Monthly Archives: February 2015

Jan. 29, 2007: secret and understudy (Beverly Rollwagon)

Hey kids!

Continuing in my role as the Prince of the Quotidian (spot the
reference), I present two short ones by Beverly Rollwagon. Again, I
know nothing about this writer; I cribbed these from "The Writer’s
Almanac." I wonder if that’s her real name, though.

A few people noted individually that they also loved last week’s
selection (the word "brilliant" was popular), but found it
"depressing" in addition to slightly humorous. Ah, but you forget that
melancholy is the baseline of my affective life, so I tend to notice
it without comment, the same way that I might simply notice that a
poem is literal, or conversational, or in English. Similar thing
happened when my book club read "Little Children"–I found it
hilarious and exhilirating, others disturbing and sad. Plug for both
novel and movie, by the way.

OK, enough. These two also have a slightly bitter edge–like the skin
of a sweet, juicy pear. -ed.

secret

She just wants to know your secret.
She won’t tell if you’ve had an affair,
or your face lifted, or when you last made
love. She won’t tell if you’re pilfering
from the office, or gambling when you’re
supposed to be at the hospital visiting
your mother, or what you would do
for money. Strangers tell her the most
unlikely things, and she never repeats
them. Once, a woman told her she
carried a gun. Silver with a mother-of
pearl inlay on the handle, a little jewel.
She opened her purse, and the gun
rested in its own velvet pocket, ready and
dangerous. Like every secret.

understudy

She just wants an understudy, a body
double for the days when she does
not feel like appearing in any of the roles
she has assumed and/or been assigned.
She places an ad in the paper. Wanted:
one wife, mother, daughter, neighbor,
friend. Live-in OK. Own car necessary.
No lines to memorize; everything ad-
libbed. No days off.

-2004

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Jan. 16, 2006: ORACLE (Seamus Heaney)

Hey ya’ll,

Though Seamus Heaney’s name is still an anagram for "Eyu–she’s a man!",
he really needs no introduction to this group. So I’m going to let Adam
Sleper say something informal about the man, followed by one of his more
peaceful poems. Man, myth, medium, opinions?

***

Funny story for you. We went to brunch Monday with our upstairs neighbors (kinda cool, it’s not quite breakfast and it’s not quite lunch), and they told us they saw Seamus Heaney nearly get into a bar fight in Milwaulkee. Apparently, some guy was at a Milwaulkee bar with his buddies and one of the guys said, "Hey, isn’t that Seamus Heaney sitting over there?" Heaney had just given a reading in Milwaulkee. His friends didn’t know who he was, so the guy told them. At which point one of the dudes busted out his laser pointer and pointed it at Seamus’s forehead. "Who, that guy?" Allegedly, at this point, Heaney’s entourage came over to the table (it was the table next to my neighbors) and told the guy to knock it off. The guy, for whatever reason some guys like to do such things, refused. He kept pointing the damn laser at Heaney. Well, Heaney got pretty pissed and eventually marched over and grabbed the guy by his shirt collar and told him a few choice words. Heaney’s entourage came over to the table and restrained him, at which point the bar owners figured out what had happened and kicked the trouble maker out of the bar. Good stuff.

***

ORACLE

Hide in the hollow trunk
of the willow tree,
its listening familiar,
until, as usual, they
cuckoo your name
across the fields.
You can hear them
draw the poles of stiles
as they approach
calling you out:
small mouth and ear
in a woody cleft,
lobe and larynx
of the mossy places.

-1972

Dec. 5, 2005: A DOG’S LIFE (Dan Groves)

Hi friends!

I just found out a friend of mine at work is a poet. Not just a poet, a
published poet. Not just a published poet, but one of the "best new
writers" according to some new collection, and so I found a piece of his
from a 2003 edition of POETRY magazine. In the same volume were pieces by
Maxine Kumin, Billy Collins, Ted Kooser, John Kinsella, and Eamon Grennan,
just to name the big shots. For those scoring at home, that’s 3 US poets
laureate and two badass Irish writers, and 5 poets we’ve read in this
forum.

So joining them today is Dan Groves, who sleeps on my old futon. True
story. And in the spirit of my renewed attention to what makes the poem
work, note that this one relies on a lot of basic wordplay, focussing on
how meaning changes depending on whom we’re addressing. The poet here
ostensibly addresses a dog, but also an audience, and some of the cliched
doggy-speak phrases are thus revived. There is also a time-lapse
example of chiasmus, a hard-core old school technique favored by Milton in
his poetry and Seamus Deane in his prose, which basically involves an
"X-ing" or crossing of phrases in some reverse order. Usually it’s a sound
technique, But here, as it happens between the first and last lines, the
sound effect is all but lost, while the reversal of meaning–again
crossing human language and canine commands–renders the skillful wordplay
poignant. I like the overall formal rigidity and faithful meter, and
there’s more to point out, so I’ll let ya’ll chime in before saying
anything else. And NB, I don’t even like dogs! ~mjl

* "destroyed", l.4, should be in italics

A DOG’S LIFE

A stay of execution: one last day,
your day, old Everydog, then, as they say,
or as we say (a new trick to avoid
finalities implicit in _destroyed_),
you have to be put down, or put to sleep
the very dog who, once, would fight to keep
from putting down, despite our shouts, a shoe
until he gnawed it to the sole, and who
would sit up, through our sleepless nights, to bark
away some menace looming in the dark.

Can you pick up the sense of all this talk?
Or do you still just listen for a walk,
or else, the ultimate reward, a car?
My God, tomorrow’s ride . . . Well, here we are,
right now. You stare at me and wag your tail.
I stare back, dog-like, big and dumb. Words fail.
No more commands, ignore my monologue,
go wander off. Good dog. You’re a good dog.
And you could never master, anyway,
the execution, as it were, of Stay.

Nov. 28, 2005: ON TURNING TEN (Billy Collins)

Yo:

Jim Breen is either the Lou Costello to my Bud Abbot, the Tom Gordon to my
Mariano Rivera, or the Kings of Leon to my U2. As you like it. But hey!
Speaking of more natirally significant numbers, like 10, how’s about we
try on some good old Billy Collins? Intrepid reader Stephanie Tyburski
sent this to me, and I’ll let her only-slightly-expurgated e-mail handle
the introduction:

"…pretend that this response was really about the time I
saw a guy on the food channel glaze a ham with coca-cola.) He’s a favorite
of mine (though I was disappointed by his latest collection, "The Trouble
with Poetry" — he phoned it in), and this poem really shows his knack for
transforming the ordinary and unremarkable. When I was in college I tried to
"experiment" with writing poetry from everyday language — no
fancy-schmancy, 25 cent words. When he’s on, Billy Collins does this better
than anybody. I believe there are stanza breaks in the original, but, the
Website I cribbed it off of didn’t preserve them.*"

*I handled this later. -ed.

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.

-2002

Nov. 21, 2005: ODE TO INSIGNIFICANT NUMBERS (Matthew Lamberti)

Peoples,

Let the record show that it is still Monday–by nearly 2 hours! That’s
three weeks in a row, on time and on point. Word.

When this little reading group started, lo those eight years ago, it was
actually intended as a poetry-sharing group where others would submit
their
favorite poems, and original work as well. Ah, but I was young and didn’t
we all want to write poetry then? No? I stand corrupted. At any rate, we
still ACCEPT original verse, and to that end I would like to share the
first poem I’ve written in probably two years. Now, we needn’t subject it
to the same rigorous critique we’d give a Paul Muldoon game/poem…but if
you absolutely adore it feel free to respond. ~ed.

PS: The poet’s name is an anagram for "BAM!–rattle with me."

Ode to Insignificant Numbers

When I was six I got three
stitches. Three little crosses
on my chin. They were meaningless.

The young man turning nineteen
may buy no beer, and really, more
R-rated movie tickets? Trifling.

A dozen eggs is good, makes sense.
But a half dozen lasts you half a
week. Hardly, therefore, of consequence.

Now a quatrain, there’s a unit
of freight. But is it? It wants
for both the pith of the tercet and
the lingering surprise of the quintain.
Irrelevant.

My god, forty-three,
you are putting me to sleep.
I just thought of you, now I’m bored,
and there’s absolutely nothing to say.

Also, what good comes from forty-one?
Same story as his Irish twin. Nugatory.

Imagine a countdown without "four."
The new year would still turn.
And if it’s 2004, it’s a bore.

Oh, you paltry, shambling lot, you
insignificant numbers. You are an
astonishing parade of nullity.

And I love you, for your approach,
your passing,
doesn’t trouble me. I feel fine.
Eighty-two, nine hundred, gazillions, twenty-nine…

-2005

Nov. 14, 2005: NIGHT THOUGHT (Bill Knott)

So, picking up on our poetry criticism discussion of last week: we seem to
go to poetry for different things at different times. And, I should say,
to different poets! Some of those reflective, staid, "acceptable"
Iowa-school poems may be just what we need when we’re trying to think
about how to do things with words, or trying to create something lucid and
lovely ourselves. But you might need to recite some Allen
Ginsberg–loudly–on Friday at 8 pm after a long week and several
cocktails.

Someone like Rita Dove, though a contemporary, really may not have much at
all in common with "talk poet" David Antin, who is famous for a
spontaneous type of oral verse that was never intended for page or book.
How do we fit all these approaches into our own–often
fluctuating–standards for what is "good poetry?" A review in today’s New
York Times comes up against this critical glass ceiling in dealing with an
anthology that aims quite frankly to be middlebrow. And there are some
damn good irreverent lines in the review that make me trust the writer’s
judgement. Says David Orr:

‘According to Keillor: "Poetry is the last preserve of honest speech. . .
. All that matters about poetry to me now is directness and clarity and
truthfulness. All that is twittery and lit’ry: no thanks, pal." Well, fair
enough, pal. Of course, in the literary world, directness and clarity and
truthfulness are themselves matters of artifice, but a man is entitled to
his preferences. There’s plenty to admire about this anthology and the
spirit in which it was undertaken.

On the other hand, there’s also plenty to be annoyed about. The most
obvious problem with "Good Poems for Hard Times" is that it proposes that
"the meaning of poetry is to give courage." That is not the meaning of
poetry; that is the meaning of Scotch. The meaning of poetry is poetry.
But a more subtle and intractable difficulty is that Keillor’s taste isn’t
just limited, it’s limited within its limitations. He likes plainspoken
writing that is long on sentiment, short on surface complication – a
defensible aesthetic, if one that occasionally condescends to its subject
matter and audience.’

Me, I like poems with a little surface complication*, but there are plenty
of OTHER reasons to enjoy, too. I think the little epiphanies are what
lyrical verse (our mainstay in thsi forum) can do so well, but if all
poetry aimed for them I would begin to cringe as I neared every new poem’s
final line.

And now I’ll shut up. Here’s a poem by a very respected–is he local,
Boston peeps?–guy who writes, typically, with a directness I admire. No
fussing about here with "meaning," he just invests an everyday item with
metaphorical weight.

-ed.

*I can compare my way of enjoying a poem to the football fan who knows to
watch the blocking of the lines, rather than just where the ball goes.

Night Thought

Compared to one’s normal clothes, pajamas
are just as caricature as the dreams
they bare: farce-skins, facades, unserious
soft versions of the _mode diem_, they seem
to have come from a posthumousness;
floppy statues of ourselves, slack seams
of death. Their form mimics the decay
that will fit us so comfortably someday.

-Bill Knott, 2001

Nov. 7, 2005: WHY WE SHOULDN’T WRITE LOVE POEMS, OR IF WE MUST, WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUBLISH THEM (Beth Ann Fennelly)

Dear group-of-poetry-lovers,

It occurs to me that in the past few…ok, more like a year, I’ve strayed
a little bit from my mission, which was to really introduce the poem or
poet, doing a little analysis, or asking pointed questions to help us all
digest our weekly reading. I suppose it’s just good old laziness that has
led me to choose items more out of topicality or serendipity of late, thus
explaining why I’ve chosen said poem as opposed to investigating how it
works. So I’ll try again. I’ll probably still fail 50% of the time, but
I’ll try.

I recently read an article about Beth Ann Fennelly in NOTRE DAME MAGAZINE
(she is a 1993 alum of the school) and was drawn to pick up some of her
work today. Although she’s won several grants and a KENYON REVIEW prize
for her first collection, and although her most recent collection is
mainly about child-bearing and -rearing, she claimed in an interview that
her proudest accomplishment was running the 1998 Chicago Marathon. It’s a
flat course, but I’ll give her props for that.

In the poem below, and even in its title, she exhibits the wry, warmly
ironic humor that I’ve noted in a few of her pieces. It’s a voice I
imagine we can all feel comfortable with. And she’s subtle enough that she
chases her subject from a kind of detached literary analysis,
through young,
crush-like emotions that have to get out, then deftly turns from a couple
decent metaphors to both the quotidian atoms that love is built from and
eventually to the full blush of sex–which actually climaxes–and then
"returns home"–home to the point/theme of the poem–with what is
essentially the closing couplet of what’s been–surprise!–a double
sonnet.

My question: does the coyness of title and ending vitiate the
full-throated
humanity of the intervening 26 lines? And oh, hey, any thoughts about how
it all sounds? OOooh, and one more: does anyone else see the near-obscene
near-spoonerism (a term S. Bailey of Boulder, CO, will be glad to define)
tucked in there? I spotted it while scanning line-endings for rhyme and
thought, ooh, Beth Ann, you not-so-brazen hussy!

All my love forever darlings,

Matthew

WHY WE SHOULDN’T WRITE LOVE POEMS,
OR IF WE MUST,
WHY WE SHOULDN’T PUBLISH THEM

How silly Robert Lowell seems in NORTON’S,
all his love vows on facing pages: his second wife,
who simmered like a wasp, his third,
the dolphin who saved him, even "Skunk Hour"
for Miss Bishop (he proposed though she was gay),
and so on, a ten-page manic zoo of love,
he should have praised less and bought a dog.

We fall in love, we fumble for a pen,
we send our poems out like Jehova’s Witnesses–
in time they return home, and when they do
they find the locks changed, FOR SALE stabbed in the yard.
Oh, aren’t the poems stupid and devout,
trying each key in their pockets in plain view
of the neighbors, some of whom openly gloat.

We should write about what we know
won’t change, volleyball, Styrofoam, or mildew.
If I want to write about our picninc in Alabama,
I should discuss the red-clay earth or fire ants,
not what happened while we sat cross-legged there
leaning over your surprise for me, crawfish you’d boiled with–
surprise again–three times too much crab boil–

Oh, how we thumbed apart the perforated joints
and scooped the white flesh from the red parings,
blowing on our wet hands between bites
because they burned like stars. Afterward,
in the public park, in hot sun, on red clay, inside my funnel
of thighs and skirt, your spicy, burning fingers shucked
the shell of my panties, then found my sweet meat
and strummed it, until I too was burning, burning, burning–

Ah, poem, I am weak from love, and you,
you are sneaky. Do not return home to shame me.

-2004