Category Archives: Gods

“Country Song”

This year’s monthly series focus will be on music poems (2012 was Months poems and 2013 was Animals). First up, the incomparable A.E. Stallings’ “Country Song” from her collection Olives.

“Death was something that hadn’t happened yet,” is how it starts, one of the many lines which does many things at once. Death was something that hadn’t happened yet, in the song? to the speaker? The answer to both being yes. Another line that does similar multitasking comes just a few later, “It seeped up through the dashboard’s oubliette.” What does, the “hour of broken luck” in the line just before? Death from the first line? The country song? All of the above, even though grammatically of course the subject of that sentence Continue reading


My proto-dream-house, my crypto-dream-house

Because it was my birthday last week, I want to talk about “The End of March” by Elizabeth Bishop. I always respond to it, even more so than any of her other poems which I also love, with that sort of delight you get when someone gives you a gift that is totally “you” (i.e. unexpected but perfect).

“The End of March” begins “It was cold and windy, scarcely the day / to take a walk on that long beach” (don’t you just love to do that too, take walks on the beach when it’s too cold to do so, and so no one else is?).

The first stanza continues with description of the beach, Bishop’s typical noticing eye comment on the initial description to further precision: “Everything was withdrawn as far as possible, / indrawn: the tide far out, the ocean shrunken, / seabirds in ones or twos” etc. She speaks of the wind, well not just the wind it’s “The rackety, icy, offshore wind” blowing back “the low, inaudible rollers” and let’s pause a moment there to savor the rhythm/sound/mouth shape of saying that phrase aloud, “the low, inaudible rollers” Continue reading


I Still Love My Wicked Wicked Ways

Sandra Cisneros’s 1991 books My Wicked Wicked Ways was one of the first collections I read seriously as poetry outside of class. This was early high school — at about the same time Carl Sandburg, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath were big for me. (Cisneros is of course the author of The House on Mango Street, which I also love and think everyone should read.)

I picked it up My Wicked Wicked Ways again recently and I still love some of these poems, just love. You always have these vague ideas, early on, about who poets are, what kind of person a poet can be, should be. I don’t know if this was true for everyone but for me Sexton and Plath, the crazy suicidal confessionists, or Dickinson the recluse in a white dress were sort of the readily available models when I was first getting going in poetry seriously, in terms of how to be a female poet. Sexton, Plath, Dickinson — or Sandra Cisneros, precise and beautiful and sometimes sad but also always so alive and full of beautiful images and style. Continue reading

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Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)

February’s Animal Poem: “Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” by Mark Doty, from the new section in Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems (2009).

“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” is a thoroughly satisfying descriptive poem (it is of course redundant to say Doty poem and great description in the same sentence), full of sounds. Not all that many poems have a lot of noises, necessarily. Car horns and dog snoring and through-the-wall radio ads and all the rest — it’s noticeable when a poem really pays attention to them.

“Theory of Beauty (Grackles on Montrose)” begins with a place-setting, “Eight o’clock, warm Houston night /  and in the parking lot the grackles / hold forth royally, in thick trees.” (This, by the way, is what a grackle looks like.) Three lines and the scene is set, complete with the beginning of the birds’ characterization, with “hold forth royally.”

The main delight of this poem is, of course, Continue reading


Reading across Komunyakaa’s “Changes; or…”

Changes; or, Reveries at a Window Overlooking a Country Road, with Two Women Talking Blues in the Kitchen” is a two-columned jazz poem by Yusef Komunyakaa (from the New Poems section of 1994’s Neon Vernacular) that, like a great piece of jazz music, I get something more out of with every reading.

On the left side of the page, Mary and Eva Mae, friends from childhood, are “talking B-flat blues” in the kitchen, catching up on the (cheating) men and (loose) women they used to know. Meanwhile on the right, Mary’s grandson, “just dragged in / From God only knows where,” and “Nice as a new piece / of silk,”  is thinking about jazz, all kinds of jazz from Philly Joe Jones to Billie Holiday to Charles Mingus to John Coltrane, and memory, and black culture, and the way thoughts move between them. The poems starts with an “A-one, two, three” of men’s names, “Joe, Gus, Sham . . . ” putting us in music territory from the start. Continue reading

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Elizabeth Bishop is the most important poetry god.

The most important in my personal pantheon, I mean.

And more generally, I don’t think you can love poetry and not love Elizabeth Bishop.

I’ve touched on most of my other major gods in this blog before (Mark Doty, Yusef Komunyakaa, and the most recent addition, Larry Levis), but haven’t said much yet about her. One must tread lightly when analyzing one’s gods, after all. But I’ve been writing Poetry Dork posts for exactly a year now, so it’s about time I paid Bishop some attention here.

Doty, Komunyakaa, Levis, and Bishop are poets who “are it” for me. They do what poetry is supposed to do, what I want it to do. They write poems that are and do what poems are and do when they are at their best. Continue reading

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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

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Mark Doty

Mark Doty is frequently lauded as one of the best American poets writing today, and I certainly concur. His manner of looking at the world is that of regard, an intellectual gaze that insists on detail and beauty, and taking the time to examine. He’s prolific, with about seven is it? eight? volumes of poetry, not including his award-winning New and Selected (which is a great place to start). And three books of memoir (centering around the death of his partner from AIDS, growing up gay, and dogs and loss, respectively). And a meditation about art history. And a little poetics book too (one of Graywolf Press’s lovely “Art Of” series). And an occasional blog.

When Doty annoys, which can happen every once in a while, it’s because of an overdosing of description, a too-mannered-ness. “Dammit, too much elegance!” one perhaps wants to yell on occasion. Or maybe, sometimes, “Cut to the chase!” But mostly he’s wonderful.

My Alexandria was my introduction to Doty (his third, I think, collection, published in 1993). The first poem in it has been one of my favorites since I read it (freshman or sophomore year of college), “Demolition,” which watches a building being taken down by a backhoe, its shy metal scoop, “a Japanese monster tilling its yellow head / and considering what to topple next.” That poem has one of my favorite poet-profound lines, “We love disasters that have nothing to do / with us.” Continue reading


The Thorn Merchant’s Family

In screenplays, characters are introduced with a 1-2 sentence description, something short but vivid enough to paint a picture. For instance, from the Out of Sight screenplay, “a guard, PUPKO (“PUP”), heavy-set, dumb as dirt.” Or from Pulp Fiction, ” LANCE, late 20s, is a young man with a wild and woolly appearance that goes hand-in-hand with his wild and woolly personality.”

Yusef Komunyakaa‘s poem “The Thorn Merchant” begins,

There are teeth marks
on everything he loves.

What a character intro! The poem is entirely a character description, slowly and beautifully building a portrait of a trafficker of harm. The language is a taut mix of straightforward images (“The ink on contracts disappears,” “Another stool pigeon leans/over a wrought-iron balcony,” “shadow of a crow over a lake”) and language that imparts more tone than explicable information. “There are teeth marks/on everything he loves” isn’t too (forgive me) thorny — things dogs have chewed, things rats have gnawed, or even a pencil that has been absentmindedly chewed. But what about “In the brain’s shooting gallery/he goes down real slow.” What does that mean? Continue reading

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