the bill currently on the Senate floor,
Which comes up for a vote at four
....Tomorrow. He’s obsessed
....Now by backlash, pastors,
And the bill currently on the Senate floor.
Intelligent design presents itself as a quasi-scientific alternative to Creationism because it doesn’t say that the maker of the universe has to be God. One of the goals of ID is to discredit Darwinism (evolution). The senator of Starkey’s poem has good reason to be annoyed because in the real world (as opposed to this poem) since 1999, at least two school boards have adopted ID but in the case of the Dover Pennsylvania School Board, which voted to teach ID along side of evolution in their schools’ science curriculum, the U.S. District Court ruled that unconstitutional, saying ID could not be uncoupled from Creationism and, thus, religion.
What is really funny about this poem is that it starts out with the senator in business attire tromping through a field of prickly burdock with all his aides who follow him as if they were foxhounds and he the fox. Burdock is used as a folk medicine to “purify the blood.” In stanza two, we meet the senator's wife who is arranging chrysanthemums who remains “dumb/ As ever, in the face/ Of his outbursts.” Probably a little known fact is that if a person is allergic to chrysanthemums or ragweed, he or she might also be allergic to burdock. Hmmm, is Starkey making some kind of statement about evolution or ID? Hard to say, but the last stanza finds the senator back walking, looking to get away from all the masters he serves. One assumes the beleaguered senator wants to get away from his constituents who believe in ID, but could that also be his aides and wife?
Thursday, April 25, 2013
Kathy Fagan’s “Sycamore Envies the Cottonwoods behind Your Place” presents the biggest challenge for explication du texte that the Steiny Road Poet has encountered in her previous 24 lit trips through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40. Yes, Dear Reader, Fagan’s six couplets with a single end line is much more perplexing than Charles Harper Webb’s “Rain-Out” and harder to approach than Todd Portnowitz’s “The Physiologist’s Rebuke to His Lover.”
Thinking back to her days as a French literature and language major at the University of Maryland where talking about twentieth century literature had to be done in French, the Steiny Poet now pulls herself together for her explication. The poem is about spring when bird come back to make nests in such trees as cottonwoods. Clues include: “little birdies come home to roost”; the word altricial which refers to helpless, naked, blind (maybe newborn birds); and “ribbon I’m meant to twist/ Into ornament” (an element woven into a bird’s nest, perhaps?).
Why might the mightier sycamore, which has stronger wood and is much taller, be envious of cottonwoods trees? The only guess is that whatever kicked this poem into being for the author was not a stereotypical event. From Googling, the Steiny Poet has learned that birds like cottonwoods and sycamores because both species often have cavities in their trunks handy for making nests. From the way the poem opens, one might guess one of these trees might be a tree type chosen for street utility poles.
You’re high gloss and order in the newest street lamps.
All your little birdies come home to roost.
Except popular trees used for utility poles are more likely to be southern yellow pine, Douglas fir, Jack pine, western red cedar, etc. Wait! Maybe the cottonwoods are illuminated by the newest street lamps and take on a sheen that makes the sycamore envious.
But then the more pressing question is who or what is the narrator of this poem? From the title, one might think the personified sycamore would be telling of its discontent with the cottonwoods. What makes this argument fall apart for the Steiny Poet are these lines:
… remember me, my streaming
Seed, night and its coat-tailing meteors. . .
Sycamores have helicopter-style seeds while the cottonwoods enveloped in a fuzzy white substance bursts like popcorn and on windy day looks like snow falling or, maybe, streaming. On the other hand coat-tailing meteors seem more like the sycamore seeds.
Since the Steiny Poet is making no headway in resolving the mysteries of this poem, she will skip ahead to why she is fascinated with Fagan’s composition. She likes what is happening in these lines:
He, she, and it pass, the one altricial need;
At their lips is pressed the ribbon I’m meant to twist
Into ornament: remember me, my streaming
Seed, night and its coat-tailing meteors . . .
The Steiny Road finds the he, she and it writerly. It seems to be a declension of the third person singular pronoun. Granted it might also be the male and female birds that make the it, the egg that becomes the naked, blind newborn bird, which has a dependent need on the parents or at least the mother bird. The Steiny Poet also like the tactile-ness of their lips pressed against the ribbon. More, she loves the plea—how Steinian—to remember me, the me that is streaming seed melding into the night filled with coat-tailing meteors.
After the meteors, the poem leaps into a wider space and presents more mystery than clarity.
So once went my habit of mind: poppies, paper, stars.
Tonight the tenderer planets take cover,
Bodies abuzz in their own demise.
The Steiny Poet thinks she will have to sleep on this poem for the rest of her life or until she corners Kathy Fagan and gets a tutorial on the entirety of this place of sycamore and cottonwoods filled with birds and seeds.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
At first glance, the Steiny Road Poet thought “Rain-Out" by Charles Harper Webb was a pretty straight forward free-verse poem and that today’s 24th trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 would be, well … easy. Here’s how this poem organized in five unrhymed five-line stanzas with no particular metric count opens:
What we’ve looked forward to will not
occur. What we’ve slaved toward
has been delayed permanently. Useless:
the laps we’ve run, the calisthenics
we’ve endured, the crates of hissing snakes
Everything seems logical given the title until that last line, hissing snakes? Well, in stanza 2, the collective we shoves these snakes down icey roads, breathing on them so they won’t hibernate. Then whoever is the opponent—these are those spiteful folks who prayed for a cloudburst—because their “line-ups weren’t/ prepared, notch their noses and wear pink// jock straps to thank their evil gods.” Meanwhile the prayers from the good guys go unheard and the rain starts—“The pock and thwap of fat drops plopping// into puddles and rattling rain gutters/ drape black crepe inside our hearts.” Good going on that onomatopoeia—the Steiny Poet can feel and hear those raindrops!
The question is what kind of event is getting rained out? The Steiny Poet conferred with her former horseman husband to see if this event might be a rodeo and he quipped, why do you think this poem has to be logical? Judge for yourselves, Dear Reader:
… Where placid herds trod concrete
corridors, content to be imminent
steaks and brisket plates, they swim now,
mooing mournfully, while cowboys
on their roans, piebalds, and Appaloosas
slosh and founder toward the sunset
that smashes us in muddy, hopeless waves.
Well, maybe this is roundup, where the cowboys are driving cattle to market? But how does one account for those men in pink jock straps and those hissing snakes that get pushed down icey roads? Maybe Charles Harper Webb is poetry’s Salvador Dali.
Monday, April 22, 2013
Lit Trip 23 through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 takes flight through Jane Springer’s “Forties War Widows, Stolen Grain.” This concrete poem is cleverly organized on the page in the shape of a fighter plane in flight. As the poem opens, “For decades we’d witnessed dark murders,” the Steiny Road Poet first thought the murders referenced all the wars prior to World War II, but upon reading the next line “descend through crop-facing windows,” she realized the perpetrator was corporally in the war widows’ neighborhood and in fact, a murder of crows stealing grain from the fields. Just to be sure, Dear Reader, we are on the same page, a murder of crows is a large group ofcrows flying together. The murders include the crows raiding the widows’ fields and possibly the widows, who take up their 12-gauge shotguns, killing some of the flying marauders.
What is more interesting than the widows dropping their household chores to chase away the black birds is the displaced anger, despair, and frustration the widows hint at relative to their missing husbands, who, unlike the crows, never come back. The poem is divided into two wings (or stanzas with indented lines) and two one-lined tails that are attached to the wings in the middle of the poem. Therefore wing one ends with this tail line: “12 gauges, shot the thieves.” Wing two begins with this tail line, “Someone has to clean up the.” In wing one stanza, the women leave their “eggs un-whisked from sheer anger” (could they un-whisked eggs allude to the babies never conceived?) allow their spatulas to melt and smoke in their skillets (the widows mirror this slow burn in their anger), scatter their presumably unpaid bills with their “elbow akimbo,” jam their pajama legs into galoshes (have they let themselves go, not bothering to get dressed for the day?), swear Christ Armageddon, allow their crouching cats access to their uncooked bacon (and who is bringing home the proverbial bacon?) while they wing open their door, fall to their knees to brace themselves for shooting their guns. Wing 2 is the aftermath and all that has to be cleaned up for this outburst of anger and to restore the kitchen Idyll—that is, until the next murder of crows appear.
Sunday, April 21, 2013
The third week of National Poetry Month at The Steiny Road to Operadom blog ushered seven trips through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 for close reads on poems concerned with words, poetry, and poets. Jehanne Dubrow’s “Milagro Umbrella Factory” focuses on the proper names for people and things. Nick McRae’s “Genesis” delves into the Christian belief that the world began with The Word from God. By way of killer whales interrupting the study of the declaimed arts, James May’s “’A Culture’” provides commentary on poetry via Samuel Johnson. David Wagoner’s “Poem” experiments with ways to define and animate poetry. David Kirby’s “The Poetry Reading” invites the audience inside the head of a poet giving a reading to a difficult audience. Dan O’Brien’s “The War Reporter Paul Watson on the Examination of Women” offers commentary from an Afghan poet as the war report scratches his head. Amanda Yskamp’s “A+” shows a rebellious young woman involved with language learning including correct spelling in the native tongue English and fluidity in the French language. In summation, the Steiny Road Poet has looked at poems on death, love, and poetry.
Filled with pop culture and junk food woven into a pending blizzard, Laura McCullough’s “Holy” provides a wild transition between the BPR Lit Trip week emphasizing poetry and words to a work week of poems grounded in nature. In this fourteen-line not-a-sonnet poem, “Holy” is anything but sacred except, wait—in the last three lines the frantic narrator trying to prepare for the “snowpocalypse” by “laying up” duct tape, iced tea, Twinkies (remember those? How could you not, Dear Reader, given the recent storm over the possibility that the company that makes these sugared darlings was going out of business) and some cans of protein spies a crying neighbor who has just lost a loved one. Here are the last five lines of “Holy.”
Walk across the street, ring around the moon, some-
thing coming soon and it’s better than you, least
live that way. Neighbor crying on the porch, some-
one died today, see the snow, bon hiver, love,
goodbye and Snickers are all I got to share.
Is this McCullough commenting that our 21st century life that involves “social notworking” is so bereft of time and meaningful behavior that all the narrator can do is offer her wish for a good winter (bon hiver) and a candy bar? Maybe so, and for this narrator, her kids “in their beds; sky full of dread” with “no scholly” (try to type in scholly and the auto-correct will make it school) complicates her usual schedule that involves an uncooperative computer—“Sorry, autotext bopped/ erotic fumble, bobble that snap, snap that/ disc.” Well, is it a computer disc or a disc in the human back after shoveling snow?
McCullough’s “Holy” even with its onomatopoeia and nursery rhyme schema weighs in on the heavy side. It’s a poem that makes the Steiny Poet laugh and sigh with a heavy heart.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
The bravado of Amanda Yskamp’s “A+” seems a fitting poem in the wake of the city of Boston taking back control from the terror of the Marathon Bombers. Exploration of Yskamp’s prose poem published in the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 comes as the Steiny Road Poet marks twenty-one days in a row of supporting the work of contemporary poets and a particularly remarkable literary journal where every detail down to the high-quality paper has been attended to by editor-in-chief Adam Vines. Here is the first half of the poem:
Because my first grade teacher misspelled words, and I was faster than my math master at some sums, could see beyond the window of U.S. history out to where the snow fell on a farther field, I knew bullshit walks, the smartass wins an honest kiss, rebellion is a Boston birthright, born in the heart of a young country that a show must be made of the cause.
Because the narrator is concerned about misspelled words, one gets clued in early that she cares about words in general. Poetic play is seen in her near or exact homophonic alliterations—math master and some sums.
In the second half of the poem to show her Boston born rebellion, she “unlatched the cages to let the mice run loose, burned the janitor’s shoes, put a voodoo hex on [her] French teacher, gave him Hep, oui, je l’ai fait.” Why? Because she felt he acted snobbish—“for his tightassed class distinctions.” Her last act of rebellion is to make a blood sisterhood “in a carnal wish to break from the body.” So in this poem, we have female rebel who steps up and admits what she has done (yes, I did it— oui, je l’ai fait) and defiantly takes a knife to the thumbs of the girl who encircle her. “A+” is a poem bursting with the kind of energy expected of young men and therefore brings an additional burst of surprise and pleasure.
Friday, April 19, 2013
Man’s inhumanity to man, woman, humankind is something we live with everyday but will never get used to. In today’s 20th Lit Trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40, the Steiny Road Poet looks at poet-playwright Dan O’Brien’s “The War Reporter Paul Watson on the Examination of Women.” It is one of two poems from the point of view of Canadian journalist Paul Watson, Canada’s only journalist who has won a Pulitzer Prize. The Steiny Poet strongly believes these two poems are related to O’Brien’s award-winning play The Body of an American. OK, yes, the Steiny Poet finds the following quote from O’Brienon on The Missouri Review’s website where they have published another poem in O’Brien’s series on Watson:
The purpose of my work with Paul has been to try to use poetry to bridge the distance between an “average” person like myself, and someone who has witnessed some of the signal atrocities of our era, in places as far-flung as Angola, Kosovo, Rwanda, Iraq, Afghanistan (the list goes on). The poems are derived from his memoir, Where War Lives, his journalism, recordings and transcripts he has shared with me, and most valuably our emails and conversations. Some of these poems take place in Ulukhaktok in the Canadian High Arctic, where I visited Paul there in the winter of 2010 while he was enjoying a brief respite from war reporting, covering the “Arctic and Aboriginal Beat” for the Toronto Star. He’s now based mainly in Kandahar. Our peculiar collaboration has also produced a play, The Body of an American, but after finishing the play I found I couldn’t let his story go. In a very personal way, his voice continues to haunt me.
In “Watson on the Examination of Women,” an eighteen-lined, single stanza poem that makes no attempt to be a heroic sonnet—neither in rhyme scheme nor metrical count (iambic pentameter is the traditional rule), O’Brien through the voice of his narrator Paul Watson carves out the plight of a woman in a burqa deprived of a woman doctor and so she bleeds to death. However, even when the women doctors are reinstated, the male doctors, who are forced to stay behind closed doors, are in charge of the sick women’s examinations. Watson reports that once he spoke with the poet Dr. Abdul Samay Hamed and Hamed said, “The Taliban is a mystery/ its Creator is unable solve.”
What makes this a poem versus sudden fiction are lines like “Cassettes/ get unspooled and strung from checkpoint towers/ festively like intestines” and “female sick/ must of course remain at all times shrouded/ in their burquas.” The simile of the recording tape compared to intestines and the word choice shrouded cement the sick women’s inhumane fate. The women’s medical treatment is barbaric and they are the walking dead. Subtle internal near rhymes ebb and flow with such combinations as cassettes/checkpoint, shoes/taboo, black/doctor, part/hurt. If just the last word of every line is read, one gets the essence of this poem (a sign of a good poem with strong line breaks). Here are the end words: cassettes, towers, shoes, women, sick shrouded, reaches, part, eyes, prove, naturally, doctors, blindly, hear, poet, said, mystery, solve.
Perhaps it is small consolation the last words O’Brien’s poem come from a Afghan poet who indicates that Taliban behavior is even a mystery to the Creator (the Steiny Poet believes one can substitute Allah) but Dr. Hamed was also a trained as a physician and understands the plight of Afghan women whom he writes compassionately about in his poetry. In repressive countries, only the poets dare tell the truth and often at great risk to their own lives. Hats off to Dan O'Brien's brave work.
More prose than poetry, “The Poetry Reading” by David Kirby is like a Spaulding Gray or Garrison Keillor monologue. The Steiny Road Poet chooses this twenty-quatrain poem with deeply indented second and fourth lines as her 19th Lit Trip through the Birmingham Poetry Review volume 40 because it gets to the bottomless pit about why poetry in America is a hard sell.
.......... and there they are, your audience.
And who are they? Well, there’s the girl who isn’t scowling,
..........exactly, doesn’t appear unhappy—
she’s in Intro to Poetry, after all, has read Frost, Williams,
..........even a little Hart Crane, so she knows what
to expect, kind of—so let’s just say she concerned, worried
..........you’ll do something not even Hart Crane did,
and she won’t get it. …
So, Kirby is in front of a college audience to give a reading of his work and he is watching audience members fret, interpret, squirm, and rudely get up and leave …but then come back because they left something behind. Meanwhile his host is also suspect as a poetry un-appreciator who is reacting with forced laughs and sad faces depending on the poem read. The Steiny Poet is most concerned about the girl who isn’t scowling in the quotation above. She is the one worried that she won’t get the poem being delivered. While she is trying to understand, her worry is palpable to the poet who can feel that anxiety and this worry transfers to another couple of students where a male student seems to translating like some interpreter at the UN to his girl friend something as simple as Kirby’s words of thanks. Of this couple, Kirby writes that the intensity of the translation is such that if the boyfriend fails to make what Kirby is saying understood then there will be war.
What redeems the occasion are five young men who stay and ask questions, saying they have formed a club, which Kirby thinks might be called the Dead Poets Society. Also there is a girl in a tight sweater who beams at the poet, which sends Kirby as narrator into a riff on whom else the girl beams at and how her beaming is contagious since it spreads to his host, the host who has finally remembered where his check is for having done this now decidedly worthwhile reading.
Generally, this is the story of what happens in this narrative, unrhymed poem that uses repetition as comic insistence as well as a modicum of cliché (Dead Poets Society and that girl in the tight sweater who seems to hit on him). If one were to read only the lines that are flush left with the margin and then read all the indented lines, one would still get a pretty good idea about what’s happening and have a good time with this poem.
While the narrator might not be its author David Kirby, the Steiny Poet would be hard pressed to think Kirby hasn’t had the experience described in this poem. As in the review of Carrie Jerrell’s poem “Before Being Euthanized, Barbaro Speaks to His Trainer” (BPR Lit Trip 6), the question arises in Kirby’s poem (i.e. the girl who is afraid she won’t understand the poetry she is hearing) about how much tolerance audience members have for challenging poetry. The irony with Kirby’s “The Poetry Reading” is this is a poem extremely easy to understand, a poem that goes over well as an ice-breaker at a poetry reading.