Monthly Archives: July 2012

July 30, 2012 Goodbye

Gentle readers,

do you know how it feels to be a guest editor, to present a lovely poem, and searching questions, and hear not a peep in reply? Well, yes, some of you do. OK, fair enough. But you will never grasp the quiet joy of first holding your own baby, nor the quiet comedy of handing him back to his “father.” Wait, what was my point? Ah yes: Thank you, Stephanie, for capably pinch-hitting with a writer dear to my heart! And I’ll take a stab at your question about the closing lines of “On Turning Ten.” I liked the first half of the closing stanza (paraphrasing here, “I thought my skin covered nothing but light–if you cut me, it would glow”) much better then the second half. Those lines are truly imaginative, filled with what both the poet and the 10-year-old should have: wonder. The closing lines, in their clever allusion to stanza 4 of Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” hit me as too clever by half, and stole a little from the emotional weight–which was perfectly balanced, I might add–nothing too heavy there–of the previous words. “He was doing just fine all on his own!” is I guess what I’m saying. So yes, they are earned, but in fact he had earned much more.

But how’s this for an introduction? I met this week’s poet while shelving books at Widener Library. Later I helped him move a full-sized futon down a fire escape in Boston’s north end. For those of you who like your poems tightly-wound, tightly-rhymed, and filled to the brim with suggestive linguistic play, Daniel Groves is your man. That his poetry rides a high-wire between dead seriousness and psychadelic wordplay mustn’t surprise: his name is an anagram for “I love dangers.” Look for his debut collection “The Lost Boys” at a bookstore near you, if the University of Chicago bookstore happens to be near you. Otherwise just buy it off Amazon. -ed.


The word enacts
what it contracts:
our nicety
joins God with ye
in the same breath,
as if (since death
or parting occasion
this blessed union)–
at a loss–to dictate
a better fate
(though body, ego
arrange it so),
and not confess
our separateness.
And what is lost
may yet be glossed–
e, w,
i, t, h,–through
wit, he looks back,
an elegiac,
self-conscious he,
grieving history
(till bid his own
goodbye), alone.
And what is gained
may be explained–
another o
but does it show
an eternal circle
or perfect nil?
End, restart
play counterpart,
just as goodbye
would rectify
what has also
gained an o
the living hell
our words foretell
in greeting when
we meet again.


July 23, 2012 On Turning Ten

Dear Readers,

Most of the poetry your humble guest editor reads these days is of the nursery rhyme variety, so you will forgive me if I have selected a simple poem that takes childhood as its subject.

There is another, more important reason for selecting “On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins: I have a very dear memory of sharing it with a friend, the very friend whose wedding this past weekend led me here to my Gmail and my keyboard this morning.

Much like a summer pop song, for me this poem’s appeal lies almost entirely with the “hook” at the end. What are your thoughts? Does the poem earn those beautiful final sentences?

Billy Collins needs no introduction, and I will only remind you that this selection comes from his fourth book of poetry, Picnic, Lightning, the title of which deserves a Lifetime Achievement Award in book naming.


On Turning Ten

The whole idea of it makes me feel

like I’m coming down with something,

something worse than any stomach ache

or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–

a kind of measles of the spirit,

a mumps of the psyche,

a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.


You tell me it is too early to be looking back,

but that is because you have forgotten

the perfect simplicity of being one

and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.

But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.

At four I was an Arabian wizard.

I could make myself invisible

by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.

At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.


But now I am mostly at the window

watching the late afternoon light.

Back then it never fell so solemnly

against the side of my tree house,

and my bicycle never leaned against the garage

as it does today,

all the dark blue speed drained out of it.


This is the beginning of sadness, I say to myself,

as I walk through the universe in my sneakers.

It is time to say good-bye to my imaginary friends,

time to turn the first big number.


It seems only yesterday I used to believe

there was nothing under my skin but light.

If you cut me I could shine.

But now when I fall upon the sidewalks of life,

I skin my knees. I bleed.

July 16, 2012 Against Disaster

Dear readers,

Do you know what’s funny about Theodore Roethke? That his name is an anagram for “O the odor, the reek!” Almost nothing else about Theodore Roethke is funny. He was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1908, his dad died of cancer when he was 15, he described himself as odious and unhappy, he drank to fit in with the “non-scholarly” crowd at University of Michigan, dropped out of law school after a semester, and wrote poems with titles like “Epidermal Macabre,” “Dolor,” “In a Dark Time,” “Infirmity,” “Journey into the Interior,” and, incongruously, “Pickle Belt”–which sounds more like a Shel Silverstein poem. Roethke did not burst onto the scene, but slowly built his reputation from the post-college years on, gaining acclaim from peers and reviewers like W.H. Auden and Elizabeth Drew. At the same time, he was exhausted from teaching and writing, and by the 1950s suffered from real emotional agony and frequent “mental breakdowns.” He was hospitalized more than once and eventually dismissed from his teaching post at Michigan State.
Through it all he was his own subject, and his poems emanate from a pretty transparently autobiographical speaker, a restless and intense interrogator of his own mind–and his world and times reflected therein. William Heyen writes that “Roethke was an artist who experienced moments of deep religious feeling and almost inexpressible illumination. His choice was not traditional Christianity or atheism, but a reliance upon the mystic perceptions of his own imagination.” Today’s poem is early Roethke–Poetry magazine published “Against Disaster” in 1938. Having watched a good bit of film noir lately, I was thinking about it in relation to that dark, stark, pessimistic and sometimes paranoid genre.  Isolation, disintegration, , an arbitrary fate, sinking into a pit, ominous atmosphere, and perhaps the hope or will to escape it–it is all here. He leaves it open whether that last is enough. In some film noirs, the protagonist does indeed “get his man,” and justice or the “love plot” has a happy ending. In true film noirs–never. As he aged, Roethke suffered from bursitis, arthritis, manic excess, alcoholism, and he died of a heart attack while taking a swim in his friend’s pool in 1963. -ed.
Now I am out of element
And far from anything my own,
My sources drained of all content,
The pieces of my spirit strewn.
All random, wasted, and dispersed,
The particles of being lie;
My special heaven is reversed,
I move beneath an evil sky.
This flat land has become a pit
Wherein I am beset by harm,
The heart must rally to my wit
And rout the specter of alarm.

July 9, 2012 The Drought

Continuing in the weather vein, as the weather continues to vex. I didn’t really know who Gary Soto was until I did a little looking–at first I mistook him for Gary Snyder, given the nature theme and western swing of this 12-liner. Soto was born in 1952 in California, and, though an undistinguished student through high school, had the chance to study poetry with Philip Levine (a MV favorite) at Cal State Fresno in the 1970’s. He’s perhaps better known for children’s and young adult fiction, although his poetry has won some awards as well. The poem below comes from a volume that was nominated for the Pulitzer. Note how peaceful and threatening the images are, and how sure-footed the diction. -ed.
The clouds shouldered a path up the mountains
East of Ocampo, and then descended,
Scraping their bellies gray on the cracked shingles of slate.
They entered the valley, and passed the roads that went
Trackless, the houses blown open, their cellars creaking
And lined with the bottles that held their breath for years.
They passed the fields where the trees dried thin as hat racks
And the plow’s tooth bit the earth for what endured.
But what continued were the wind that plucked the birds spineless
And the young who left with a few seeds in each pocket,
Their belts tightened on the fifth notch of hunger—
Under the sky that deafened from listening for rain.

July 2, 2012 November for Beginners

From one former poet laureate to another: Rita Dove served in the post from 1993-4. Her work is noted not only for its political import, but also a lyricism and simple beauty. Many of her poems and characters seem easy to talk to. This one, however, had me stumped a bit. Who’s the we she’s speaking from? And this poem, too, brings us an examination of seasons, or seasons changing. Those of us the hotlands can welcome its mention of snow and wind. -ed.


Snow would be the easy
way out—that softening
sky like a sigh of relief
at finally being allowed
to yield. No dice.
We stack twigs for burning
in glistening patches
but the rain won’t give.


So we wait, breeding
mood, making music
of decline. We sit down
in the smell of the past
and rise in a light
that is already leaving.
We ache in secret,


a gloomy line
or two of German.
When spring comes
we promise to act
the fool. Pour,
rain! Sail, wind,
with your cargo of zithers!