July

July is a good time for lying down in green grass, in a graveyard perhaps, like in Kazim Ali’s “July,” where there’s a pause before the next thing, and if you look at it long enough, with a friend, the sky changes —”came down in breaths to my lips and sipped me.”

In July, the windows are always open, as in William  Matthews’ “Morningside Heights, July,” and one hears, like it or not, “a clatter of jackhammers” and someone “yelling fuck in Farsi” and a couple having a break-up conversation, and it all makes one feel a little strange, “hollower than a bassoon.”

Albert Goldbarth’s “Sentimental” begins in July but winds up, with it’s wonderful-sounding language, (“What if some chichi streetwise junkass from the demimonde / gave forth with the story of orphans forced through howling storm / to the workhouse”) going quite elsewhere, as thoughts are wont to do. Continue reading “July”

Two Hand Poems

John Keats‘ “This living hand…” is one of the awesomest little poems ever. It’s so wonderful and so creepy! The speaker’s hand, if it were dead, would “So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights / That thou would wish thy own heart dry of blood / So that in my veins red life might stream again.” And that final gesture, Keats’ no, here it is, alive, “I hold it towards you” — ooh! Shivers. I will be bringing this poem up again come Halloween. This poem is genuinely haunting — the message is first that you’ll miss me, then that I’ll haunt you, then that you’ll want to die to resurrect me, but no no no don’t worry, here’s my hand (that will haunt you!).

Charles Simic has a memorable poem called “Bestiary for the Fingers of My Right Hand,” a poem that describes each finger in turn, images going from Gerhard Gluck-y to Odilon Redon-y (the creepy paintings, not the flower-in-a-vase ones) to Hieronymous Bosch-y.Continue reading “Two Hand Poems”

James Dickey

I usually start talking about James Dickey‘s poems by saying, “The one where…” The ideas behind the poem, the context and ‘what happens’ — the vision, in other words — is what sticks with me so much more than individual lines.

The one where the stewardess is falling to earth (“Falling“); the one where he puts on the taxidermied head of a boar and becomes the boar as it’s being hunted, years ago, by his now-dead father (“Approaching Prayer”); the one where the hobo is nailed to a train car by his hands and feet (“To a Folk-Singer of the Thirties“); the one where the speaker is in the pantry thinking about dropping bombs on his suburban neighborhood from the plane he flew during the war (“The Firebombing“); the one about animals being predators in Heaven (“The Heaven of Animals“); the one about the half-sheep, fathered by a farm boy, who dies right after birth (“The Sheep Child“); the one where the soldier drinks water from a dead soldier’s helmet and sees his memories (“Drinking From a Helmet”); the one with the surreal colors in the grass and the horses, (“The Dusk of Horses“); the one about the shark trashing the house (“The Shark’s Parlor“).

Intensity and life are the two themes I’d call out if I was asked to call out two themes in his poems. Or maybe it should be intensity and life-and-death. Continue reading “James Dickey”

June

It’s June! It’s summer! Or, well, it will be soon…Not yet glorious summer in this neck of the woods. June for the Northwest is blue skies & 80′ with a nice breeze for a maximum of two days in a row, bookended by weeks of regular old gray & 60′ with sprinkles. Layer, shed, layer, shed, layer…

In July, summer is a real season, though even then “summer’s lease hath all too short a date.” Right now summer is just a feeling, just like “the hour things get / To be excellently pointless, like describing the alphabet,” as Joshua Clover’s “An Archive of Confessions, A Genealogy of Confessions” goes. Or, as Laurie Sheck puts it in “No Summer as yet,” “No summer as yet, but it will come with its bright pieces of whatever.”Continue reading “June”

Sonnets, The Gritty Ones Especially

The soufflé cliché feels apt for sonnets, the cliché about them falling down a lot, and even though I’ve never made a soufflé, or even watched someone make one, and can’t remember the last time I ate one, I’m going to go with it.

So. The sonnet is just like the soufflé. All are made with the same ingredients, but only a few turn out right. Most collapse. It’s all in the technique and the quality of the ingredients. I’ve been working my way through The Making of a Sonnet (eds Hirsch and Boland), a pretty thorough anthology divided mostly by century (Sixteenth – Twentieth), with sections also for sonnets about sonnets (‘The Sonnet in the Mirror’) and sonnets of lengths other than 14 lines. And I don’t like most of them.

Which isn’t saying much — percentage-wise I probably don’t like most of any type of poetry. Like all the other arts, for every shining peak of a poem there’s a ginormous iceberg of crap poems waiting to sink you. And sonnets have been written around for 500 years now, so that’s a big iceberg.

However, the sonnets I like I tend to love. Broadly speaking I feel more strongly, I think, about the sonnets that I like, than, for instance, the ghazals that I like.Continue reading “Sonnets, The Gritty Ones Especially”

May(ish)

Whoops! I neglected to do a “Months” post for May. Here, belatedly, are two May poems  — “Ending” by May Swenson (heh), and “You May Leave a Memory, Or You Can Be Feted By Crows” by Dick Allen, which you will note has the word May in the title (heh again).

“Ending” is sort of a silly poem, a Dr. Sueussian, or perhaps more Shel Silverstein-ian, reincarnation/death meditation. What I like about this poem is basically that, that insouciant-but-still-saying-something tone, as well as the idea of the inner self as a little clear bug. And May, the month, is a little silly anyway. An extension of April’s showers without yet June’s blue skies.

“You May Leave a Memory…” refers to this painted scroll, “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains.” It’s a nice portrait; I like the man in this poem. There’s quite a tradition of American poets writing about Chinese artists, some of which are very lovely poems, worth seeking out (as, of course, are the Chinese artists).

June soon…

Superheroes

In anticipation celebration of The Avengers (whoohoo! I hope, anyway), let’s look briefly at A. Van Jordan’s collection Quantum Lyrics, which puts comic book superheroes and heroes of physics together, among other topics, in quite nice poems. (I’m not at all scientifically inclined, as I’ve mentioned before, but I do like the general ideas of physics, the ideas I can almost understand for a moment at a time, anyway, and what’s not to be intrigued by about superheroes?)

Albert Einstein’s personal life, his wives and his civil rights involvement, gets a lot of attention in the collection as well. Sample poem titles: “The Flash Reverses Time,” “The Green Lantern Unlocks the Secrets of Black Body Theory,” “Marian Anderson,” “The Atom and Hawkman Discuss Metaphysics,” “Sculpting the Head of Miles Davis.”

The Einstein poems use a lot of filmic conventions, “FADE IN” and “CUT TO:” and “INSERT SHOT” and so forth, that section adding up to a sort of documentary film made out of poems. In the prose poem “Einstein Defining Special Relativity,” the scientist’s notebook Continue reading “Superheroes”

Larry Levis

I discovered Larry Levis only a few months ago. (I feel the same way about that as I did about seeing Spinal Tap for the first time only last year. How could I have been missing out for so long!)

Larry Levis, who died unexpectedly in 1996 at age 49, wrote six books of poetry, including one published posthumously. His early work is lovely but his later work is what I’ve been obsessively re-reading. The poems’ sprawl, or maybe sweep is a better word —  it is never scattered or unfocused. The tone/voice. The sensibility.

And then of course, there are the great images, for instance “he hears the geese racket above him / As if a stick were held flat against / A slat fence by a child running past a house for sale” and “Heaven was neither the light nor was it the air, & if it took a physical form / It was splintered lumber no one could build anything with.”

Robert Mezey called Levis’ poetry “the nourishing shock of fresh ideas that rise from the work of the true poet.” Continue reading “Larry Levis”

April Comes Like an Idiot

It’s April. Fields of flowers, tons of rain, loss and renewal, and poetry.

I love Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poem “Spring,” not just for its oh-so-quotable (and I often do) “April / comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers,” but for what precedes it — “It is not enough that yearly, down this hill / April / Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.” I love how angsty and dark it is, teenagery — even as it describes spring beauty (“The smell of the earth is good” and “the redness / of little leaves opening stickily”)  there are maggots eating brains, and not just underground either. It’s a delicious mix of darknesses. She doesn’t deny beauty, it just isn’t enough.

For April rain we turn to Langston Hughes’ “April Rain Song.” Not a complicated poem in thought, but it has a wonderful rhythm.

A consequence of rain is of course mud, and mud makes the world mudlicious, Continue reading “April Comes Like an Idiot”

Basketball

Since it is that time of year…

Skipping over Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, merely because I haven’t read (or seen) it, William Matthews, who I’ve mentioned before, jumps to mind with regards to March Madness. In addition to jazz and family, basketball is a frequent preoccupation of his poems. Matthews talks about practice (“Foul Shots: A Clinic“) with an eye towards the metaphysical, about attending a game (“Cheap Seats, The Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959“) with an eye towards adolescents’ reality, and about players’ physicality (“In Memory of the Utah Stars“), from both a fan and former player’s point of view.

In “Sandlot Basketball” that former-player aspect is the focus. Amidst a memory of youth comes age’s regret, “Dribbling in the dust, coughing like a dying boat, each knee the color of a boiling lobster, I hate my decadent grace. Body, come back; all is forgiven.” Basketball and youth, being so related and so short a period of time, perhaps explains the frequent poems which are looking back on basketball from old(er) age, with tinges of regret, as in John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player”  and B.H. Fairchild’s “Old Men Playing Basketball” with their “heavy bodies” and those bodies’ “broken language,” and their hands “fine and nervous on the lug wrench.”

Yusef Komunyakaa’s basketball poem Slam, Dunk & Hook, has these high-energy, beautiful descriptions of athleticism, youth in their prime,Continue reading “Basketball”