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poems

Breathtaking

March 6, 2018

I was talking to a friend about moments of magic in poems, a kind of conjuring that goes beyond craft and is inexplicable.  The first example that came to mind was the ending of Frank O’Hara’s’ “The Day Lady Died,” which brings tears to my eyes and makes me suck in my breath every time I read it.  It’s something about the way past and present are simultaneous, but it’s more than that, more than the sum of the parts.  Then I thought of an Alice Oswald poem, “Body,” that does something similar.  I was going to add two or three more poems that leave me awestruck, but then I noticed that both of these poems are about the border between life and death and I decided to include just the two of them in conversation with each other.

I hope you’ll add poems whose magic takes your breath away, whatever their topic.

 

THE DAY LADY DIED

Frank O’Hara

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me

I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days

I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness

and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it

and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing

 

***

 

BODY

Alice Oswald

This is what happened
the dead were settling in under their mud roof
and something was shuffling overhead

it was a badger treading on the thin partition

bewildered were the dead
going about their days and nights in the dark
putting their feet down carefully finding themselves floating
but that badger

still with the simple heavy box of his body needing to be lifted
was shuffling away alive

hard at work
with the living shovel of himself
into the lane he dropped
not once looking up

and missed the sight of his own corpse falling like a suitcase
towards him
with the grin like an opened zip
(as I found it this morning)

and went on running with that bindweed will of his
went on running along the hedge and into the earth again
trembling
as if in a broken jug for one backwards moment
water might keep its shape

 

Here is a Map of our Country

October 10, 2017

I just came across a poem by Adrienne Rich that struck me as a description of the present, even though it’s from a book published in 1991.  Or maybe it’s that it could be a map of our country at almost any time in our history.  It’s section II of the opening title poem of An Atlas of the Difficult World:

Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water
This is the desert where missiles are planted like corms
This is the breadbasket of foreclosed farms
This is the birthplace of the rockabilly boy
This is the cemetery of the poor
who died for democracy   This is a battlefield
from a nineteenth-century war   the shrine is famous
This is the sea-town of myth and story   when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt   here is where the jobs were   on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks hourly wages and no shares
These are other battlefields   Centralia   Detroit
here are the forests primeval   the copper   the silver lodes
These are the suburbs of acquiescence   silence rising fumelike from the streets
This is the capital of money and dolor whose spires
flare up through air inversions whose bridges are crumbling
whose children are drifting blind alleys pent
between coiled rolls of razor wire
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural
then yes let it be these are small distinctions
where we see it from is the question

Unpacking the Poetry Books

September 27, 2017

The postings here have been sporadic lately because I was finally moving into a lovely apartment in Seattle.  I hope this will be my last move, but you never know.   It was exhausting and overwhelming, but one of the rare bright spots was unpacking my poetry books.  I keep them in alphabetical order so I can find things easily   Despite all the shuffling back and forth, it was full of pleasure.  Some poets take up half a shelf or more, with their books and books about them: Ashbery,  Berryman, Bishop, Carson, Dante, Dickinson, Eliot, Frost, Ginsberg, Gluck, Goldbarth, Heaney, Homer, Levine, Merrill, Merwin.  Plath, Pound, Rilke.  Simic, Stevens, Strand, James Tate, WC Williams.   From Jonathan Aaron to Martha Zweig.  From some of the earliest I read when I was starting to write–Margaret Atwood, Diane Wakowski, Transtromer, Bly, Kinnell, Plath, Stanley Plumly, to recent discoveries–Alice Oswald, Karen Solie, Tim Siebles.  From well known to maybe less so: a collaboration between James Tate and Bill Knott titled Are You Ready, Mary Baker Eddy?  A beautifully made book, Paul Hannigan’s The Carnation, published by Barn Dream Press in Massachusetts.  I remember where I bought many of the books, or who gave them to me: Jonathan Galassi gave me The Poetical Works of Elizabeth Barret Browning when he had recently started work at Houghton Mifflin and I interviewed him for an article on poetry publishing in Boston.  Or my first reaction: reading Wind in a Box–Terrance Hayes can do anything!  Milosz’s Anthology of Polish Poets where I read Szymborska for the first time.  And I notice what’s missing: the little paperback of Stevens’ poems, Palm at the end of the Mind, that fell apart after I carried it everywhere with me for years.  And I don’t see the first anthology of contemporary poetry I ever owned, Poems of our Moment, edited by John Hollander.  As I remember, three of the thirty-seven  poets included were women: May Swenson, Adrienne Rich, and Sylvia Plath.  It’s possible I finally threw it out.  Working my way through my shelves is working my way through my life–but in alphabetical rather than chronological order, so there’s a wonderful weaving back and forth between pieces.  There’s a murmur of conversation, whispers and shouts.  More than one mover said to me, “You should get rid of a lot of these books.”  Over my dead body.  I’d love to hear the stories of your poetry bookshelves.

REALLY READING POETRY

July 18, 2017

One of my favorite things is to gather with other poets to talk about poems, poets, and poetry. That’s why I love teaching, and that’s why I started a blog called The Poetry Conversation. But I’m also part of another, in-person poetry conversation that has been meeting once a month since last December. There are eight of us, and whoever hosts chooses the book. So far we’ve read Kevin Prufer’s Churches, Louise Gluck’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, Tim Seibles’ One Turn Around the Sun, Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall, Anne Carson’s Nox, and Marie Howe’s Magdalene–and we’re about to discuss Alice Oswald’s Falling Awake.  The group offers so many pleasures I hardly know where to start.  Given the overwhelming number of poetry books out there, it’s a luxury to have someone say, “Pay attention to this one.”  And believe me, everyone pays attention: we come with notes and stickies, and definitions, allusions, translations when necessary.  This is passionate, thoughtful engagement.  It is the way we all dream of being read and almost never are.  We talk about individual poems, patterns, the book as a whole.  We listen to interviews with the poets, and listen to them reading their work aloud if we can.  And we all bring different points of view to the mix.  The poems, and then the discussions, set my mind on fire.  Thinking about one book doesn’t stop when we move to the next–it all accumulates.  It is the richest, deepest, most faceted talk about reading poetry that I’ve ever been part of, and I hope it goes on forever.

Now go start a reading group of your own.

Terrance Hayes

April 21, 2017

Terrance Hayes is a wonder. He is also a POET in every cell of his body. Poetry isn’t a compartment of his life, it IS his life. But that doesn’t mean he’s writing poems in isolation. He’s a husband and father, teacher and activist, using poetry to think and feel his way through the world. I just saw him at Hugo House in Seattle, talking about Linda Hull’s poems and reading some of his own, and it was electrifying to listen to him. Even though he’s a virtuoso, he isn’t after a gleaming finished product, something static. All his poems are a process: asking questions, thinking aloud, making hypotheses, trying out possibilities. Everything is at stake, and he’s willing to try on one possibility after another, to get it wrong, to fail. He’s a master craftsman, and it was a pleasure to hear him focus on that. He’s devoted to working hard–something that comes in part from his days as a basketball player. I came home energized, challenged, rededicated to working harder and better. Read him, listen, watch him online and in person.

Here’s the first poem of his I read that set me on fire. Makes me think of Frost: “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.”

WIND IN A BOX

Terrance Hayes

This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the capet–. This cry. This mud.
This shudder. This is where I stood: by the bed,
by the door, by the window, in the night / in the night.
How deep, how often / must a woman be touched?
How deep, how often have I been touched?
On the bone, on the shoulder, on the brow, on the knuckle:
Touch like a last name, touch like a wet match.
Touch like an empty shoe and an empty shoe, sweet
and incomprehensible. This ink. This name. This blood
and wonder. This box. This body in a box. This blood
in the body. This wind in the blood.