Author Archives: Nim

Monday’s Verse 8/19/2019

Dear readers,

If a sonnet is a 14-line poem, then what is a 15-line poem? An imperfect sonnet, right? That’s what I think.

I went camping this weekend and brought John Ashbery’s collected poems and Robert Frost’s collected poems. I assumed the latter (1874-1963) would be a better companion for the creek, the leaves, the insects, the campfire smoke, the dark, and the bright moon, but I was wrong. I can’t say why, but — even though my last MV opinion on Frost was pretty affirming — I got tired quickly of rhyming couplets and poems titled "The Oven Bird" or "The Wood-pile" or "The Pasture," or "The Snow" or "The Tuft of Flowers." Pleasant enough for a weekend, but I wouldn’t wanna live there, knowhatimsayin? Ashbery, on the other hand, gave me a whole universe of the imagination to run around in.

Not all Frost’s poetry is bucolic, but the other ones that tried to "say something" I didn’t find all that compelling. So this may be our last Frost entry — a poet doesn’t have to speak to all readers, or even the same reader, all the time. Nonetheless, a tiny valedictory for the man, and I even found one that doesn’t rhyme. Not the right line-count, no end-rhyme… this is the kind of rule-breaking I like. it was first published in Harper’s Magazine, July 1920. -ed

FOR ONCE, THEN, SOMETHING

Others taunt me with having knelt at well-curbs

Always wrong to the light, so never seeing

Deeper down in the well than where the water

Gives me back in a shining surface picture

Me myself in the summer heaven godlike

Looking out of a wreath of fern and cloud puffs.

Once, when trying with chin against a well-curb,

I discerned, as I thought, beyond the picture,

Through the picture, a something white, uncertain,

Something more of the depths—and then I lost it.

Water came to rebuke the too clear water.

One drop fell from a fern, and lo, a ripple

Shook whatever it was lay there at bottom,

Blurred it, blotted it out. What was that whiteness?

Truth? A pebble of quartz? For once, then, something.

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Monday’s Verse 8/12/2019

Dear readers,

I’m back in your inbox after a mostly unintentional hiatus, during which I was not making enough time myself for poetry, and also not taking the time to share poetry with friends.

That had to change this week, because I’m actually dying for company now that I have to share the news that David Berman, erstwhile Silver Jews singer/songwriter, is dead. He had just released a new album under the moniker Purple Mountains, and was preparing to tour. The news, alas, was a shock but no surprise; all his written work is testament to his depression and other emotional struggles. He’d attempted suicide before, in the early 2000s, and apparently succeeded this time, by hanging.

You could call his view of life "slanted and enchanted," to go with an album title he came up with for an affiliated band. There’s no real novelty in finding the sublime in the mundane, but for me David had A knack for doing that in contemporary terms that match any poet out there. And he was a published poet, too, having completed an MFA at UMass Amherst and publishing the well-received Actual Air in 1999. Take a look back at 5/4/2015’s MV for his "Self-Portrait at 28," which clicked with many of us.

I find a little bit of Wallace Stevens in this title, and I’ve sniffed hints of Stevens around other of his work. If your tastes run to dark-comedy-slacker indie rock, by all means check out any of the SJ records; he certainly knew his way around a 3-chord song, a one-liner, a rhyming couplet, and indelible images (feel free to share your own here — "the alleys are the footnotes of the avenues?").

Those of us close to his music are pretty crushed by this news. Although he would have had a lot more pain to live through, I feel like he still had a lot more joy to bring me. I hope you get some out of the below poem, which I think emblematizes much of what I’ve written above. No line is more David Berman than "You know what I’m talking about," in the middle. He was ironic and wry, but he always let you in on the joke if you were listening. -ed.

THE CHARM OF 5:30

It’s too nice a day to read a novel set in England.

We’re within inches of the perfect distance from the sun,
the sky is blueberries and cream,
and the wind is as warm as air from a tire.
Even the headstones in the graveyard
Seem to stand up and say “Hello! My name is…”

It’s enough to be sitting here on my porch,
thinking about Kermit Roosevelt,
following the course of an ant,
or walking out into the yard with a cordless phone
to find out she is going to be there tonight

On a day like today, what looks like bad news in the distance
turns out to be something on my contact, carports and white
courtesy phones are spontaneously reappreciated
and random “okay”s ring through the backyards.

This morning I discovered the red tints in cola
when I held a glass of it up to the light
and found an expensive flashlight in the pocket of a winter coat
I was packing away for summer.

It all reminds me of that moment when you take off your sunglasses
after a long drive and realize it’s earlier
and lighter out than you had accounted for.

You know what I’m talking about,

and that’s the kind of fellowship that’s taking place in town, out in
the public spaces. You won’t overhear anyone using the words
“dramaturgy” or “state inspection" today. We’re too busy getting along.

It occurs to me that the laws are in the regions and the regions are
in the laws, and it feels good to say this, something that I’m almost
sure is true, outside under the sun.

Then to say it again, around friends, in the resonant voice of a
nineteenth-century senator, just for a lark.

There’s a shy looking fellow on the courthouse steps, holding up a
placard that says “But, I kinda liked Reagan.” His head turns slowly
as a beautiful girl walks by, holding a refrigerated bottle up against
her flushed cheek.

She smiles at me and I allow myself to imagine her walking into
town to buy lotion at a brick pharmacy.
When she gets home she’ll apply it with great lingering care before
moving into her parlor to play 78 records and drink gin-and-tonics
beside her homemade altar to James Madison.

In a town of this size, it’s certainly possible that I’ll be invited over
one night.

In fact I’ll bet you something.

Somewhere in the future I am remembering today. I’ll bet you
I’m remembering how I walked into the park at five thirty,
my favorite time of day, and how I found two cold pitchers
of just poured beer, sitting there on the bench.

I am remembering how my friend Chip showed up
with a catcher’s mask hanging from his belt and how I said

great to see you, sit down, have a beer, how are you,
and how he turned to me with the sunset reflecting off his contacts
and said, wonderful, how are you.

-1999

Monday’s Verse 4/1/2019

Dear readers,

back after a brief, unintentional hiatus; I hope you were reading poems anyway the whole time. A special April Fool’s shout-out to founding member Jim Breen, who celebrated a birthday over the weekend. He knows that April, far from being the cruellest month, is National Poetry Month, and should be celebrated by re-acquainting ourselves with all the American masters like Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979).

I looked for a poem incorporating something about Jim, and this is what I found. See if you can spot the somewhat comical buried treasure. Bishop, of course, is a fantastic rhymer, and that skill is on display in "Santos." I also like that she seems to carry on an internal, but audible, conversation with herself as she speaks the lines, as in that set-off, rhetorical question in line 3. I’m assuming, but don’t know, that Santos is a Greek island. Well, happy poetic voyages, and have a great week! -ed.

ARRIVAL AT SANTOS

Here is a coast; here is a harbor;

here, after a meager diet of horizon, is some scenery;

impractically shaped and—who knows?—self-pitying mountains,

sad and harsh beneath their frivolous greenery,

with a little church on top of one. And warehouses,

some of them painted a feeble pink, or blue,

and some tall, uncertain palms. Oh, tourist,

is this how this country is going to answer you

and your immodest demands for a different world,

and a better life, and complete comprehension

of both at last, and immediately,

after eighteen days of suspension?

Finish your breakfast. The tender is coming,

a strange and ancient craft, flying a strange and brillant rag.

So that’s the flag. I never saw it before.

I somehow never thought of there being a flag,

but of course there was, all along. And coins, I presume,

and paper money; they remain to be seen.

And gingerly now we climb down the ladder backward,

myself and a fellow passenger named Miss Breen,

descending into the midst of twenty-six freighters

waiting to be loaded with green coffee beans.

Please, boy, do be more careful with that boat hook!

Watch out! Oh! It has caught Miss Breen’s

skirt! There! Miss Breen is about seventy,

a retired police lieutenant, six feet tall,

with beautiful bright blue eyes and a kind expression.

Her home, when she is at home, is in Glens Fall

s, New York. There. We are settled.

The customs officials will speak English, we hope,

and leave us our bourbon and cigarettes.

Ports are necessities, like postage stamps, or soap,

but they seldom seem to care what impression they make,

or, like this, only attempt, since it does not matter,

the unassertive colors of soap, or postage stamps—

wasting away like the former, slipping the way the latter

do when we mail the letteres we wrote on the boat,

either because the glue here is very inferior

or because of the heat. We leave Santos at once;

we are driving to the interior.

-1952

Monday’s Verse 3/4/2019

Hi everybody!

Briefly, James Merrill is a favorite and someone who’s been featured on MV many, many times before. I came across his name again, yesterday, because it was his birthday! 93 years ago, although he’s no longer with us (1926-1995).

Or is he? As we’ve discussed before, he was a ouija board nut, big fan of Yeats’ mystical poems/projects, and conducted many seances and automatic writing sessions. He definitely believed in spooks, and if spooks existed for him, why wouldn’t he be a spook for others? I mean, among spook believers, among which I am not.

I mention that because I think it’s what he’s getting at here in this short, recondite poem. The storm, the reeling candle, the ghostly passage… I couldn’t find a March poem from him, but April’s not too far away now, is it? -ed.

ANOTHER APRIL

The panes flash, tremble with your ghostly passage
Through them, an x-ray sheerness billowing, and I have risen
But cannot speak, remembering only that one was meant
To rise and not to speak. Young storm, this house is yours.
Let our eye darken, your rain come, the candle reeling
Deep in what still reflects control itself and me.
Daybreak’s great gray rust-veined irises humble and proud
Along your path will have laid their foreheads in the dust.

Monday’s Verse 2/19/2019

Dear readers,

yesterday was the birthday of Audre Lorde (1934-1992), "black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet," in her own words. Inside and outside poetry, she affected this world she walked through. What strength! You might look at coal->diamond as a metaphor of same. -ed.

COAL

I

Is the total black, being spoken

From the earth’s inside.

There are many kinds of open.

How a diamond comes into a knot of flame

How a sound comes into a word, coloured

By who pays what for speaking.

Some words are open

Like a diamond on glass windows

Singing out within the crash of passing sun

Then there are words like stapled wagers

In a perforated book—buy and sign and tear apart—

And come whatever wills all chances

The stub remains

An ill-pulled tooth with a ragged edge.

Some words live in my throat

Breeding like adders. Others know sun

Seeking like gypsies over my tongue

To explode through my lips

Like young sparrows bursting from shell.

Some words

Bedevil me.

Love is a word another kind of open—

As a diamond comes into a knot of flame

I am black because I come from the earth’s inside

Take my word for jewel in your open light.

Monday’s Verse 2/11/2019

Readers:

Welcome to Valentine’s week! In lieu of a Thursday, 2/14 posting (though this forum did get its name from the "Thursday’s Verse" feature in my undergrad rag), we’ll just get you started off right, especially given the titular relevance of today’s featured poem.

Diane Wakoski (b. 1937) has been a vital voice in the ongoing conversation of American poetry for 50 years. For the past several decades she’s been teaching at MSU, where she is now Distinguished University Professor. She has said that when she began writing poetry in the 1950s (fully in the Beat mode), the New Criticism was ascendant in poetry analysis, and that she found it liberating. No longer did she have to compare herself with Wordsworth, or compete with Athena, King Arthur, and Oedipus as she created her voices. "I could invent Diane as a persona — there was no stigma to writing in first person. This was as liberating as free verse itself." And look at what she’s done with that voice and in that format (free verse).

The below poem is one we’ve read dozens of times, annually. It’s in free verse but also tightly structured. One of things I love about it is the leaps between outlandish, surreal images and very concrete, visceral imagery that ties the concerns of the emotions to the physicality of the human body. And of course we’ve talked before–probably annually–about its skilled use of repetition. One could almost say incantation. How have other readers’ relationships with this poem changed over the years? I’m sure I found it daunting at first, but comforting now. It’s an old friend I always treasure my time with, even if only every mid-February. Have a good week, -ed.

BLUE MONDAY

Blue of the heaps of beads poured into her breasts

and clacking together in her elbows;

blue of the silk

that covers lily-town at night;

blue of her teeth

that bite cold toast

and shatter on the streets;

blue of the dyed flower petals with gold stamens

hanging like tongues

over the fence of her dress

at the opera/opals clasped under her lips

and the moon breaking over her head a

gush of blood-red lizards.

Blue Monday. Monday at 3:00 and

Monday at 5. Monday at 7:30 and

Monday at 10:00. Monday passed under the rippling

California fountain. Monday alone

a shark in the cold blue waters.

You are dead: wound round like a paisley shawl.

I cannot shake you out of the sheets. Your name

is still wedged in every corner of the sofa.

Monday is the first of the week,

and I think of you all week.

I beg Monday not to come

so that I will not think of you

all week.

You paint my body blue. On the balcony

in the softy muddy night, you paint me

with bat wings and the crystal

the crystal

the crystal

the crystal in your arm cuts away

the night, folds back ebony whale skin

and my face, the blue of new rifles,

and my neck, the blue of Egypt,

and my breasts, the blue of sand,

and my arms, bass-blue,

and my stomach, arsenic;

there is electricity dripping from me like cream;

there is love dripping from me I cannot use—like acacia or

jacaranda—fallen blue and gold flowers, crushed into the street.

Love passed me in a blue business suit

and fedora.

His glass cane, hollow and filled with

sharks and whales …

He wore black

patent leather shoes

and had a mustache. His hair was so black

it was almost blue.

“Love,” I said.

“I beg your pardon,” he said.

“Mr. Love,” I said.

“I beg your pardon,” he said.

So I saw there was no use bothering him on the street

Love passed me on the street in a blue

business suit. He was a banker

I could tell.

So blue trains rush by in my sleep.

Blue herons fly overhead.

Blue paint cracks in my

arteries and sends titanium

floating into my bones.

Blue liquid pours down

my poisoned throat and blue veins

rip open my breast. Blue daggers tip

and are juggled on my palms.

Blue death lives in my fingernails.

If I could sing one last song

with water bubbling through my lips

I would sing with my throat torn open,

the blue jugular spouting that black shadow pulse,

and on my lips

I would balance volcanic rock

emptied out of my veins. At last

my children strained out

of my body. At last my blood

solidified and tumbling into the ocean.

It is blue.

It is blue.

It is blue.

-1969

Monday’s Verse 2/4/2019

Dear readers,

a while back on my (paltry) Twitter feed, I saw a poet who’s been featured here before claim a new form… I tucked it away for a future date, and today is the future. We read Jericho Brown’s "Trojan" in November, when it was brand-spanking new, prompting one Portland reader to respond, "That right there is a really good poem."

And the form he announced around that time is the "duplex." I was hoping we could engage in some literary reverse-engineering, and try to figure out the rubric. People have been contacting Mr. Brown asking for the rules, and he asks for their email via DM so he can send them… that’s an option, too, but… we can do this, right? There’s also a really cute message from a student saying Help!, I have a sonnet due tomorrow but I only have these rules for the duplex… to which Mr. Brown replies, Well, a duplex is a sonnet! So there’s at least a couple of our rules…

To me, at first glance, I’m seeing kind of a mash-up of villanelle & sonnet. Maybe seeing two side-by-side will help. Do you think the two below share the same street number? -ed.

DUPLEX

A poem is a gesture toward home.
It makes dark demands I call my own.

Memory makes demands darker than my own:
My last love drove a burgundy car.

My first love drove a burgundy car.
He was fast and awful, tall as my father.

Steadfast and awful, tall as my father
Hit hard as a hailstorm. He’d leave marks.

Light rain hits easy but leaves its own mark
Like the sound of a mother weeping again.

Like the sound of my mother weeping again.
No sound beating ends where it began.

None of the beaten end up how we began.
A poem is a gesture toward home.

DUPLEX (I begin with love)

I begin with love, hoping to end there.
I don’t want to leave a messy corpse.

I don’t want to leave a messy corpse
Full of medicines that turn in the sun.

Some of my medicines turn in the sun.
Some of us don’t need hell to be good.

Those who need least, need hell to be good.
What are the symptoms of your sickness?

Here is one symptom of my sickness:
Men who love me are men who miss me.

Men who leave me are men who miss me
In the dream where I am an island.

In the dream where I am an island,
I grow green with hope. I’d like to end there.