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poets

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.

Tim Seibles

March 30, 2017

You’ve all had those Emily Dickinson moments, when you read a poet for the first time–or the first time paying attention–and not just the poem but the poet’s sensibility blows the top of your head off.  Recently Elizabeth Austen, poet teacher, and former Washington state Poet Laureate, recommended Tim Seibles’ work.  I knew the name, but not much beyond that.  A few days ago I started reading his book One Turn Around the Sun (etruscan press, 2016).  And then I kept going, couldn’t put it down.  The voice seeps into every nook and cranny–his life, the reader’s mind–and lights them up.  It reminds me of reading CK Williams for the first time: here’s a whole new thing in the poetry universe.  New to me,  I know I’m late to the party.  Do you already know and love his work?  What are your favorites?  Here’s the opening of the first poem in the book: I dare you to read it and not be desperate to find out what comes next:

 

ODE TO YOUR MOTHER

Tim Seibles

 

Do you remember yourself
six months after conception?
Far from the egg, your heart
chirping like a hungry chick,
those unwalked feet—fat crickets
kicking around, eyes blind
as buttons: cell by cell,
rod by cone, getting ready
to call up the colors and lights….

 

Who Says? Who Sees?

March 14, 2017

I’ve been fascinated by voice and point of view in poems since I started to write seriously.  When I first began to read contemporary poetry, I was disappointed by how much if it was spoken by an I that stood between me and everything going on in the poem.  Disappointed because the older poetry I’d read drew on a much wider range of point of view, including third person.  I felt as if I should be using that I since everyone around me was, but I couldn’t do it then–every poem I started that way got stuck until I changed it to she.  Eventually I found an I I could live with, but once I did I got bored and went back to trying other pronouns.  Now I don’t think about it–the poem speaks, and I listen.  But I notice as much as ever when I read, and I especially love voices that seem to come out of nowhere.  Here are a couple of my favorites.  Please add your own favorite poems that don’t use a first person singular speaker.

Spring Pools

Robert Frost

These pools that, though in forests, still reflect
The total sky almost without defect,
And like the flowers beside them, chill and shiver,
Will like the flowers beside them soon be gone,
And yet not out by any brook or river,
But up by roots to bring dark foliage on.
The trees that have it in their pent-up buds
To darken nature and be summer woods —
Let them think twice before they use their powers
To blot out and drink up and sweep away
These flowery waters and these watery flowers
From snow that melted only yesterday.

 

Sestina

Elizabeth Bishop

September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

She thinks that her equinoctial tears
and the rain that beats on the roof of the house
were both foretold by the almanac,
but only known to a grandmother.
The iron kettle sings on the stove.
She cuts some bread and says to the child,

It’s time for tea now; but the child
is watching the teakettle’s small hard tears
dance like mad on the hot black stove,
the way the rain must dance on the house.
Tidying up, the old grandmother
hangs up the clever almanac

on its string. Birdlike, the almanac
hovers half open above the child,
hovers above the old grandmother
and her teacup full of dark brown tears.
She shivers and says she thinks the house
feels chilly, and puts more wood in the stove.

It was to be, says the Marvel Stove.
I know what I know, says the almanac.
With crayons the child draws a rigid house
and a winding pathway. Then the child
puts in a man with buttons like tears
and shows it proudly to the grandmother.

But secretly, while the grandmother
busies herself about the stove,
the little moons fall down like tears
from between the pages of the almanac
into the flower bed the child
has carefully placed in the front of the house.

Time to plant tears, says the almanac.
The grandmother sings to the marvelous stove
and the child draws another inscrutable house.

The Consolations of Music

January 20, 2017

I sat propped between two friends at an early music concert.  They had taken me there because I was in utter despair, sunk so far into myself that the world seemed far away, seen through the wrong end of a telescope, barely audible. That continued as I sat there, the sense of blackness, of falling through space, for maybe half an hour.  And then I heard a few notes, and a few more.  Faint signals, but enough to reach me, and from then on I knew I would come back to myself, my life, even pleasures.  Music is the consolation that never fails me.  My book Sharp Stars is suffused with music, with the joy of writing poetry again after a long silence.  I’m in mourning right now, as many of us are.  I am throwing myself yet again on the consolations and joys of music, on its own and in poetry.  As long as we can hear it, and maybe make some ourselves, there’s still hope.  I think of Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”; Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues”; Marianne Boruch, “Little Fugue”; Betsy Sholl, “Lullaby in Blue”; Phil Levine, “On 52nd Street”; Robert Pinsky, “Street Music”; Mark Strand, “Delirium Waltz”; Robert Creeley’s “Water Music.”  Please add your own–the ones that you turn to.

 

 

ALLEGRO

 

 

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.

 

 

Tomas Transtromer

trans. Robin Fulton

 

 

 

DON’T LET ME BE LONELY [MAHALIA JACKSON IS A GENIUS]

Mahalia Jackson is a genius. Or Mahalia Jackson has genius. The man I am with is trying to make a distinction. I am uncomfortable with his need to make this distinction because his inquiry begins to approach subtle shades of racism, classism, or sexism. It is hard to know which. Mahalia Jackson never finished the eighth grade, or Mahalia’s genius is based on the collision of her voice with her spirituality. True spirituality is its own force. I am not sure how to respond to all this. I change the subject instead.

We have just seen George Wein’s documentary, Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1971. In the auditorium a room full of strangers listened to Mahalia Jackson sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and stood up and gave a standing ovation to a movie screen. Her clarity of vision crosses thirty years to address intimately each of us. It is as if her voice has always been dormant within us, waiting to be awakened, even though “it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, (and) through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”

Perhaps Mahalia, like Paul Celan, has already lived all our lives for us. Perhaps that is the definition of genius. Hegel says, “Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” Mahalia Jackson sings as if it is the last thing she intends to do. And even though the lyrics of the song are, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,” I am hearing, Let it begin in me.

 

Claudia Rankine

 

 

 

AMERICA, I SING BACK

 

for Phil Young, my father, Robert Hedge Coke, Whitman, and Hughes

 

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Oh, before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,

nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason

broke my long held footing sure, as any child might do.

Lo, as she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

Oh, but here I am, here I am, here, I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.

Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke


BIG BAND THEORY

It all began with music,
with that much desire to be

in motion, waves of longing
with Nothing to pass through,

the pulsing you feel before
you hear it. The darkness couldn’t

keep still, it began to sway,
then there were little flashes

of light, glints of brass
over the rumbling percussion,

the reeds began to weep and sing,
and suddenly the horns

tore bigger holes in the darkness—
we could finally see

where the music was coming from:
ordinary men in bowties and black

jackets. But by then we had already
danced most of the night away.

Sharon Bryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE PRESENT

January 1, 2017

One New Year’s Eve when I was seven or eight my parents had a few friends over to to celebrate.  I was the only child there, passing cookies and Ritz crackers with cheese slices.  I was thinking about the strangeness of one year ending and another beginning, when I was suddenly overcome with the sense that time was running out to write the year we were in in the present.  What was true now soon would be in the past.  I put down the plate I was carrying, dashed into my bedroom, and opened my notebook.  I wrote the year over and over: 1951, 1951, 1951, 1951, until the page was covered.  Nothing stays time, but I felt better for having marked it.  That was all I could do–when I woke up it we all would have sailed beyond it, no going back.  I still feel that mix of dread and anticipation.  Here are two poems that speak to that:

 

                                                                                                                                                                 

TO THE NEW YEAR
W. S. Merwin
With what stillness at last
you appear in the valley
your first sunlight reaching down
to touch the tips of a few
high leaves that do not stir
as though they had not noticed
and did not know you at all
then the voice of a dove calls
from far away in itself
to the hush of the morning
so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible
*
Archaic Torso of Apollo
Rainier Maria Rilke

trans. Stephen Mitchell


We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could 
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.