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OTA BENGA UNDER MY MOTHER’S ROOF

by Carrie Allen McCray, edited and with an introduction by Kevin Simmonds

It is quite possible that, given the many omissions in our history books, you have never heard of Ota Benga.  Thanks to the late Carrie Allen McCray and the poet, filmmaker and musician Kevin Simmonds, the history of this man is stamped into Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a collection of poems by McCray edited and with an introduction by Simmonds.

“From the deep forests of the Congo, to the black churches of Virginia, to the steel cages of the Bronx Zoo, to the hearth of the McCray household, Ota Benga wished only to be seen as a man.” — Nikky Finney

What do “steel cages” have to do with Ota Benga?  In the preface written by McCray we learn that he was brought here from the Congo Forest in 1904, and again in 1906 by a missionary.  “This was during the frenzied time of anthropologists trying to prove the darker races a lower form of humanity.”  In 1904 these humans were exhibited in the St. Louis World’s Fair Anthropology Unit.  “Eskimo natives from Alaska, the Ainu from Japan, natives from the Philippines, Indian tribes from America, Zulus, Balubas and ‘Pygmies’ from Africa.’” 

When the missionary who brought Ota Benga to America was low on funds, he left Ota Benga at the Museum of Natural History with the evil Henry Bumpus.  When Ota protested, Ota ultimately ended up in a cage with an ape in the Monkey House at the Bronx Zoo.  This grotesque “exhibition” was publicized in newspapers, stoking protests.  Carrie Allen McCray’s mother’s first husband, born into slavery and a member of the early Pan-African movement, was among the protesters and offered Ota his home to live in and be educated in.  Six months later, the husband died and Ota Benga went to an orphanage.  But in 1910, he asked to return to the widow, now Mary Hayes Allen.  Mary Hayes had married Carrie Allen’s father and had three children, including Carrie.  Carrie’s brother, being older than her, had more memories of him than she did and said “He was like a father…friend…teacher…hero, who knew more about the meaning of humanity than the missionary who brought him over here.”   Indeed, the Forest People of the Congo were “pacifists, egalitarians, and environmentalists.  Our civilized nations are still trying to attain some of the values the Congo Forest People held for thousands of years.” (From the dedication.)

Kevin Simmonds had a special relationship with Carrie McCray while he was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina.  She and her sister gave him a key to their home so each time he returned from a late flight from San Francisco where he was completing his dissertation, there was always “a welcoming note and a meal waiting in the microwave. Family.”  Simmonds writes “Carrie was a consummate storyteller and teacher and intended this collection to go beyond the personal recollections of her brothers.  She wanted to underscore the history that brought Ota from the Congo to Lynchburg, especially the ultimately unbearable loss of family and community in the Congo.”

In 2007 McCray provided Simmonds with her manuscript, which he adapted for a theatrical work that was premiered at the Columbia Museum of Art that year. 

“On October 19, 2007, with Carrie center stage, Ota Benga Under My Mother’s Roof, a theatrical work for narrators, singers, dancer, and musical chamber ensemble, premiered a the Columbia Museum of Art.  When Simmonds read from the book at my reading series in Sonoma County, CA, WordTemple, he sang from this work.  It was an evening of pure duende.

Finally, from Simmonds’ introduction:  “Carrie referred to Ota’s voice as always having the quality of a minor key, something unresolved, unsettled.  No matter where you are in the chronology in this collection, the imminence of Ota’s suicide is there.  Despite the love, acceptance, and opportunities he had in Lynchburg; despite its ample woods that reminded him of his Congo forest; despite everything, he committed suicide on March 20, 1916.  He was approximately thirty-three years old.”

Let us turn now to a few poems, the tribute Carrie Allen McCray has created to Ota Benga, and the tribute Simmonds has created to the lives of Ota Benga and Carrie Allen McCray. 

OTA’S COURTSHIP AND MARRIAGE

In Ota’s dreams, the young girl Kemba is a firefly.

He tries to catch her but she flies away.

In his dreams, he watches Kemba dance

as she danced around the campfire

with other girls during their special feast.

Twelve girls dancing, but he sees only Kemba

whose name means full of grace.

Slim like a fale stalk, walks

like dancing,

smooth dark skin like Ota’s

which she makes more beautiful with dye

from the nkola tree.

Her laughter, a song, her voice,

the whisper of wind.

Ota wants to marry her.

THE BIRTH OF ANTHROPOLOGY

Anthropology,

a boar

unleashed,

untamed,

born of prejudice.

All over,

exhibits.  In the Musee de l’homme,

genitalia of darker women

floating

in pickling jars.

And on this shore,

We hold these truths

to be self-evident

that all men

are created equal.

Anthropologists F.S. Woodworth

and Professor Starr ponder

over pince-nez glasses:

How do barbaric races compare intellectually

with defective Caucasians?

And now for the 1904 World’s Fair,

men, penguin-like in their dark suits and

white coats,

sit around long tables, listening

to the organizers of the Anthropology Unit.

All are commissioned

to gather men of color

from around the world.

Dr. W. J. McGee predicting this to be

the greatest exhibit.  Ever.

Stephen Jay Gould cries out against

these early anthropologists

whose methods appall him.

Of the Third World women

in bell jars, he writes

I saw a little exhibit that provided

an immediate and chilling insight

into nineteenth century mentalite

and the history

of racism.

Woodworth and Starr

and other anthropologists

focused on the following question:

Are dark-skinned people capable

of discerning the color blue?

The poem “Forest Man” tells us how Ota saw himself, not as an exhibit at the zoo or museum, not as a city or country man, but:

I’m a Forest Man

where me and the wind like brother,

sing a song to Forest….

The last three lines of the poem repeat like a drum beat:

I belong in Forest.

I belong in Forest.

I belong in Forest.

And then, the poem “Into the Woods Alone.”  Here are a few lines from that poem.

Moon beckon, say, Come

in woods by self, Ota.  Trees bow heads

when I pass, say, Hush, hush, listen.

Wind bring word from Forest.

Forest say, Come home, Ota, come home….

I fall on ground, then sleep.  Wake up…

…I’m still here in their woods.

Star of my father, take me home.

Star of my mother, take me home.

Fwela say he take me back, but where Fwela?

People say they send me back, but where

money?  I hear choir sing slave song:

I believe I’ll go back home.

Lordy, won’t you help me?

I believe I’ll go back home.

The last poem in the book, “In the Dark of Night” recounts Ota Benga’s suicide on March 20, 1916.  Here are some segments:

That night, while the boys were sleeping,

Ota walked toward death, quietly,

deliberately, like the coming of tomorrow,

went across the road into the old shed

behind Mammy Joe’s store, picked up the gun

he had hidden there in the hay.

She found him that morning,

went running across the road to Mama….

The vision of him lying there,

the blood.

The old grey shed, our place

for hide and seek and eating saucer-sized

sugar cookies Mammy Joe would bring us.

We’d fall laughing onto the hay-covered

floor, clucking chickens strutting around us.

It was here he went, moving me to wonder,

couldn’t there have been a way

to send him home?

I sit now in a different time,

a different place, wondering.

We could have found a way home,

home to the Kasai teeming with fish,

the taste of lush mango, him lying on his back

watching his star blink.

Under his moon.  His fire.

The drums.

Tomorrow, the homegoing.

OTA BENGA UNDER MY MOTHER’S ROOF — POEMS by Carrie Allen McCray, edited with an introduction by Kevin Simmonds, was published by the University of South Carolina Press in 2012.  The poems included in this post barely touch the surface.  If you’d like to read the book in its entirety, which I strongly recommend, it can be ordered directly from the press here: https://uscpress.com/Ota-Benga-under-My-Mothers-Roof

Kevin Simmonds is a musician and writer originally from New Orleans. He studied music at Vanderbilt University and the University of South Carolina. He is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Monster I Am Today — Leontyne Price and a Life in Verse, published by Northwestern University Press in 2021.

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Susan Kelly-DeWitt

Gatherer’s Alphabet

I admire many small presses and another one has come to my attention with the publication of Susan Kelly-DeWitt’s Gatherer’s Alphabet, the inaugural winner of their California Poets Series Prize. Co-edited by two poets laureate of Santa Barbara, California, Gunpowder Press takes its name from the city’s namesake, Saint Barbara, the patron saint of gunpowder — the earliest known chemical explosive. Apparently, the editors recognize explosives when they see them. Gatherer’s Alphabet is filled with poems that burst from the pages with the most human and ghostly of communications. As Lee Herrick writes, “These luscious poems feel like small museums of wonder.”

Gatherer’s Alphabet arrives in four sections. I’ll give you enough of a taste from each one to compel you to need the rest. Kelly-DeWitt may not be known coast-to-coast yet, but she should be. Her poetry exercises such tenderness to the living, such sturdy delicateness, her observations run so deep that, at times, I’m reminded of Dickinson. So let us start with a poem from the first section, “I Ordered a Dragonfly.” I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more beautiful poem on the permanence of loss.

.

I ORDERED A DRAGONFLY

I ordered a dragonfly to take flight —
I launched a cliff swallow
like a paper airplane

out over the river
and I commanded them to find
the blue boat

that carried my father
away one November,
the boat that bore

my mother
with her paralyzed left side
to the mouth of the sea.

The dragonfly refused,
the cliff swallow circled back
to his perch in a willow,

as if they both knew
the boat was made of ghost-wood, sealed
with ghost-wax.

A poem in the second section centers it, if not the entire collection. “To My Mother on Her Seventy-Sixth Birthday” is a nine-part, powerful elegy in triplets, a form that gives it a hint of holiness. The entire poem must be read to revel in its emotion-full scope. Here is the first part:

1.

there was a secret
book in your heart, it was a
book of poetry

written by you if
you’d had a different life
with a grass linen

cover and embossed
letters like bamboo, it was
autographed by you

out of the other
out of the hull of the ship-
wrecked being I come


In the second section of the poem, the speaker communicates not as a ghost, but as the yet unborn:


2.

Who made the world? I
asked you once years before you
could hear, as the dust

of stars gathered me
from the void’s farthest edges
a drift of unborn

far out on the string
of you being I floated
I waved like a pale

handkerchief, hello


In the fourth section of the poem, the speaker laments the art of mothers never expressed, mothers

whose words were never

spoken, whose poems
were never known never sung
oh there are thousands

of such women, such
lovely women with poems
locked tight in their hearts

words chained to their lips…


How difficult it is not to put the entire poem here! And how grateful I am that Kelly-DeWitt’s words are not “locked tight” in her heart.

In the third section of the book, we witness the speaker’s maturity as she indicates the difficulties of a complex father while viewing the larger picture and finding the good. The poem is called “Innocent” and ends:

My father the serial liar, serial gambler,

serial loser, with the sweetness
of white moonflower

light in his heart.


Finally, the title poem appears in the last section of the book. It is the poet’s playful 26-line instruction manual and I’d like it posted on my own wall. Here are just a few lines plucked from this alphabet poem:

Archive day, night, spring, summer, autumn, winter — be an apothecary of wonder.
Arrange an arsenal of antidotes called art. Admire avocets and arachnids.

Lip the shine from snail trails, trout scales. Add “lusty” to your lexicon Listen.
Lap gold from Limoges.

Tease the shadows out of hiding. Tally the dead but also the truth of the living.

Yoke yourself to yellow, to the life-giving yarrow. Yearn Yawp. Yowl.

Zoom the zones of the ineffable — life zips by. Leave your mark like…Zorro!


Susan Kelly-DeWitt is the inaugural poet for the California Poets Series. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow, she is the author of Gravitational Tug (Main Street Rag); Spider Season (Cold River Press); The Fortunate Islands (Marick Press) and a number of previous small press and online collections.

My gratitude goes to Kelly-DeWitt for these astonishing poems, and to Gunpowder Press for making them available to us.

Please leave your comments for this blog or email me directly and I will get them to Kelly-DeWitt.

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GERALD FLEMING

In the early 2000s, I attended a benefit reading for Sixteen Rivers Press held at a private home in Sausalito, California. The two readers that evening were Philip Levine, who would later become poet laureate of the United States, and Gerald Fleming. Fleming’s first collection, Swimmer Climbing Onto Shore, was forthcoming from Sixteen Rivers. This book is one of five Fleming collections on my shelf, and the only collection of his verse poems. The four books that followed — Night of Pure Breathing (Hanging Loose Press, 2011); The Choreographer (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2013); One (Hanging Loose Press, 2016); and The Bastard and the Bishop (Hanging Loose Press, 2021) are all prose poems, but each collection is distinctly and refreshingly different from one to the next.

I recently asked Fleming why he made the shift from writing verse to the prose poem. He said he felt that something had broken loose after writing his poem “Two Women” while in graduate school at San Francisco State, and that he had “a free sense that it might be possible to integrate some of the essential elements of the poetics “important to him within prose. Astonished by the international anthology The Prose Poem (Michael Benedikt, editor), he turned more seriously to the form. Finally, after a walk in Paris one day, a poem he wrote nailed it: “…the writing of that one thrilled me in a way I hadn’t experienced before, and since then the form has seemed natural to me, supple, non-judgmental, invitational in the way that no subject matter is inappropriate.”

One is a collection of prose poems that plays with the idea of writing poems with one syllable per word. What? You heard me right. A poet set out to do this crazy thing — and it works as, perhaps, only Fleming can make it work because, in part, the poems aren’t gimmicks; they’re strongest muscles are deep observation, wit, humor, humility and, in short, emotion or, rather, emotions as they take us on a roller coaster of feelings. Take for instance his eye-opener, “All Your Life You Fight It and Here it is Once More.” The title may tempt you to think of all kinds of things you might “fight” in life, but read on:
.

ALL YOUR LIFE YOU FIGHT IT AND HERE IT IS ONCE MORE

Tough block, New York’s West Side, we’ve just checked in. I look out from our third-floor room & see there’s a store down there, black guy next to the door, cup in his hands — he rocks back & forth, left foot, right, & now a white gal comes out with a bag, he thrusts his cup in front of her, she shakes her head no, walks toward the street, but he won’t give up: holds out the cup, still she says no, the light goes green & he stays with her as she steps into the crosswalk: thrusts the cup out, she sweeps her hand at him, No, & now they’ve crossed the street, the cup pushed at her, & now she takes it, sips from it, keeps it, he takes her bag & they walk south.

.

There you have it, the self-identified racism every white person slams up against that makes him or her realize there’s always more work to be done. The reader of this poem might have uttered, “Damn,” by the end of reading this poem, “what was I thinking?”

.

Fleming provides a generous note at the end of his latest collection, The Bastard and the Bishop to give credit where it’s due. While he was working on editing the massive Collected Poetry and Prose of Lawrence Fixel, a brilliant labor-of-love undertaking published by Sixteen Rivers Press in 2020, he became acquainted with a London friend of Fixel’s, David Miller. Miller sent Fleming a volume of his own prose poems, Spiritual Letters. Fleming states that while the book “is neither spiritual in the strictly religious sense nor letters in the epistolary sense,” they also were not the kind of poems he was typically drawn to as they “run a narrative line for a while, then abruptly flip to another strand of narrative, then perhaps back to the first, perhaps not.” Yet, he found that these particular poems opened him in a new way, and found that “by the time I was into the book a dozen pages, in a state of not-unhappy disorientation, certain small phrases triggered progressions of thought for me — often completely unrelated — and I followed.”

Inspired, Fleming started writing and his next project was born. He would read a page from Spiritual Letters and take a phrase or word or two that jumped out and begin a new poem, braiding into the poem Miller’s exact words. Here is a poem I find particularly lovely, a poem that, perhaps, most poets can relate to:

.

THIS WATER

The poet is in the center of a city known for its beauty. He’s in a chair next to a circular fountain, the water of the fountain tinged green with algae, and in the center of the fountain a circle of eighteen jets, the jets on a timer, the water rising, falling green-white against the clear blue sky.

He’s reading poetry — a poet he loves from the High North. He reads the words but can’t bring himself to concentrate. Though the man whose words he reads is long dead, the poet thinks of him as a friend, and when he travels in the city, the man’s book in his briefcase — or, as now, in his hand — he feels that he has a friend with him.

Today, though, by the fountain, he reads the word Now May is at the window over and over, but finds himself losing interest, pulled away each time by the sound of the fountain, the height of its jets, and he sees now, knows now, that though long ago he consciously chose not to compete with other poets, every poet competes with water.

.

From his first collection to his most recent, Gerald Fleming has continued to show how he opens his mind to new possibilities every single time. And we are the ones rewarded. Of the late Lawrence Fixel’s work, Michael Delville has written “Very few prose poets have done more to expand the boundaries of the genre.” Gerald Fleming seems to have taken up that banner. All of his books are available through the publishers, as well as Amazon.

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Poetry Notes

The Poetry of Synesthesia

Recently, I led an abbreviated workshop on synesthesia at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. Since then, I’ve been asked by a number of people for any notes from that day for reference.

One of the poetic devices I’ve always loved in the written word, whether in prose or poetry, is synesthesia. It’s a medical condition, sure, but you need not “have” it to enjoy writing your own phrases to muscle-up your writing.

What is it? The word “synesthesia” comes from the Greek meaning “perceiving together.” Someone who experiences synesthesia has one sense stimulated by another. “Colored hearing” is one example, when seeing a color actually produces a sound. A “synesthete” may hear a bell ring when a stoplight changes from red to green. The opposite applies, too, when a sound produces a color.

Synesthesia and Music

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin claimed to be a synesthete, seeing red when he heard the note C, orange when he heard the note G, etc. Many dispute this claim but his assertions provide such interesting material! Not only did he claim that listening to music created visions of “shafts of light, sheets of flames and tongues of fire,” but he included an instrument in his scores called a “color organ” that — if it existed — would have filled concert halls with colored lights in various shapes, with the climax of his symphony being a white light so strong that it would be “painful to the eyes.” I’m not sure that part sounds inviting. If you’d like to hear one of his symphonies where a “color organ” was written into his score, check out Prometheus, the Poem of Fire (1911). It can be found on-line. Do you see that white light at the end, even without the color organ?

Duke Ellington claimed to experience synesthesia in a different way. He said that if one musician played a note, he would hear one color yet, if a different musician played the same note, he’d see a different color. Was his hearing that fine-tuned? I don’t know about you, but I believe that genius.

It is reported that Ellington also experienced another layer of synesthesia: texture. He said, for instance, that the note D was a “dark blue burlap.” How strong was his colored hearing? A painter as well as a musician, Ellington referred to his band as his palate.

The pop star Billie Eilish says: “Everything that I make I’m already thinking of what colour it is, and what texture it is, and what day of the week it is, and what number it is, and what shape…” Can you imaging being in her brain?

Colored hearing is not the only kind of synesthesia. Some synesthetes see a smell. For instance, smelling garlic may evoke the color orange.

Synesthesia in Poetry

Examples of synesthesia in poetry go all the way back to Homer, but I’ll give you a few examples stretching from the 17th Century to more modern times.

As the bell tone fades,
Blossom scents take up the ringing,
Evening shade
— Basho

Charles Baudelaire helped popularize synesthesia in poetry with his poem “Voyelles” (1817) in which he assigns a color to every vowel. Here is the first stanza of that remarkable poem as translated by F. Scott Fitzgerald:

A black, E white, I red, U green, O blue, vowels
Someday I’ll tell you where your genesis lies;
A: black velvet swarms of flies
Buzzing above the stench of voided bowels,

(French Poetry — from Medieval to Modern Times
Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets

Robert Hayden wrote the immensely popular poem “Those Winter Sundays.” Here are a few lines from that poem that incorporate synesthesia:

Sundays, too, my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold

(and later in the poem)

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking…

You can hear Hayden reading the entire poem on You Tube.

In her poem “The Blindman,” May Swenson wrote:

“The blindman placed a tulip/on his tongue for purple’s taste.”

In her poem “February 11, 1992: At the Art Institute of Chicago,” Sandra Gilbert wrote:

“The Van Gogh roomscape draws me
with its caked and screaming yellow bed

In closing

These are all examples of how synesthesia can be used to heighten senses and add extra depth in writing. Isn’t a “screaming yellow bed” much more interesting than “yellow bed?” Of course it is! What does purple taste like? How is cold “blueblack?” Somehow, it all makes perfect sense as soon as we read these phrases. They make us want to read on. They make us feel and see and perceive in new ways.

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Victoria Chang

June 28, 2020

Chang’s latest collection, Obit (Copper Canyon Press, 2020), has received a number of very positive reviews. You can find one such review by going to Carol Muske-Dukes’ article in the Los Angeles Review of Books, available on-line. Or you can just read what I have to say in just three words: Buy this book. Seriously, just do it.

If you are tuned in to the poetry world on a regular basis, you probably already know that the majority of poems in this book are shaped precisely like an obituary — thin columns with perfect borders. You might think “gimmick.” But you’d be wrong. The immense power of the language in the work quickly dissuades you from any notion of cuteness or manipulation. Each poem deserves to appear in the form Chang has created for it. This book literally stunned me with its depth of emotion, emotion that can only be relayed by someone like Chang, a woman with a wide open door to human experience who allows it in, who can tap into what Lorca calls duende to pull us in with her.

And lest you think that this collection is about one death, know that most poems begin with a different death, though they’re all connected. Yes, her beloved father’s frontal lobe died as the result of a stroke, yes her mother died, but also “Tears died on August 3, 2016,” “Yesterday died at midnight,” “Voice mail died on June 24, 2009,” and more.

In responding to these poems, I had to ask myself if I was drawn to them solely because my mother was paralyzed from a stroke for the last 5 years of her life. Certainly there is a type of call-and-response effect here. Personally, I get the pain. And, yes, both of my parents (one whom I didn’t know) have died. But there’s more than the shared experience here. There’s a profound appreciation of how Chang has created a perfect collection of perfect poems. Publisher’s Weekly says “Chang is emerging as an exciting voice in contemporary poetry.” Emerging? No. She’s here.

My “program” will not allow me to present her poems in those tightly structured obituary shapes. With apologies to Chang I ask you to please imagine those borders as you read. And then go get the book; just a few poems here will not be enough.

Tears-died on August 3, 2016. Once
we stopped at a Vons to pick up
flowers and pinwheels on our way to
the graveyard It had been a year and
death no longer glittered. My ten-year-
old putting the flowers perfectly in the
small narrow hole in front of the stone.
How she somehow knew what the hole
was for, that my mother wasn’t really on
the other side. Suddenly, our sobbing.
How many times have I looked into the
sky for some kind of message, only to
find content but no form. She ran back
to the car. The way grief takes many
forms, as tears or pinwheels. The way
the word haystack never conjures up
the same image twice. The way we
assume all tears taste the same. The
way our sadness is plural, but grief is
singular.

.

Appetite-died its final death on
Father’s Day, June 21, 2015, peacefully
and quietly among family. We dressed
my other, rolled her down in her
wheelchair. The oxygen machine
breathing like an animal. They were
the only Chinese people at the facility.
The center table was loud again, was
invite-only again. Like always, I filled my
mother’s plates with food. Her favorite
colored puddings, contained in plastic
cups. When we got up to leave, her
food still there, glistening like worms.
No one though much of it. There are
moments that are like brushstrokes,
when only much later after the ocean
is finished, become the cliff’s edge
that they were all along Death is our
common ancestor. It doesn’t care
whom we have dined with.

.

Friendships-died a slow death after
August 3, 2015. The friends visited my
father. They sat in chairs and spoke
Chinese. Wore dictionaries for coats.
Strange looks between spouses. The
friends went home feeling good that
they had done their duty, picked up
odds and ends of words. Each had
memories of offices, of seeing the other
side of the sun. The visits lessened and
lessened. They were being pursued by
their own deaths. I wonder about the
leaves and their relationship with fruit.
Do the leaves care about the swelling
of the fruit? Does the fruit consider the
leaves while it expands? Maybe the
leaves shade the fruit as it grows and
the fruit emits fragrance for the leaves.
But eventually, each must face its own
falling alone.

.

Sadness-dies while the man across
the street trims the hedges and I can
see my children doing cartwheels. Or
in the moment I sit quietly and listen
to the sky, consider the helicopter or
the child’s hoarse breathing at night.
Time after a death changes shape, it
rolls slightly downhill as if it knows to
move itself forward without our help.
Because after a death, there is no
moving on despite the people waving
us through the broken lights. There is
only a stone key that fits into one stone
lock. But the dead are holding the
key. And the stone is a boulder in a
stream. I wave my memories in, beat
them with a wooden spoon, just for a
moment, to stop the senselessness of
time, the merriment, just for a moment
to feel the tinsel of death again, its dirty
bloody beak.

.

I am ready to
admit I love my children.
To admit this is
to admit that they will die.
Die: no one knows this but words.

*

My children, children,
this poem will not end because
I am trying to
end this poem with hope hope hope,
see how the mouth stays open?

.

Victoria Chang

Victoria Chang’s prior books are Barbie Chang; The Boss; Salvinia Molesta; and Circle. Her children’s picture book, Is Mommy?, was illustrated by Marla Frazee and published by Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster. It was named a Notable Book by the New York Times. Her middle grade novel, Love, Love, was published by Sterling Publishing. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Sustainable Arts Foundation Fellowship, the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award, a Pushcart Prize, a Lannan Residency Fellowship, and a MacDowell Colony Fellowship. She lives in Los Angeles and is the program chair of Antioch’s low-residency MFA program.

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Judy Halebsky

June 10, 2020

“In Halebsky’s third poetry collection Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), published in
2020 by University of Arkansas Press, the Tang Dynasty poets Li Bai and Du Fu encounter everyday
life in Oakland, California. In his introduction to this collection, Billy Collins writes, ‘Halebsky’s
stylistic range is on full display when she switches from pure observation to a kind of revved up
American rap…she likes the unleashed energy of poetry, and in the poems gathered here, she
delivers.'”

To the Readers of WordTemple from Judy Halebsky:

Greetings, I am writing to you from a safe distance: 6 feet and a keyboard and an email password.
I often feel that poetry can connect us miraculously. When I read I feel the voices living with me in the
here and now. So really, poetry can cross almost anything. When I wrote Spring and a Thousand Years
(Unabridged), I was trying to understand so many things and I was trying to get to the moment when
things become bright and lift us up from our usual gray confusion.

In my second book, Tree Line, I read Basho’s instructions on how to write haiku and applied them to
free verse poems. Basho was writing in 17th century Japan and celebrated for elevating haiku from
comic poems that made fun of court poetry to a literary form that has aesthetic weight. He originated
a form call hai-bun which is an extended work that has both haiku with prose descriptions. I wrote
poems about reading Basho’s work and about being a person in the world, sometimes failing and
some-times getting to shore in time. So, I was reading Basho while also being an ordinary person and there are poems about both of those things in that book.

In my new book, Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), I trace the writings and literary forms
that influenced Basho. In his work, he often references classical Chinese poetry. Li Bai and Du Fu are
celebrated as major poets of China’s Tang Dynasty, which is often called the golden age of poetry in
China. In Basho’s time, these poets were revered and references to their work were readily identifiable.

For me, I had to do a lot of ground work to see these references and understand them. I absolutely fell
for these Tang Dynasty poets and loved reading their work and learning about them. That’s where a
number of the poems in this book originated.

I…tried to understand how Basho came up with the haibun form. There’s a tradition in Japanese
literature of a poetry-journal or an utanikki. While Basho’s travel journals are the first examples of
haiku and prose narratives, there is a much longer tradition of writing poetry journals with bringing
together verse and prose. Of these, my favorite is Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book. Sei Shonagon was a
woman living in the imperial court in Heian, Japan (modern day Kyoto) more than a thousand years ago.


She wrote the Pillow Book, which is a collection of lists, anecdotes and observations. Both Basho’s
travel journal and Sei Shonagon’s Pillow Book are texts we read as non-fiction, as works that record
experience in a true-to-life way. This is part of the form of a journal, it purports to be a day record
rather than a story. That’s part of the form and part of the writer’s craft to make a work that reads as
a day record even though it might be crafted and fictionalized.

More than anything, as this book grew and took on a life of its own, I imagined it as a book in
translation with notes…The idea of poetry as a field guide, as a way of being in this world is at the
heart of my writing. I want poetry to bring me closer to living vividly, to being fully present in the
wildness of being alive. — Judy Halebsky

Here are a few poems from Spring and a Thousand Years (Unabridged), followed by a brief bio
of Judy Halebsky:

.

Dear Li Bai,

A million times I read your letter. I know what you mean about sadness
being the easy way to go in a poem. About Americans being spoiled? I
see how you might get that idea.

Trust me, a cruise ship isn’t a good example. I’m glad you liked
Melbourne and I’m sure the Galapagos were amazing. I’ll look up
the pictures on the Internet (that’s a new kind of library, more on
that later). The cream they put on their skin is to block the sun. They
want to stay young-looking (A tan doesn’t make them less white) it’s
complicated.)

Let me just say. the war was a kind of storm. I sat in my kitchen. I wrote
sad poems. My dear Joshua joined the army. He loved the uniform. He
loved jumping out of planes. He wasn’t in the helicopter that crashed.
He was part of the crew sent to the wreckage. They found the pieces of
bodies and cleaned them and put them in groups and sent them home.
He survived. We eat at taquerias and see movies about Britain. We plan
family trips to the mountains. Spoiled, yes, in many ways.

I came only with your poems. I read them the night the train left
Oakland. By Portland, I was beginning to doubt the translations. I kept
going. We walked the sea wall in Vancouver. My father said, Where are
we? Where are you?

It’s morning here and the middle of the night in China. I keep all your
letters. I promise I won’t sell them at auction. I promise no more sad
poems. I’ll write about the rain and these mountains and how very
young I am and how writing to you is just like talking on the phone.
Let’s make a plan to drink and hike. We can meet at base camp. I’ll bring
you a rainproof coat. They sell beer in cans there. I know, it’s amazing.

.

Li Bai Considers Online Dating

on a clear night and a full moon, I lie on the grass
and talk to friends far away.

(note to self: before writing profile, eat cookies
then resolve to lose weight, then drink beer)

I carry little, move often
the distances between cities grow
right now I am fleeing arrest in another country
(leave this out, maybe?)

my chances of returning diminish

the mountains here are lush green, jasper green
a color that won’t translate but let’s try —
I sit in the lecture hall and check out the painters
I want one who quits early, who stays up late
who can lie with me in the grass
leave lines of charcoal down my thigh

I’ll cross the creek with my arms raised
to keep this letter dry.

.

River Merchant in Blue

of course I’m expecting you now
the butterflies are yellow with August
and you’ve sold everything you possibly could
between Gilroy and Weed

blue plum — a kind of apricot
in the damp heat of this summer night, wherever you are

blue for pale
blue for livid and leaden and bruised

know that I chose you as my spouse
you were never my king or my lord

blue for loyalty
blue for distant and unknown

a river merchant’s wife —
would I rather have married a farmer?
one who would walk up behind me
put his dirt hands on my waist
one who would know
blue is for young and fresh and green

rather than what we choose
I think sometimes love is what we can’t escape.

.

Flight Pattern

I put my suitcase down
see the robins outside
on the window, I notice
the waxy imprint of tail feathers
faint outline of the arc of a wing

rose robins sing
as if classically trained, as if they are drunk or in a hurry
desperately and beautifully
my dad beaming that I’ve come to see him

I can’t remember a single thing, he says

in firethorn bushes
males sing a whisper song
to mark territory, to sigh defeat
I tape squares of colored paper to the glass

he sleeps on the couch
I sleep in the be
each morning it’s the same
How does the stove work? Where am I?
What is that sound?
a bird hitting the window

songbirds navigate by the stars
but when it’s foggy
when the clouds are low
they fly into the lights
that shine in dark windows

.

Born and raised in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Judy Halebsky is a poet, teacher, and translator. The author of
three books of poetry, she directs the low-residency MFA program and teaches writing and storytelling
at Dominican University of California. She is the recipient of the Graves Award for Outstanding Teaching in the Humanities. Halebsky researches embodied knowledge, cultural translation, and improvisation.
Her article on June Watanabe’s Noh-influenced collaboration with Leslie Scalapino won the Emerging
Scholars Award from the Association for Asian Performance.

Featured

Eliot Schain

May 26, 2020

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In Eliot Schain’s latest collection, The Distant Sound (Sixteen Rivers Press 2020), we enter a type of concert where the poet conducts his many memories. From a truck stop men’s room to the Chez Paree, from Gallery 41 of the Uffizi Museum to a Mexican town, each memory brings a new story, a new world. But for me, personally, it hardly matters what the memory is because the music that takes me there is so compelling. The rhythm and flow of his language pull me through each poem like a breeze pulls a kite. “As all the Heavens were a Bell, / and Being, but an Ear…” (Emily Dickinson), reads the epigraph to this book; it is a perfect place to begin.

But don’t let my appreciation of his music diminish the power of his words — some brilliant choices — or the meanings they convey.

Kazim Ali writes “The smaller the moments of a life become epic and transcendent through the attentions of the poet’s mind. This is Eliot Schain’s gift. Nothing is ordinary — not an old friendship from youth, not a spouse of many years. Everything is seen keenly and anew.”

Eliot Schain is the author of Westering Angels and American Romance. His poems have appeared in American Poetry Review and Ploughshares, as well as several anthologies. He received his MFA from Columbia University and has worked as a teacher and psychotherapist.

Here are just a few poems from The Distant Sound beginning with the opening poem. I can’t do justice when it comes to representing the wide range of work between the first page of this book and the last, but you’ll at least have a taste, or a tune. Your comments will be welcomed.

.

The Old Shepherd

When the sound took me out of the house and into the yard

it grew wings and en-colored like that lofty earth-bird

who will not flee us so I stayed close to the sound

and the nerve within that was always trembling

trembled again until I closed in on the ghosts

and their kind voices and empty forms so close to mine

like those cracks in the universe leaking still more color

until I could not what we call see but could feel and hear

so I followed the sound as if drinking from the chalice again

and continued through the city with its warrens and cafes

and old homes carved out of nothing as is everything

and then moved on to the countryside where lakes became

eyes dotting the earth’s skin to lure me deeper into sound.

.

.

God and Creek

.

When Jon was eight and went to the creek shaded by cottonwoods

in a distant city on the American Plain he was flooded b the miracle

.

of going home as the dappled light and the toads near the water and

the depressions in the ground that welcomed his bare toes reminded

.

his bones — though they would last a long, long time — that what would

make him a man was in the sound that comes by night or in those soft

.

corners of the day when the claptrap and the frittering are left behind…

he placed his palms to the surface of that drifting water and its church

.

came into him as it would forever onward — for what is maturation but

swelling reverence for this home we were given by some odd divine

.

who chose us to be both urn and ashes and so Jon accepted his town and

pecked with the others at what we might become but always remembered

.

the water from which the toads and the cottonwoods and all our gods

build their beautiful echoes with gates so we can be both human and free.

.

.

Rebuttal

after Robert Frost

.

When I was a boy to climb a tree

was the easiest way to unhook from sorrow —

the firm feel of wood to lean upon

and leverage for some greater height

as one goes up was sweeter

than what I’d found on common ground

searching among fallen fruits and nuts

for something that would get me so I could eat.

The sky was an inkling of some greater park

with fantastic swings and deeper pools

as the branches thinned and the wind revived.

The thrill of going higher was closer to truth

than some classroom where boys and girls played

like cheap toys and broke if handled ardently.

I preferred ardent about the sky,

and thus am here alone, just timberline,

still climbing, my old friends like

branches suspending me as I head for heaven

which is the best place for love.

.

Featured

Maureen O’Connor

May 14, 2020

“I’m nobody! Who are you?

Are you nobody, too?”

This quote by Emily Dickinson topped the short bio Maureen O’Connor provided me for this posting. Why is she “nobody?” Well, she just isn’t. There are so many good poets in the world whose work rarely or never sees the light of day. Buffalo poet, O’Connor, may be one of them simply because she has chosen not to spend time submitting her work for publication. Fortunately for me, I heard her read before the Big Bug hit the world and asked her to send me some poems to include on WordTemple.

O’Connor’s first poem was published in a Kenmore/Tonawanda schools anthology when she was 11 years old. Two other poems were published in anthologies in the 1990s and now, after retiring from the US Customs Service in the port of Buffalo after 35 years of hard work, she is back to writing. Yay!

In speaking of her writing practice, she says: I have no writing practice or discipline, no sacred place dedicated to writing. Sometimes I wake up with lines wanting a poem. Words, phrases, occasionally whole thoughts materialize from the silences in life. If I’m lucky, they are captured. If I’m really lucky, they become poems.

“I don’t write about politics, although I’m political. I don’t write about current events. World events need time to be digested, and distance for perspective because of their significance can pale and fade. Unless something timeless in them can be teased out and applied universally. Personal events, though, often need therapy or even just require sharing, which writing can provide. Road trips, family (good, bad, ugly), dreams, health, aging, memories. If my therapy or sharing resonates with another, then I am pleased. Other than that, I just write, now and then, because the words say I must.”

Here are two poems by Maureen O’Connor. Please feel free to post comments after reading them.

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Maidenhead Revised: A Hyman Hymn

.

Much of history depended on

a thin veil of skin

whether or not penetrated

by the sanctioned member

at the appointed time and place

.

Treaties were made of it

Nations rose from it

provided the bride’s blood

spotted the wedding night’s sheets

.

The terrible mystery women bear

because we carry

our sex deep within

not dangling precariously

out of control

.

Science doesn’t know what the hymen’s for

Evolutionary vestige

from before we stood upright

our sex more exposed

to each other

to the elements

to the earth

Perhaps

.

Medicine tells us

it’s no proof of virginity

as culture and religion assert

We should mourn the girls

banished or killed

for their fathers’ honor

for lacking purity’s proof

.

I never lost my virginity

as if it were a thing to lose

or a thing to hold

like breath, or spite

.

I knew exactly where it was

would not hold it like breath

and turn blue

in defiance of nature

Unlike the onset of my fertility

this I had control over

so

.

I welcomed the warm entrance

trusting the impossibly green eyes

my fists full of his long dark hair

this musician, bass player

with knowledge and rhythm

in his finger tips

.

I saw the silent fireworks

moved to their bursting

celebrating what bodies

together do

what minds together know

.

I regret nothing except

not keeping the love poems

he left layered among my

bras and panties in their drawer

and tucked into the toes

of the shoes on my closet floor

.

I sometimes regret

when wistfulness overcomes

not going to New Zealand with him

where we’d be well paid

to raise children and sheep

I didn’t mind the idea of

moving, or even the sheep

it was the children

that long ago paused

and corrected me

.

a small regret

a larger gratitude

.

.

Mennonites on the Beach

.

Some things need to go together

This piece was three in my head

now like the trinity, it is one

It’s what happens when you write

in your mind while driving through

the hills and curves of Appalachia

.

You pass one church town

wonder if diversity to them

is at least two churches

of different denominations

and what if one is Catholic

or even a Temple

.

You watch clouds ahead

some not so subtle in their dress grays

scraping hill tops

breaking open blisters of rain

You pull over at the rest stop

take their picture, then drive on

.

You see the literal light

at the end of the tunnel

through that mountain in Pennsylvania

worrying about the truck

tailgating you on its way

to a Home Depot somewhere

.

You turn off satellite radio

even though you can get Public Radio

and BBC News the entire trip

don’t even play the CDs

carefully selected as traveling soundtrack

because road noise gives a

rhythm to your thoughts

.

You think about your body

that it says No to your mind

so often lately, so loudly

wondering how many

trips like this

you’ll be able to make

.

You think about serial killers

all truck drivers are suspect

You never thought about

serial killing truck drivers

when you were younger

not that you’re afraid now

just that you never

gave thought to fear then

.

You think about the Mennonites on the beach

you’d seen them there last time at Cape May

Men sporting male privilege

in jeans and checked short-sleeved shirts

Women plain, modest in ankle length

pastel dresses, sheer caps

over their bound up hair

.

Even the little girls, in long dresses

calf-deep in the ocean

their boy counterparts in shorts and Ts.

You think of how those skirts

would weigh them down to the depths

Ophelias with braids down their backs

.

You know Modesty lights in the eyes

of those tempted, unable or unwilling

to curb their primal urges

in the feminine presence

.

You shake your fist figuratively

at the clear sky, intake sharply

the salted air each wave deposits

on the shore, dig your toes

into the sand centuries built up

.

You want to ask them

Am I not modest in jeans

and T-shirt, size large

Hair free to knot and snarl

in this off-shore wind

Am I not plain enough

in my freedom

then you remember

you are old

past being tempting

or tempted

.

You watch those little girls and boys

grab plastic pails and shovels

dig into wet sand

build castles

.

You watch the jean and checked shirt

men fly kites in the same wind

that whips your hair

.

You hear the women laugh

with each other, the same way

you laugh with women friends

recognizing the confidences

.

You re-mind yourself

talk unflinchingly to your bad self by name

“O’Connor

shut up you judgmental bitch,

everyone enjoys a day at the beach”

.

You think more on it

that we’re really all turtle hatchlings

making our separate ways

over the sands, dodging hungry birds

to our first homes in the sea.

.

Featured

Kathleen Winter

April 30, 2020

I’ve always enjoyed the poetry of Kathleen Winter, author of three collections. You can get a taste of her tremendous wit and daring just by looking at the book titles: Nostalgia for the Criminal Past (Elixir Press, 2012); I will not kick my friends (Elixir Press, 2018) and, most recently Transformer (The Word Works, 2020). She’s always struck me as a poet who takes us to familiar places in ways we haven’t experienced before. There is passion in her work, yes; there is intelligence in her work, yes; there is humor and grief for sure, but there is also something I recognize as the Kathleen Winter edge, always.

“…Winter isn’t afraid to archly remind us that ‘gentle’ isn’t always gentle, but the means to break a horse.'” Rebecca Hazleton

Winter’s first collection, Nostalgia for the Criminal Past, won the Texas Institute of Letters Bob Bush Memorial Award and the Antivenom Poetry Prize. Her second collection, I will not kick my friends, won the Elixir Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Poetry Society of America Award, The Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson Award and the Ralph Johnston Fellowship at University of Texas’s Dobie Paisano Ranch.

Transformer is the perfect title for her latest collection. In turning the pages we witness transformation over and over again — whether it’s within the emotion-packed worlds of trauma and violence against women, or the incidents of Winter’s own life blended with historical figures like Henry VIII, or even the pace in which the poems travel through time and place. Some of the topics of the poems may seem difficult to read — during the time of this Covid pandemic we can’t help but be reminded of domestic violence waged against women in quarantine with their abusers — but the brilliant, truly powerful language Winter uses to shed the truest light on the darkest corners pulls us in and makes us grateful for having spent time there with her. The epigraph for the book is a quote by the magnificent poet Larry Levis, and it is perfect:

I am the nicest guy in the world,

closing his switchblade and whistling.

“This world is full of knives and slaps, slammed doors, and cruel words…It can seem there is no escape, but the poems in Transformer are spells to bind this violence. Winter binds it with her exquisite knots of interlocking rhyme and rhythm, binds it with her transfixing imagery…These are poems for a new wave of activism, one rooted in telling the truth, in demanding to be believed, in tearing down a silent wall of fear one line at a time.” — Kathleen Nuernberger

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Like so many fine books of poetry being released during our current quarantine, Transformer may not be getting the attention it deserves. For more information, you can visit wordworksbooks.org. Please feel free to leave your comments on this WordTemple post or send me any questions. Here now are a few poems from Transformer.


Finally, the girls

just have to talk about their hearts.

My heart keeps me up all night;

.

I’m extremely adjacent to it.

My heart’s the warm helium core,

.

I’m a thin film of rubber

which keeps it from escaping into

.

rain that’s more fast footsteps than

hands, more rockslide is my heart

.

as it makes itself felt, a horse

in a restaurant corridor,

.

blocking the bathroom.

How many times did I

.

try to deport it with poisons —

liquid, pills, or granular —

.

but my heart is myriad nests

recurring like fire ants in the yard

.

or in seams between river rocks

that form the porch’s floor.

.

Louder than storm or dream

my heart accelerates

.

in the tail lights, mass of leather-legged

leather-jacketed long-haired

.

or hairless bikers — how many?

fifty sixty seventy? I pull

.

to the shoulder, it keeps streaming —

foreign & familiar, I can’t think

.

of anything else till it’s over.

.

.

Watery Lord

Circles & circles of sorrow

where I let myself go. Narcissus,

I says, you are one sensitive

creature. No one else

can see your wrinkles.

I squint, they magnify.

On the surface find reflections

of hieroglyphic branches,

dead of alder asking:

Can’t I ride the shaft of time,

not be caught in its cycles

like flotsam in a whirlpool,

sport of greater forces?

Flocked by famishing

attendants, cormorant seducers,

I opened a weather eye. Young,

I wrestled with my executioner.

Circles & circles, the mob

surged in to see. Young, I was

the Antichrist of Ingratitude.

Now try to stop my mouth

from saying Please

and Thank you to the air.

.

.

South Huntington Apartments

And you were breathless in the laundry room.

Hiding behind a closet door, ajar. Listening

for him to take the cellar stairs. Is it possible he was frightened

he might kill you? You could see his shoes through the strip

between hinges, high-tops that looked innocent even

when he kicked you. Rounded rubber

at the toes is stiff, can bruise a shin thigh

— hell, what’s not soft enough to blacken

when you’re twenty-four. Your ears, eyes

are accurate, are sharp and clear. You stare

at green laces wrapped over his ankles.

Horses drown in the molasses time

that floods a shadow-tinted room.

Until his fear spins him around

and up the cement stairs, a chemical wind

rising to find some spark to light it. Three flights up

he sprints but you just need to gain one floor to leave.

You just need one story

and it isn’t his.

.

.

Featured

Joseph Zaccardi

April 16, 2020

I’m pleased to introduce a few poems by Joseph Zaccardi today. The author of five collections of poetry, including his recently published The Weight of Bodily Touches (Kelsay Books), Zaccardi served as Marin County, CA’s poet laureate from 2013 to 2015. During his tenure he edited and published the anthology Changing Harm to Harmony: Bullies & Bystanders Project. In his thoughtful introduction to the anthology, he tells us that he learned the word harm comes from the Old English, meaning grief, sorrow and physical injury, while harmony, a much older word, comes from Latin, meaning a joining. “My goal then,” he writes” was to find a way to change what I believe is harmful to both perpetrator and victim; to bring about a harmonious interaction between two words whose meanings have no basis for comparison.” All proceeds from the sale of the book went to the Marin Poetry Center’s High School Poetry Program, bringing poetry to students and teachers, informing them of the consequences of bullying, and to the Spectrum LGBT Center, an organization that promotes acceptance, understanding and full inclusion for LGBT people. Why do I tell you about an anthology published several years ago? To give you just a small idea of the intelligence and compassion behind Zaccardi’s work, whether it be writing his own poems or calling for poetry by others for both meaning and transformation.

When asked what started his passion for poetry, Zaccardi says that poetry first came alive for him in the 6th grade when his teacher, Sister Francesca, gave him a small book of poems by WC. Williams; a gift, alas, that he has lost.

“At times a gut punch, at times a gentle stroke, The Weight of Bodily Touches is felt deeply from first to last. Here Joseph Zaccardi shares with us his remarkable views of the weight of the world on humans. Like the mother who ‘digs up her (stillborn) child’s scaffold of white bones,’ we may find ourselves returning repeatedly to certain poems because they have become part of our being and we cannot let them go.” — Matthew J. Spireng, author of What Focus Is and Out of Body.

Here now are just a few poems from The Weight of Bodily Touches.

.

.

Girl with Mandolin

.

Elaine touches the scar where the surgeon cut through her sternum runs her

finger over the raised red artistry that divided her body the way Picasso unbridled

paintings to graft an art closer to life and she explained how the medical team

pried open her chest how they used her radial arteries to make a bypass and

how the stitches on her arms left trace lines from elbow to wrist that are smooth

nearly opaque and she tells me about the store clerk who asked if she tried to kill

herself who did not know the ancients pecked into patina of stone and chiseled

with antlers their message why did he say such a thing she asks me and am I

upset that a scalpel could craft such brilliance and then she struck the fretted

fingerboard of her mandolin bringing the fullness of its sound to me from its

hollow wooden cage and we who were separate are brought together our rooms

and walls taken away.

.

.

To Feast on the Flesh of Decay

.

Suppose first light spikes between limbs of the black ash

into the dog kennel where hounds brace their paws

against chain links and their spittle turns to vapor

as the farmer brings them water and a kettle of scraps

then goes back to the main house to help his wife in labor

and suppose he genuflects and counts her rapid breaths

and feels the thrum of blood move through her body

his trousers’ knees and shirt sleeves wet as he waits

to catch the stillborn they’ve named Maia of the Angels

while outside a breeze rattles the wheat stalks and stirs

the chaff left on the field hayed days before it flowered

suppose this farmer returns to the barn for a shovel

to bury their child and in the rafters hears the rustle

of rats in the loft while his hounds bay to stalk a fox

while his wife Marta wraps their baby in white cloth

if you think everything disappears fully think again

suppose come late spring she digs up her child’s

scaffold of white bones and presses them to her breast

to suckle her loss and what if she eats the grave dust

under her own nails and what if he farmer does

what needs doing back in the hayloft

by pushing down a bale of fodder

for the milk cows.

.

.

The Sound the Tree Makes

.

.

The tree fell in the forest because of deep freeze the tree fell because it was

another day because of gravity the tree fell soundless onto shoulder-high snow

the tree fell because the wind swirled because of root rot termite buggery

because its torso was girded by bark beetles because the phloem and xylem

dried the tree fell because it was time for it to fall it fell and the sound echoed and

birds rose from their roosts the sound was train-like crushing thunderous the tree

fell in slow motion black and white silent the tree fell because a lumberjack yelled

timber because it was first growth old diseased the tree resting on the ground

was delimbed by chain saws was cut into logs by bucking the trunk from butt to

crown was dragged on a skid trail from forest to flatbed truck strapped down and

hauled to the mill the outer bark skinned denuded with grinding wheels the tree

was sized under a circular saw’s buzz was kiln dried planed trimmed smoothed

graded and banded the tree gave out a great scream when it was felled that

could be heard by other trees in the next county but in some counties could not

be heard at all.

Featured

Thomas Centolella

April 6, 2020

One of the many poets I had the privilege of hearing read at the WordTemple Poetry Series was San Francisco poet Thomas Centolella. I remember sitting in the front row thinking “He’s one of the magicians.” What did I mean by that? He wasn’t pulling a rabbit out of a hat or sawing a costume-clad woman in half, but as he read one poem after another I found myself asking How did he do that?

In Robert Bly’s Leaping Poetry, he says his idea of art “often has at its center a long floating leap, around which the work of art in ancient times used to gather itself like steel shavings around the magnet. But a work of art does not necessarily have at its center a single long floating leap. The work can have many leaps, perhaps shorter. The real joy of poetry is to experience this leaping inside a poem. A poet who is ‘leaping’ makes a jump from an object or idea soaked in unconscious substance to an object or idea soaked in conscious psychic substance. What is marvelous is to see this leaping return in poetry of this century…Thought of in terms of language…leaping is the ability to associate fast.”

So, yes, I think these leaps have something to do with the magic I find in Centolella’s work; that and a good dose of passion.

Thomas Centolella is the author of four books of poetry: Terra Firma (Copper Canyon Press), selected by Denise Levertov for the National Poetry Series and winner of the American Book Award; Lights & Mysteries (Copper Canyon Press), winner of the California Book Award from the Commonwealth Club; Views from along the Middle Way (Copper Canyon Press); and Almost Human (Tupelo Press), winner of the Dorset Prize, selected by Edward Hirsch.

Centolellla was given a Lannan Literary Award in Poetry in 1992 and a Lannan Residency in 2000. A former Wallace Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has taught creative writing and literature for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Here are a few poems by Thomas Centolella. Your comments, as always, will be appreciated.

.

Evensong

I could have gone this evening to evensong.

Watched the light from a star on its way to dust

arrive at my cathedral’s nave, collaborate

with colored glass, and dazzle the congregation.

But it’s all paled for me, the luminous, the legendary

lives of saints (alleged to be as human as us

but impossibly strong). And my idea of exaltation?

A grunting old woman with grocery bags, her own joints

nearly leaden, trudging in from the street

not so much to be delivered from evil

as to get out of the cold and off her swollen feet.

.

I could have gone to evensong and joined the singers

from my choice seat near the sanctuary,

in that pew where another woman (exempt from pain

because much younger, one of fate’s loveliest chosen few)

let my long fingers stroke her long fingers,

and settled her fragrant head on my shoulder

in full view of the bishop — whose smile,

though benign as a saint’s, was a far cry

from laughter, as if we embodied the kingdom

and the power and the glory

he had always hungered after.

.

No surprise that I go to evensong anyway

when I close my eyes. I go out of spite, and irk the mild clergy

with my black leather jacket and the godless smirk

that says faith is for suckers — one of the Dark Prince’s

minions, now that I have fallen further

than I ever intended…But above a steady pilot light

fragrant herbs are steeping to balance my humors

(she used to joke I resembled a medieval saint),

and when did I ever feel completely at home

among the cynical one-note gloom-and-doomers?

And the voices I hear when I’m this alone

.

(somewhere between a locked ward

and a choir primed for heaven)

make their own kind of music

in their own sweet time,

and keep me even.

.

.

The Art of Preservation

Morning, the way mornings used to be

before those brilliant few days

when light would stir our sleeping bodies

like revelation. Early morning, the rooms

in half-tones, and I’m holding in my left hand

as if it were some kind of evidence

my own heart: encased in a pouch

of the latest plastic, murky in its own

dark blood: the art of preservation.

Those fine yellow words

from the manufacturer — are they instructions

or a warning? How calm I’ve become,

pale in the bathroom mirror, a casualty

that by all rights should not even be

breathing, much less on my feet.

On my left side there’s the slender bruise,

reddish purple, where my heart (to be replaced?

transplanted?) was deftly removed. Obviously

the operation is incomplete. What I need to do

is reinsert it — it’s getting late,

I’ve got to get to get to work. I keep thinking:

This is a dream, it ought to be easy,

it should slip right back in-between my ribs…

And wonder to behold, it does.

Then the alarm goes off: it’s morning

time again to go to work. I check my side

in the bathroom mirror: I’m fine,

more or less. Just a little scar

like expensive silk. Just a little tenderness.

.

.

“In the Evening We Shall be Examined on Love”

— St. John of the Cross

And it won’t be multiple choice,

though some of us would prefer it that way.

Neither will it be essay, which tempts us to run on

when we should be sticking to the point, if not together.

In the evening there shall be implications

our fear will change to complications. No cheating,

we’ll be told, and we’ll try to figure the cost of being true

to ourselves. In the evening when the sky has turned

that certain blue, blue of exam books, blue of no more

daily evasions, we shall climb the hill as the light empties

and park our tired bodies on a bench above the city

and try to fill in the blanks. And we won’t be tested

like defendants on trial, cross-examined

till one of us breaks down, guilty as charged. No,

in the evening, after the day has refused to testify,

we shall be examined on love like students

who don’t even recall signing up for the course

and now must take their orals, forced to speak for once

from the heart and not off the top of their heads.

And when the evening is over and it’s late,

the student body asleep, even the great teachers

retired for the night, we shall stay up

and run back over the questions, each in our own way:

what’s true, what’s false, what unknown quantity

will balance the equation, what it would mean years from now

to look back and know

we did not fail.

Featured

Olga Karman

March 27, 2020

Olga Karman was born in Havana, Cuba and lived there until she was twenty years and two months old. Her teenage years coincided with Fidel Castro’s armed struggle and eventual rise to power. “How exciting it was listening to Radio Rebelde every night over our short wave radio. I was in the crowd welcoming Fidel to Havana in 1959, but I was so emocionada when Fidel passed by on a tank that I forgot to pitch the flowers I had brought for el màximo lider.”

Karman left Cuba in 1960 and lived in North Stonington, an isolated part of Connecticut very distant from vibrant Havana, from her uncle’s farm where she’d gathered mangoes and guavas to feed the pigs. To save herself from the emptiness of North Stonington and the torment of a miserable marriage, she resumed her college education at nearby Connecticut College for Women. As a part-time commuter with a nine-month-old daughter, she was “an oddity” in 1963. When she graduated in 1966 with letters of acceptance from Princeton and Harvard, the news hit the local paper. “It made no sense to my neighbor Judy. ‘Funny,’ she said over the phone, ‘you don’t look that smart.'” Karman received her Ph.D. in 1976.

Karman moved to Buffalo from Boston in 1976 where her first poem was published in The Buffalo News. “Knowing it was coming, I jogged to the 7-11 in my pajamas very early that Sunday morning, grabbed the paper, opened it to the poetry page and proclaimed out loud to the 4 or 5 men who had dragged themselves there, although they were not completely sober yet: ‘My poem is here!’ I read it for them and, in return, they did not allow me to pay for the paper. They were my first and last paying public.”

Karman is the author of two chapbooks, a memoir, Scatter My Ashes Over Havana, and some short stories. “I give readings all over the place. My jig is almost up. My twin and I will turn 80 this September. Stay tuned for our fiesta con mùsica cubana in California.

.

.

A Cuban Spends an Evening with a Real American

.

The tall, thin man in the checkered wool shirt

is the son of a son of a Pilgrim

a Mayflower man.

Notice the tapered fingers.

His black-and-tan Setters run

in ferns and moss, laurel and fir.

Ideal Setters in an ideal

New Hampshire pine forest.

.

All is old in this Winnipeasaukee house.

Everyone is well-rooted in Tidewater past

and Connecticut rectories. The thin cups

are from the mission years in China.

.

The sun sets, evening opens.

We bring the basket

to the round oak table

and begin to match

our pick of mushrooms

to the glossy illustrations

in the Audubon Field Guide.

He names the Yellow Chanterelles,

The Old Man of the Woods,

the Yellow Amanita (“don’t touch that one!”)

— one mushroom per page, pristine, exotic.

I’m learning a new world and a new word.

Mycologist.

.

After dinner, he shows me

family photos of refined ladies

and towering gentlemen, laughing girls

almost tipping an Indian canoe,

a small black dog from a vanished breed.

.

I can see my island far away,

flying trees, exposed roots

and fallen birds’ nests

in a September hurricane

that has left almost nothing standing.

.

.

Couscous

Morning song

of mortar and pestle

on strong cumin seed

(I am bringing you lunch)

Sweet song of red currant,

cinnamon bark for fragrance

(Your dogs will run to my hands)

Aroma of turmeric from China or India

(Damp fieldstones the path)

Tomatoes: pulp, juice, and seeds

(From the porch the finches will sing)

The sharpness of scallions

(The house will be dark.

In the rooms,

the spirits of leaves

remembrance of rain.)

Smell, I will say, the cumin.

Let the grains slip through your hand,

prayer beads, bits of sand.

We will taste. We will quicken

the beams in your house.

The floorboards and sills

Will come level and plumb.

.

.

Bibì

.

Starched white uniform

scented with violet water

hairnet in place

Bibì watches over us

from the wicker chair

she tucks in the sand

under the almond trees.

.

8 o´clock, the ocean pastel blue

.

Bobby and I press

our molds into the sand.

¨Look, Bibì,

Bobby made a starfish!”

and then Bobby pulls on her hem,

.

“Bibì, Olguita made an octopus, mirà!”

.

She buries her soles deeper

into the cool sand and sings us

a lullaby I will hum into old age

.

Tengo una muñeca vestida de azul

con zapatos blancos y medias de tul.

.

I have a doll all dressed in blue

with white shoes on and socks of tulle

.

.

Featured

Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn in Translation

March 19, 2020

“Without translation, I would be limited to the borders of my own country. The translator is my most important ally. He introduces me to the world.”

Italo Calvino

The translation of poetry from one language to another is a daunting, some would say impossible, task. Some words in one language may not exist in another. How is meaning protected in such cases? Rhythm is crucial in many works of poetry — a changed rhythm can destroy intention. Given these challenges, among others, who in their right mind would set themselves to the hard work of translation? Fortunately for us, three individuals — Terry Ehret, John Johnson and Nancy J. Morales — have done just that and, as a result, introduce to us Plagios/Plagiarisms — Volume One (Sixteen Rivers Press, 2020), poems by Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn. Graced with an introduction by the great Octavio Paz (written in 1978), the collection wisely presents de Leòn’s poetry bilingually. Personally, I won’t buy a book of translated Spanish poems unless I can read, out loud, the original work first. In this way I can fully appreciate the sounds as they were meant to be heard. How more intimate with a poem can we be than when it is rolling around in our mouths?

Ulalume Gonzàlez de Leòn was born in 1928 in Uruguay; the daughter of two poets, Roberto Ibañez and Sarah de Ibañez. She studied literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Mexico. While living in Mexico in 1948, she became a naturalized Mexican citizen. She published essays, stories, poems, and worked with Mexican poet and Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz as an editor of two literary journals, Plural and Vuelta. She also translated the work of H.D., Elizabeth Bishop, Ted Hughes, Lewis Carroll and e.e. cummings.

In the 1970s in Latin America, Gonzàlez de Leòn was part of a generation of women writers challenging the traditional identities of women, marriage, and relationships. Her poetry earned earned her many awards, including the Xavier Villaurrutia Prize, the Flower of Laura Poetry Prize, and the Alfonso X. Prize. She died in 2009 of respiratory failure and complications of Alzheimer’s.

Why is the book titled Plagios/Plagiarisms? de Leòn says “Everything is creation: I choose to say even what has already been said, which is different now, transformed by that accumulation of convergent data at whose point of intersection I find myself. And everything is plagiarism. Everything has already been said.”

The collection, the first of three bilingual volumes, presents several short collections of her poems produced from 1968 to 1971, exploring the ephemeral nature of identity and its dependence on the ever-shifting ground of language and memory.

Here now, are a few poems from Plagios/Plagiarisms, presented first in Spanish and then in English. I invite your comments.

.

Carta de Una Suicida

Toda lo perdido

nuestro para siempre

a prueba de vida,

a prueba de muerte.

.

Hoy soñe que ayer

era diferente

y me despertè

para no perderte.

.

Hoy soñe que era

lo mismo mañana:

por tenerte siempre

me morì en la cama.

.

.

Suicide Note

All that’s lost

is ours forever,

life-proof,

death-proof.

.

Today I dreamed that yesterday

was different

and I woke up

so I wouldn’t lose you.

.

Today I dreamed it was

the same tomorrow:

to keep you always,

I died in bed.

.

Tiempo Largo

Dominical

sin lunes a la vista

viscoso

largo tiempo

Y el terror de tener que gastarlo

sin prisa que comerlo

sin hambre: terror de estar en blanco

en Babia prisionera

de un vuelo de mosca o de un cardillo

porque no tengo tiemp para inventar el mundo.

.

Slow Time

Like a Sunday

with no Monday in sight

thick

slow time.

.

And the terror of having to spend it

without hurry to eat it

without hunger: the terror of drawing a blank

while daydreaming prisoner of the flight

of a fly or thistledown

because I don’t have time to invent the world.

.

Acto Amoroso

En las caricias lentas

a altas velocidades me inventas y te invento

Y en seguida perdemos nuestros cuerpos

con todo y fantasma

.

Love Scene

In slow caresses

at lightning speed you create me and I create you

And all at once we lose our bodies

ghost and all

.

.

Translators:

Nancy J. Morales, a first-generation American of Puerto Rican parents, earned her bachelor’s degree from Rutgers College, a master’s in teaching English as a Second Language from Adelphi University, and a doctorate in education from Teacher’s College at Columbia University. She has taught at Dominican University College of Marin, Sonoma State University, and other schools. Currently she is a board member for the Northern California Chapter of the Fulbright Alumni Association and teaches Spanish to private clients.

John Johnson’s poetry has appeared in many print and online journals, including Boxcar; Poetry Review; Clade Sog; Triggerfish Critical Review; and Web Connections. He is a long-time student of the Spanish language and has studied letter-press printing with Iota Press of Sebastopol, producing chapbooks and bilingual broadsides.

Terry Ehret, one of the founders of Sixteen Rivers Press, has published four collections of poetry, most recently Night Sky Journey from Kelly’s Cove Press. Her literary awards include the National Poetry Series, the California Book Award, the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize, a nomination for the Northern California Book Reviewer’s Award, and five Pushcart Prize nominations. From 2004 — 2006, she served as the poet laureate of Sonoma County where she lives and teaches writing.

Featured

Patrick Cahill

March 11, 2020

Continuing with our mission of highlighting a few poets who have new books that were presented to a diminished audience at AWP this year due to the Coronavirus, we move on to San Francisco poet Patrick Cahill. To have Cahill’s poems available to us in his new collection The Machinery of Sleep is to remind us of the importance of small presses, in this case Sixteen Rivers, a shared-work, nonprofit poetry collective. And after witnessing Cahill work laboriously for years to publish poets as co-founder and editor of Ambush Review, a San Francisco-based literary and arts journal, it’s high time we get to celebrate his own powerful poems. I’ve admired his work for years, as I’m sure you will.

Cahill received his Ph.D. in History of Consciousness from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and wrote a study of Whitman and visual experience in nineteenth-century America. Portions of the work appearing in The Machinery of Sleep have appeared in The Daguerreian Annual and Left Curve. He lives in San Francisco where he volunteers with the San Francisco Recreation & Park in habitat restoration.

Following is the “blurb” I wrote for the back cover of his book:

“Enter Patrick Cahill’s The Machinery of Sleep and you enter a marvel of a world consumed by dreams, memories, deep observation, love, death, and more. With great artistry, sometimes sharp-edged, sometimes extraordinarily tender, Cahill brings us poems of astonishing range: wise and poignant, heartbreaking, life-affirming, and sometimes humorous. He is a master of marrying emotion with craft — not one word is wasted, not one more word is required. We read these words and travel far — from ‘Q’s world (MIA)’, based on ‘conversations…with an acquaintance who spends time in another world’ (‘Shawn occupies three bodies now’) to ‘The Poet Ponders His Lot’ (‘The mouse speaks English, but squeaks in French…a motor mouth to boot. But cute.’) to ‘She fled with the moment’ (‘even the arabesque of her wingless flight / the fragrant air / that circumscribed her memory / of water ice and snow / fled the universal dark / and nameless matter / of which she was herself / an infinitesimal dot’). The Machinery of Sleep is a collection that will hold you from the first line until the last, for there is so much richness here, so much brilliance end to end and back again.” — Katherine Hastings

Let’s move on now to a few elegiac poems from The Machinery of Sleep. Your comments are always welcome.

.

Gone

you a composition of desire even in the fog star

jasmine burdens the air, its fragrance a devious substitute

yes, even in the fog

.

take us to your Russia, Natalya your frozen sun blurring

its migrations of snow, those blue and senseless distances

Natalya take us from these disappearing surfaces

.

we’ve ground the lenses for clarity for poetry makes

nothing happen yet Spinoza inhaled the powdered glass

of his trade and died of it

.

have you ever pined for the perfect role rolled for the

perfect dream dreamed the perfect mountain where the pine its

garland weaves woven the perfect sacrificial mountain tree

.

the moving air moved through your reflection beyond the

window above the walk the living too moved through

you I looked right through them to traffic beyond

.

then one day you began you began to disappear

lingering there behind me your reflection gone and if

I turn around one day, you won’t be there

.

Brief Time

In one of her self-

portraits

Frida Kahlo translates

her shattered spine

into a fluted

column

of broken stone

ten years

before her death

ars longa

vita brevis

Seneca’s translation

of Hippocrates

but in the original

art is the art

of medicine

and life this brief

poor allotment

given those

who hope to master

a most difficult art

.

Gone Astray

That bird flying into the future left us behind

what hallucinations fill those trees

gone astray in thought

you wait for a voice under the oak

beyond your expectations

or trace of where you’ve been

talus stealing the mountain trail

clouds moving their shadows across the slopes

our first language knitted in place

or twined around a vision

we amateurs amator amare

lover to love

.

Note: In the poem “Gone,” above, the first quotation is from W. H. Auden’s “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the second from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “To Jane: The Invitation.”

.

Featured

Four Poets for March beginning with Jane Hirshfield

March 4, 2020

As you all know by now, many of the poets and publishers who were scheduled to appear at the AWP conference in San Antonio this week have had to cancel due to concerns about the Coronavirus. It’s possible that by the time you read this post, the entire conference may be shut down. People who have cancelled their participation have done so unselfishly, not just worried about their own health but by the possibility of being vectors in the communities to which they will return. It is my hope that those of us who can will support poets and their publishers this month. So much hard work and expense has gone into the creation of many books that would have seen robust sales at the conference.

Today’s post will highlight the first of four poets with recent publications that I’ll be featuring over the next week or so: Jane Hirshfield. Future posts will include Patrick Cahill, Ulalume Gonzalez de Leon and Joseph Zaccardi.

Before moving on to Hirshfield’s work, however, I’d like to share one comment I received about the work of Buffalo poet Irene Sipos, WordTemple’s most recent highlight.

“Katherine, thanks for the introduction to Irene Sipos. Sometimes it amazes me to think how many fine, unrecognized poets and writers there are in the world. I especially enjoyed the imaginative quality of ‘Globe.’ One of those poems I wish I had written! ‘Election 2016’ was sobering and brought back some memories I’d rather forget, but that’s a sign of the effectiveness of the poem. I love the quoted sign from the Women’s March: ‘My arms are tired from holding this sign since the seventies.’ Isn’t that the truth! Thanks for your blog. It is so wonderful to hear your voice speaking about poetry (and I can hear it in my mind). It reminds me of the wonderful introductions you gave to poets who came to WordTemple.

— Jodi Hottel, Santa Rosa CA

Jane Hirshfield

I gave a heads up about a month ago that Jane Hirshfield has a new book coming out, her ninth, from Knopf. The book is Ledger and will be released on March 10. When I asked her to provide me with a personal statement about the collection, Hirshfield couldn’t help being her kind, generous self:

“I’ve so long admired the work Katherine Hastings does on behalf of poems and poets, from the time I was part of the launch reading of her WordTemple Poetry Series…in Sonoma County, until now: This new book, in turn, is trying to work on behalf of beings wordless, speechless…newts and old-growth cedars, spider monkeys and jumping spiders, rivers and marshes and mountains. They are of course also foundation stones, rafters, and windows of this temple we live in.” — Jane Hirshfield

Ledger has already been called “masterful” by Publisher’s Weekly and “clarion” by Booklist, in starred early reviews. The San Francisco Chronicle praises its ‘exploration of the capacity for life, its value and purpose.’ Knopf says this is a “book of personal, ecological and political reckoning…(it’s) center of gravity lies in poems that recount, and take account of, the crises of the biosphere and social justice. There are poems with other subjects as well — poems on wanting to be surprised, on reading a library book with previously turned-down pages, on the death of a friend of forty years. Hirshfield has come to stand among the ranks of our master poets. This new book, both tonic and essential, faces the challenges of the current world with acute tenderness and compassion, amid the abiding remembrance of shared fate.”

Here now are a few poems from Ledger by Jane Hirshfield. I welome your comments.

Let Them Not Say

Let them not say:   we did not see it.

We saw.

.

Let them not say:  we did not hear it.

We heard.

.

Let them not say:   they did not taste it.

We ate, we trembled.

.

Let them not say:   it was not spoken, not written.

We spoke,

we witnessed with voices and hands.

.

Let them not say:   they did nothing.

We did not-enough.

.

Let them say, as they must say something:

.

A kerosene beauty,

It burned.

.

Let them say we warmed ourselves by it,

read by its light, praised,

and it burned.

.

A Ream of Paper

I have a ream of paper,

a cartridge of ink,

.

almonds,

coffee,

a wool scarf for warmth.

.

Whatever handcuffs the soul,

I have brought here.

.

Whatever distances the heart,

I have brought here.

.

A deer rises onto her haunches

to reach for an apple,

though many fallen apples are on the ground.

.

Cataclysm

It begins subtly:

the maple

withdraws an inch from the birch tree.

.

The porcupine

wants nothing to do with the skink.

.

Fish unschool,

sheep unflock to separately graze.

.

Clouds meanwhile

declare to the sky

they have nothing to do with the sky,

which is not visible as they are,

.

nor knows the trick of turning

into infant, tumbling pterodactyls.

.

The turtles and moonlight?

Their long arrangement is over.

.

As for the humans.

Let us not speak of the humans.

Let us speak of their language.

.

The first person singular

condemns the second person plural

for betrayals neither has words left to name.

.

The fed consider the hungry

and stay silent.

Featured

Irene Sipos

February 19, 2020

One of the first poets I heard read in Buffalo was Irene Sipos. She was celebrating the release of her collection Stones (NFB Publishing, 2018) at one of my favorite bookstores, Talking Leaves on Elmwood Avenue. Between the poems she was reading and the way she presented them, the experience was a full-on delight.

“If stanza means ‘room,’ then there is perhaps no better form for Irene Sipos’s intimacies than these rooms of her own making, these lines of verse that hold — that host — family and friends. The poem in her practice is a hospitable act, inviting to the table as equals the newborn and the departed, welcoming memories of one, and hopes for the others.” — Andrew Rippeon, Visiting Assistant Professor of Literature, Hamilton College.

As you shall see, however, Sipos reaches beyond her immediate family and friends to a world we all recognize, sometimes with joy, sometimes with its opposite. In talking about the collection, she says “These are mostly poems of quotidian events sometimes illuminated by a flash of sunlight or darkened by a passing cloud. Some are laments for a broken world or meditations on how we could do better. All are invitations to look and listen.”

Here are three poems from Stones.

Election 2016

I

Maples leaves flutter gold, pin oak leaves

shimmer red, sun shines brightly, Bekah exclaims

that the air has turned iridescent pink.

.

At the corner we greet our friend and her daughter,

walking on their way to vote at the Unitarian church.

They wear borrowed pantsuits too big, floppy, at first

.

we don’t get it, then we laugh.  We also voted with

confidence this morning for our first woman president.

We hug and wish each other well.  By nightfall our

.

optimism is slipping.  Through the evening we worry

more, we wait anxiously for the final count at 3 a.m.

Next morning we startle awake from the nightmare that has just begun.

II

I lit three candles

in glass jars inviting fire.

The past is never dead

.

said Faulkner, it’s not even past.

We carry the weight and we repeat

mistakes: as a poster held high at

.

the Women’s March on Washington

read My arms are tired from holding

this sign since the seventies.

.

Sea salt & ginger, frosted snow, balsam

& cedar, I like diversity even in candles

whose gentle glow brings a memory of the

.

small fireplace in our carriage house 1977

which was framed by a mysterious fresco.

Vines dripped from the ceiling, owls and snakes

.

peered out from brown entangled branches.

The artist, we were told, had studied in Florence.

No heat or electricity, the blaze from this fire

.

warmed us through the famous blizzard.  We

concocted cowboy chili on the hearth where

we later curled up in sleeping bags, dreaming

.

as wind howled and embers crackled, of the

progress we believed to be unfolding in our time,

finally, toward social equality and peaceful compassion.

.

Forty years ago, dear marchers, what did we know?

.

Globe

We bought a globe at a bookstore

but did not anticipate that on the ride

home, salt water oceans would slosh

against the car doors, or that the spin

of the earth’s axis would make us dizzy.

.

that we would have to open the windows to try

to catch our breath.  I was impressed by how you

kept on driving in spite of the weight of the

tectonic plates as we changed lanes, how you

held lightly to the steering wheel regardless of

.

the shifting migration of mantles and how calmly

you turned on a classical radio station to take

the edge off negotiating traffic while we were

experiencing the axial tilt of our oblate spheroid

and my excitement in holding the world on my lap.

.

Stones

I place a small

stone on my father’s

marker flat to the ground

to say, your memory lasts

solid and enduring.

.

I place a small

stone on my father’s

flat to the ground

to say, rest peacefully

no need to ache and wander.

.

I place a small

stone on my father’s

marker flat to the ground

to say, this pebble, your name,

is carried in God’s sling

.

as long ago the stones of shepherds

tallied with the numbers

of the flock for safe-keeping

across mountain tops. I catch

strains of an ancient song as

.

I place a small

stone on my father’s

marker flat to the ground, that says,

There are men with hearts of stone

and stones with hearts of men.

.

As always, I look forward to receiving your comments at kfhastings (at sign) mac (dot) com.

Featured

Devreaux Baker

February 7, 2020

It has been my pleasure since about 2007 to know Mendocino poet Devreaux Baker. She is the author of five full-length collections of poetry, including Hungry Ghosts; out of the bones of earth; Red Willow People; Beyond the Circumstance of Sight; and Light at the Edge. She also co-edited, with Sharon Doubiago and Susan Maeder, Wood, Water, Air and Fire, The Anthology of Mendocino Women Poets.

Baker is the recipient of numerous awards and grants, including the 2017 Joe Gouveia Outermost National Poetry Prize, the 2014 Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Prize from the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, the 2012 Hawaii Council on Humanities International Poetry Prize, the 2011 PEN/Oakland Josephine Miles Poetry Award, and the 2010 Women’s Global Leadership Poetry Prize. She is a Fellow at the MacDowell Colony, the Hawthornden Castle and the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. She lives on the magnificent Mendocino Coast in Northern California.

I hope you’ll treat yourself now to two poems by Devreaux, the first from out of the bones of earth (Wild Ocean Press, 2015); the second from her most recent collection, Hungry Ghosts (Wild Ocean Press, 2018). Please send any comments or questions you have about the work to me at kfhastings (at sign) mac (dot) com.

NOSTALGIA FOR THE RAIN

It began with a tin roof

sounds like silver sticks

falling from air

a dash of bird feet

despair or love at all the edges

It began with a car

gleaming bumpers

wind shield wipers forming a pattern

of lost and found

the truth of the seen versus

the unseen

It began with a picnic

wicker basket of fruit

grass still dazed from a sudden

shower

It was spring

or was it fall

the brush of winter

woven into scarves

It arrived in the blue smell

at the base of clouds

became a dark thought

fell in torrents

released us from ourselves

It began with a mattress

on the cabin floor

the smell of wet pines

redwoods singing

in hidden groves

It came in a rush

unfolded wet knees

a vertebrae of desire

It began with your body

in the afternoon

the smell of rain

conjuring memories

silver sticks falling across

our shoulders

A dash of bird feet

on all the rooftops

of the world

STARDUST LOUNGE

My mother came for a visit

even though she died last spring.

She was standing by the foot of my bed

releasing vowels from the afterlife

smelling of moss and spring rain

on the tarmac.

Here we go again, old recipes and lectures,

I thought, stumbling out the door into the back yard

while the history of all forgotten things

was leaking out of her apron pockets

like the Andromeda strain or the Milky

Way filled with impossible features of dead stars.

All she really wanted was for me to follow

her lead in this shuffle-foot shim-sham, this

millennial foxtrot of flesh turning into

stardust, that long unwinding road

pale as beer made from wheat where

we all crowd into a room and wait for

the unmarked bus to transport us into the highlands

of the forever lands.  This is the way it feels

when she presses her hand against the small of my back.

The valley gorge that rests between my hips and heart

wakes up and smiles and even the smallest bones

like the swing when she says anything is possible

and I want to answer her but am lifted off my feet

shucking the chrysalis of my life, resurrecting the

boogie-woogie, dancing in the midnight arms

of her Stardust Lounge.

Featured

Responses to Charles Cote and Learning the Blog Biz

As I mentioned in my first entry last month, I’m new at blogging and will learn as I go. Hopefully, it won’t take too long before I can at least fake my way into something that looks like its supposed to look. “Just LOOK intelligent,” my mother told me as a child. I’ll try.

Responses to Charles Cote’s Poems

A few days ago, I posted three poems from I Play His Red Guitar by Rochester poet Charles Cote. If you read them and would like to send me a short response, please send it to kfhastings (at sign) mac (dot) com. Meanwhile, here are partial comments I received from two California poets, Gregory Randall and David Beckman. (Our cross-country conversations have begun!)

From Gregory Randall: I can see why you appreciate his work — it feels…graceful, felt, propulsive, no superfluous words and a rehabilitating of old forms to new needs. I’m eager to read more NY poets…It must take an incredibly evolved nature to turn the terrible and horrific into a poetry that can be shared and can endure (Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Hernandez…). And so, I re-read Charles Cote’s poems and realize how generous he must be to toil so hard on behalf of us, his readers, to turn his journey through loss into a journey we can all share.

From David Beckman: “I Curse You, Melanoma, Curse” is a controlled outburst of pain, driven by the courage to make of a poem a sieve through which pain is washed. For Cote, technique and vocabulary are in the service of life deeply lived and the white anger of its loss. “Tin Man Villanellle,” is a thrumming meditation on fear that both contains it and, if anything, deepens its hold…”Ultimately, these are poems that deliver what we yearn for: awe at the human spirit struggling under pressure and relief for its strength.

Other News

Congratulations, Gwynn O’Gara!

Sonoma County, California poet Gwynn O’Gara‘s new collection, Clio’s Daughter With Head on Fire has placed as a finalist in the Faulkner Society Poetry Collection contest and has won the Shirley Holden Helberg grant of $1,000 from the National League of American Pen Women, judged by Upstate New York poet Philip Memmer.

News from Jane Hirshfield

Jane Hirshfield tells me that her new book, Ledger, will be published by Penguin Random House with a publication date of March 10, 2020. Her first reading from the book will be held at the 92nd Street Y in New York City. More on this book soon.

Featured

January 25, 2020

Introducing: Charles Cote

One of the pleasures of moving to a new state has been the opportunity to hear and meet poets I had not been aware of in my old Northern California stomping grounds.  One of these poets is Charles Cote.  A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with him in a Rochester café where we shared stories and work.  It gives me great satisfaction now to introduce him to you.  I’ll begin with a statement from Cote himself about his remarkable collection, I Play His Red Guitar, followed by a few poems from the book. 

Gregory Orr writes that “poetry is the thread that leads us out of the labyrinth of despair and into the light.” Poems that emerge from crisis have the power to heal and re-stabilize us. That’s what I set out to do with this collection, to fashion a container for the chaos and grief of losing a son to cancer. Kim Addonizio in Ordinary Genius writes about Eckhart Tolle’s concept of the pain body, how our despair can be seductive, a perverse drama, and that art is a creative response, a way to transcend pain and come into the light. Rumi said, Become the light. So hopefully, the poems in I Play His Red Guitar sing toward the light. Not surprisingly, I’m teaching myself to play George Harrison’s Here Comes the Sun on my son’s red guitar, and I’d say it’s all right. My intention is to help others who are grieving a terrible loss to find some solace and light in the art of poetry and any form of creative writing, to share my book with bereavement groups across the country. David Whyte talks about how poetry initiates us into a conversation with profound silence which is a kind of liberation, the place we reconnect with our most authentic self so we don’t get lost in the chaos of everyday confusion. For me, that’s essential and why I write these kind of poems.

                                                                        — Charles Cote

I Curse You, Melanoma, Curse

your humidity and bitter taste,

your fattened spiders spoiling

in metastatic corners, curse

.

your rotting cinders and peeling paint,

walls that bear no weight,

curse your pumps and wasted gates,

.

the scourge of putrid shapes,

forsaken stink in Gehenna, blackened

moles and pock-marked face.

.

May you drown in the bile

of your clogging drains,

choke in coagulate bags,

.

die with tumors that gorge

and fester, wracked

by relentless spasms

.

and unbearable break-through

pain, over-medicated, rotting

in a vat of tasteless radon.

.

Tin Man Villanelle

Fear’s the tail that wags the beast,

the scarecrow skitters in the straw.

Oz never did give nothing?  Please.

.

As famine trumps the wedding feast,

a wife will find a husband’s flaws.

Fear the tail that wags the beast,

.

the bit of leaven that bloats the yeast.

A swollen tongue.  A rusty jaw.

Oz never gives nothing, see?

.

He’s the one who would be last but never least,

who wouldn’t know his license from the law.

Fear’s the tail that wags that beast

.

as far as west is west and east is east,

as cooked is good and bad is raw:

Oz never did give nothing.  Please,

.

your gold is lead, your wallet fleeced.

Your house is cold.  The pipes won’t thaw.

Fear’s the tail that wags the beast.

Oz never did give nothing?  Please.

.

My Body

takes the shape of graves in church yards, of blossoms

falling off the tree, the roots of rhododendron

on backdoor paths.  I press its hunger

.

into the osprey’s nest, a branch curled

toward heaven, rapt beaks and claws, an ache

in every soft belly.  My body hangs

.

between a sycamore and black walnut,

between shale defining the shore, wind chimes

bright in the rafters.  It spills

.

out to the marsh, to the heron’s grace

in the current’s meditation, lazing open

to the sea.  My body, a diamond lair, a gaslit

.

labyrinth, a timbered kingdom that takes

the shape of flame before match strikes flint,

that listens to catbirds mewling for space

.

in flits and calls, brother to cardinals and crows,

gathering what it can of this spoken world.

__________________________________

All poems shared with the permission of the author. 

.

You can order I Play My Red Guitar by going to www.tigerpress.com.

Please send your reactions, comments or questions about this work to me at kfhastings (at sign) mac (dot) com.

.

“Yet you shall sometimes find the lotus flowering

In the mortal mind’s so narrow room..”

— Babette Deutsch, “The Lotus”




January 18, 2020

OUT OF THE ASHES

As you know from reading the introductory page, this website has, as just one of its purposes, a desire to bring together the work of poets from New York and California. When you walk to the poetry section of your local bookstore you are certain to see works by Emily Dickinson, Pablo Neruda, Mary Oliver, Walt Whitman and a few others. But unless you are in a store like City Lights in San Francisco, you may not have a clue as to the hundreds of other poets who have books out that might also call to you.

Because we left Northern California for Upstate New York, in part, as a result of the October 2017 wildfires in Sonoma County, I’m going to start this blog off with a poem by Santa Rosa poet, Jodi Hottel. It appears in her chapbook Out of the Ashes, a collection she dedicates to the 42 people killed in the fires and to the first responders who put their lives on the line.

Firestorm

First, came orange incandescence

            from beyond the hills.

Then wind and embers, clearing the way

            for a roaring flame-river.

When it passed — ash-fall,

            sigh of silence.

.

Second came the uncertain waiting

            for the gut punch or the guilt of relief,

the ghostly images sent by satellite

            where red means green

and white means gone.

.

The visits to a changed-same landscape

            of black spires and brick monuments,

parked skeletons, sad sifters, searchers for felines.

            then the flood of insurers and law firms

clamoring to be first.

.

Third came a deluge of videos, each a blow

            to the brain, vision of hellfire

that blew through our neighborhood.

            And the telling of tales —

each devastating or heartening but singular.

.

Soon came the saws, falling redwoods

            and ancient oaks, the stumps.

Shiny guardrails replacing

            charred, twisted ones.

Then a held breath.

.

Later, hazmat suits of white,

            blue tents, floodlights, trucks

roaming a moonscape.  Close behind,

            the front-loaders, breaking earth

and silence.  Coyote howls.

.

Then came sprouts of promise,

            earth resilience, responding to

the lure of rain, beacon of velvet hills

            trimmed with singed-oak lace,

hooped straw-wattles.

.

Backhoe-clangs, tractor-trailer deluge,

            night and day, weeks and weeks,

leaving cleared lots, for-sale signs.

            Vacancy awaits the inevitable —

contractors, architects, surveyors.

.

I hunger for a poured foundation,

            fresh lumber, barrage of hammers.

My eyes search for leaf-sprout, yellow

            peeping from deeply buried bulbs,

spot Canada geese on their return journey.

.

Jodi Hottel’s previous chapbooks are Voyeur from WordTech Press (2017); Heart Mountain, winner of the 2012 Blue Light Press Poetry Prize, and Through a New Lens, 2015. She lives in the Larkfield neighborhood of Santa Rosa, CA.