Apr 10, 2014

Snakes, Stealth, Beauty: Emily Dickinson, D.H. Lawrence, A.E. Stallings

In my April 5, 2014 post about Jamaal May's "Hum for the Bolt," we were feeling lightning’s sneaky approach, its skill at getting near us before we realize it, then flashing a bolt of awareness and probably fright. Speaking of sneaky things that can be scary, yesterday I got my first photos of a snake, an Eastern Garter Snake, so I’m offering these three poems about snakes. I’ve posted links to them before, but not recently, and each fine poem is worth revisiting: Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” D. H. Lawrence’s “Snake,” and A.E. Stallings’ “Momentary.” 

One oddity I’ve noticed about poets is their interest in and fondness for snakes and crows, two creatures most people fail to love. I wonder if poets and artists have a penchant for loving what the mainstream eschews or even despises and demonizes. Why might that be?

I’m having a lot more luck with liking crows than snakes, but the fellow I met yesterday demonstrated serpentine beauty more than any of the (very few) snakes I’ve seen before. His colors, his lines, his absolute silence and silky smoothness in movement were stunning. I was having a big moment, but he was perfectly casual. Maybe I bored him.

We looked at each other for several seconds. I had room to pass him on the left, but I figured he could whip around on me if he felt like it, and I didn’t know what kind of snake he was, had no idea about his the potential for venom—or simple pain. No one else was around.

Attractive, slender and modest, maybe three feet in length, he looked as un-menacing as a snake can, which to me is till pretty menacing. I know the experts say they’re more afraid of us, blah blah. Experts screw up all the time. Just ask GM, Wall Street, and M.D.s who can’t decide about Vitamin E or eggs.

Ever the comedian, I hissed at the garter snake to shoo him away from my path. He gave me a look. In Snake, I’m pretty sure he said, “Are you shitting me?”

So I was about to take my chances with stepping left, far left, when he slid away like poured oil.

Back at home, I went of course to Wikipedia, and found information about garter snakes that was absolutely fascinating. Rather than going on and on (who, me?), I encourage all to check it out. The infinite variety on this single planet is stunning—an old idea, but one that gets refreshed over and over if we shut up and look. And get lucky.


Apr 5, 2014

Jamaal May, "Hum for the Bolt": Lightning Reconsidered

Hum for the Bolt by Jamaal May : Poetry Magazine

Blurred Edges

“Hum for the Bolt” is the title poem of a first book by the
up and coming Detroit poet, Jamaal May. We can see “Hum for the Bolt” as a spring poem, but more importantly, it’s simply an excellent work that presents the speaker’s wish to be lightning, “the Bolt.” (It reminds me of Emily
Dickinson’s concept of the poem as a force that blows the top of her head off.  I also hear Coleridge concluding his portrait of the mysterious poet as prophet or deity in “Kubla Khan”:

            His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
            Weave a circle round him thrice,
            And close your eyes with holy dread
            For he on honey dew hath fed,
            And drunk the milk of Paradise.
Father and Son?
Coleridge’s poet is at least a shaman and perhaps a deity, yet Jamaal May’s image of the poet strikes me as new and credible, powerful and scary yet appealing.

I suppose the speaker could be just some guy, maybe a lover who wants to be flashy, like lightning, in order to be noticed; or he could be a stalker trying to be sneaky and unnoticed except for that instant of victory flash.
Ghost Plane, Avatar
But how many men want to be lightning? How many would choose lightning over silk that lies romantically against an arm or an arrow that whistles
on its way to the kill? He might

            .  .  . love to be
the silk-shimmer

the curve of anyone’s arm,
brutal and impeccable as it’d be to soar
a crossbow with a whistle and have a man

off upon my arrival, it is nothing

But instead of lover or warrior, the speaker wants to be an illumination, scary and near. He
doesn’t just bring the light; he is the light “in this moment, in this doorway.” The immediacy, the Now is important. The poem messes with time and space: the flash is simultaneously “this far. . . . this close.”

Lover or stalker—what an excellent way to picture a poem, which was the communication, the light, we welcomed into living rooms and bedrooms before television came along. Maybe it is still the presence, power and magic that “eat the dark.”

Sneaky Enlightenment
Although the images of medieval warfare (“spaulder and
helm,” and maybe “have a man//switch off”) strike me as forced, I can live with them in exchange for the poem’s wonderful yet unexpected comparison of silk and water, or the rain that makes “a noisy erasure/of this town.” What does rain do if not erase towns—the edges and outlines of buildings and people. Yet I never
consciously thought of rainy cityscapes in that way. Again, the lightning replaces time and space with magic: “the flash that arrives//and leaves at nearly the same moment.”

May’s choice of “spaulder and helm” makes me realize once again that we don’t have to praise every inch of a poem or a person or the person’s oeuvre or a symphony or a country to say we like it. The more reasonable point is that we like plenty of what’s there. Maybe that’s what we should hope we can say about this day or this life. The bad or merely bland, boring moments might outweigh the good in simple-minded numbers, but there’s some good that keeps sneaking in for whose who can receive it, and some of it flashes like lightning, the fierce beauty and power of which cannot be measured or understood.

Mar 24, 2014

More Motel Charm, plus Mary Szybist's "Night Shifts at the Group Home"

Blue Traveler

In case you came for a poem, a discussion of Mary Szybist’s “Night Shifts in the Group Home” follows two brief travel notes from strange bedfellows on the internet. But play before work. For . . . charm? . . . the first note probably depends entirely upon high quality Kleenex. The second speaks for itself.

1     They were evaluating different TV providers so we had almost no channels all week. They paid for any guest to go see a movie in town as compensation . . . . If they get new mattresses, flat screen TVs and softer Kleenex the hotel will be up to the chain’s standards.
The Road

       2. I stayed in [that motel] for 3 days and i got bit up by bed bugs. i came back after christmas to his other motel and told him he called me a liar and didnt believe me. he said he just had it gone through and sprayed they didnt find any bed bugs. a few night later he comes to my room and chews me out telling the guys i work with about it. he said they came in with me my bag or clothes that it could have been a spider or somthing. i know that is not that case that it was his motel that i got bit up at and nothing came from my house or bags and i know it wasnt a spider. I dont appricate being called a lair or cussed out.
Convent or Group Home?

Night Shifts at the Group Home by Mary Szybist : The Poetry Foundation

The connection between motel visitors and group homes may seem thin and far-fetched, but think about it. In travel, our actual, current neighbors and our imagined past fellow travelers are arbitrarily appointed to
us, a little like the members of a group home—or boarding school, or college, or apartment building.

So the relationship between the speaker and the resident
in Mary Szybist’s “Night Shifts at the Group Home” is more universal than it might seem. The resident, apparently named Lily Mae, is some kind of patient, “older than my mother: manic, caught / up in gibberish,” while the speaker, a supervisor of some sort, a  protector and keeper of order, says, “I needed relief // from myself” and “I just didn’t love / my loneliness.”

Atlantic on Rocks, Manic, Caught Up in Gibberish
So the two end up in a somewhat forced intimacy in a single cot--the speaker’s.
Girls, Those Same Rocks

That’s a strange situation, but isn’t it just an extreme example of humans being thrown together in one or another kind of communal living? The lines and the idea I like best in this strange portrait are:

                   I imagine I 

                   was someone she won
                       at a fair as the wheel spun
     under the floating, unfaltering sun
Feeling destiny cast her about like that, plus seeing herself as a doll-object in someone else’s view, plus being pulled from her lofty intellectualization into an awareness of separate selves as inarticulate bodies—all that adds up to a supra-rational liberation for the speaker. So yes, she ends up “undone,” but “happily” so.

Grackle on Ice

Mar 16, 2014


In case you've come for a poem, here’s Detroit’s own Philip Levine on the subject of work, which seems relevant to motel dirt, as guest or as worker:


UFO Inspector

Kite Catcher

And Wind Catcher

But moving on to new topics . . .

In roaming on some internet travel sites, I’ve found a few entertaining details about motels in the nation’s major chains. Maybe I’ll just stay home, like the guy I know who carries sterilizing spray cans with him on the rare occasions when he travels and submits to the dangers of public lodging. He wipes the rooms clean, the way a cop show's CSI might.

I shouldn’t say aloud that I’ve never had experiences like his or those below. Then again, I wasn’t looking for germs. I wonder if that’s the secret: be willfully blind; bugs and human debris will always be with ye, but ye can choose whether and whither thy vision goest thither. If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out. Etc.

By the way, I’m more interested in the reviewers than the motels, so I’ve kept the original authors’ words, spelling and punctuation for authenticity, and I have not disclosed the identity of individual motels or chains—it would be unfair (and libelous?) to cast a shadow on a business because of a single review. Besides, it’s been over a year since I started this project, so I no longer recall names or places; I have plausible deniability, which I’ve always wanted more than love or money or a good crop.   

I'm limiting myself to two of these per post:

            1.  Breakfast was bad and found a very old slice of pepperoni stuck on curtain in room
                 and food crumbs under furniture and beds.
            2.  I use to be an housekeeper and maintnance person at this [motel]. People                            complaining about overbooks its not this hotels fault. It is corporates fault. The manager,      Harry, hes not the nicest guy in the world, but at times he can be very helpful.  It's not the biggest pool ever and cleaning isnt always done the fastest but what do you expect from a small town like this?
River Guardian

Protectors of All?

Feb 17, 2014

James Wright: Dog, Horse, Gopher, Blessing

Here is an excerpt from Peter Stitt's 1972 Paris Review interview with esteemed poet James Wright (1927-1980), whose eloquence here makes clear why his finished poems are so widely admired.
Snowy Egret
(The Bly to whom Wright refers is poet Robert Bly, who had—still has?—a farm in Minnesota, which Wright sometimes visited).

The book that followed, of course, is The Branch Will Not Break. How do these things show up there?
At the center of that book is my rediscovery of the abounding delight of the body that I had forgotten about. Every Friday afternoon I used to go out to Bly’s farm, and there were so many animals out there. There was Simon, who was an Airedale, but about the size of a Great Dane. There was David, the horse, my beautiful, beloved David, the swaybacked palomino. Simon and David used to go out by Bly’s barn. David would stand there looking out over the corn fields that lead onto the prairies of South Dakota, and Simon would sit down beside him, and they would stay there for hours. And sometimes, after I sat on the front porch and watched them, sometimes I went and sat down beside Simon. Neither Simon nor David looked at me, and I felt blessed. They allowed me to join them. They liked me. I can’t get over it—they liked me. Simon didn’t bite me, David didn’t kick me; they just stayed there as they were. And I sat down on my fat ass and looked over the corn fields and the prairie with them. And there we were. One afternoon, a gopher came up out of a hole and looked at us. Simon didn’t leap for him, David didn’t kick him, and I didn’t shoot him. There we were, all four of us together. All I was thinking was, I can be happy sometimes. And I’d forgotten that. And with those animals I remembered then. And that is what that book is about, the rediscovery. I didn’t hate my body at all. I liked myself very much. Simon is lost. David, with what Robert called his beautiful and sensitive face, has gone to the knacker’s. I wish I knew how to tell you. My son Marsh, the musician, is in love with animals.
I’m posting Wright's passage today simply because I find it stunning, but also because some regulars here are animal lovers, as am I.  I can’t imagine a piece of writing that better captures what I find beautiful and comforting about the furry and the feathered (and lizards and bugs, though less so). 

True, animals can be crazy and mean (with or without pollution by humans), and I question the popular, romantic notion that animals kill only to feed themselves. A few months ago, a television piece showed an adult female lion (or was it a tiger?) who ate so much of her prey that her stomach exploded and killed her. 
I’m wary of sweeping generalizations, even when they seem to come from reliable sources and tell me what I think I want to hear about nobility in nature. 
However, what James Wright says here captures animals at their best, which is what they are most of the time—plus the benefit of a human with convincing humility and admiration.  

For those who are interested, here is the entire interview, about various aspects of writing poetry, not just animals:


If you have the time, see also James Wright’s poems, “A Blessing” and “Lying in a Hammock,” which are rather directly related to the passage above.
Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Female
A Blessing by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright : The Poetry Foundation

See and hear Wright reading the poem here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpQU79sda3Q

Visitors and I discussed these poems here a few years ago:

 "Lying in a Hammock":

"A Blessing":

Feb 5, 2014

Jane Kenyon's "Happiness"

There is much to love about Jane Kenyon’s poem, “Happiness,”

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine

especially if we violate the New Criticism and read her life into her lines—her death from cancer at age 47 and, according to Poetry Foundation, “the depression that lasted throughout much of her adult life.” We might expect such a person and such a poet to challenge the whole notion of Happiness.

However, if we look only at the poem itself, as it centers on one of life’s trickiest, most amorphous subjects, happiness, there’s not a single false note, and there are brilliant gifts along the way.

The first two stanzas are dangerously general and discursive; they resemble an essay’s thesis or topic sentences. But the calmly bold opening line is much more profound and perceptive than we might have thought. How often have occasions that were supposed to be happy turned out otherwise?

The reverse is even more important. As serious readers of poetry, we might be inclined toward a gloomy worldview, which is easy to support with examples of death and destruction. But Kenyon is not the easy thinker that we are. She argues that happiness shows up just where and when we’d least expect it—or deserve it, perhaps. The comparison of happiness, a condition, to the Bible’s prodigal son, a human, is so unlikely I think it deserves the label of conceit (an extremely far-fetched metaphor or simile).

Like other good conceits, Kenyon’s argument holds. The prodigal son does not deserve forgiveness, and it seems we should not be happy to have him back. After all, he’s wasted everything we gave him. However, if for no other reason than an abatement of our loneliness in his absence, we are happy he’s returned. Our love for him outweighs, or simply negates, any anger we feel.

It’s a peculiar logic that I, for one, had never thought of, but in the end, it makes sense. It’s also brutally honest: we don’t necessarily forgive because we’re generous, or good, or selfless, but because we were bereft without the offending person in our lives.

If Jane Kenyon were in a workshop these days, I bet someone would have suggested that her poem really begins—and really takes off—with the third stanza and she should delete the first two. In many cases I might be that critic because most abstractions don’t have Kenyon’s power of surprise, freshness and important insight into human nature.

Still, once she begins the specific details, she maintains her perceptiveness and originality. Who else would have thought to introduce an unknown uncle? Who else would have placed him 
An Unknown Uncle Flies into Town
in a single-engine plane on a grassy air strip, would have him hitchhiking into town and knocking on doors?

This guy is a bit of an avatar, out of the blue, yet I believe in him completely. If he’s fictional, I don’t care—then it would be the world’s fault for not containing such an airstrip and such a hitch hiking uncle, who loves an unseen niece that much, that daringly. In fact, does he sound just a little like Jesus?

I also believe in Kenyon’s monk, her sweeping woman, the child of the drunk mother—and my favorite single image, for this human might most resemble us all:  “the clerk stacking cans of carrots / in the night.” 

From there Kenyon makes another daring move—she personifies inanimate objects and acts out John Ruskin’s famous concept of the Pathetic Fallacy, or the attribution of human qualities to nature.

At the same time—near the end of the poem!—she develops the new theme of labor, first with her catalogue of humans, and concluding with inanimate subjects. Beginning with the monk, everyone works, has a function. In the final four lines, that labor, that fact of being, expands to the boulder, the rain, and the wineglass. They all do their jobs, and maybe they all become weary. At least the wineglass does, explicitly, holding up wine—or is that blood, in the biblical sense of blood?

But it’s also true that all the characters and objects receive happiness. Happiness ministers to them, perhaps because they labor and have functions. Maybe we are left with the implication that the destiny of the prodigal son’s family is the labor of receiving him back into their arms and hearts, 
and that labor is their happiness, or at least happiness is the reward for their labor.

With the ordinary word happiness, maybe Kenyon is talking about grace—grace made evident for those not inclined to believe it. I’d like to think so.

Happiness by Jane Kenyon : Poetry Magazine

Jan 28, 2014

Mary Ruefle, "Why I Am Not a Good Kisser," a Comedy-Gravity Meatball


“Why I Am Not a Good Kisser”
is a Mary Ruefle romp in which we see her ample, quirky, speedy cerebellum and its thick book of information leavened by humor. Or is it two pages of humor—about our famous A.D.D., perhaps—deepened by scholarly details? In any case, it’s a pretty enjoyable example of trying not to take too seriously a really, really serious self.

If I started in on my favorite parts, gifts along the way, I might never stop. With a gun to my head, I’d probably opt for the little black dog and the rooster details.
Boat-Tailed Grackles
I do have two questions or reservations about the writing. Wouldn’t shorter lines increase the sense of romp and comedy? These often long lines, with no stanza breaks, create a sense of labor that might weigh down the frolicking, just a bit.

Secondly, we are taught—or we once were—that every word in a poem must be there, must be necessary and right, even if ambiguous. There’s no fat on poetry’s meat—or, once upon a time there wasn’t. With some of Ruefle’s details, I wonder how much they’d be missed if omitted (keep the rooster!). But there’s a mystery of rhythm and timing in poetry (and all writing) that might say success is success, don’t mess with it. And I’ll argue that “Why I Am Not a Good Kisser” is a successful feat indeed, less frivolous than most humor and less ponderous than most serious writing.       
The Anhinga Dries His Wings (and thinks deep thoughts)

By the way, I've now heard the poet introduced as Mary ROOF-ul, and like the ROOF-lee I offered last time, the introducer was well-qualified. What's in a name, anyway? Hey, somebody should write about that. 

Lovers' Lane