30 April 2009

Pocket Poem: Muriel Rukeyser

The Sixth Night: Waking

That first green night of their dreaming, asleep beneath
the tree,
God said, "Let meanings move," and there was poetry.

-- Muriel Rukeyser, from Body of Waking

Celebrating Poem in Your Pocket Day by carrying around the Library of America's American Poets Project volume featuring Muriel Rukeyser, edited by Adrienne Rich, as well as separately the poem below. I realized the other day that we've come to the end of April and I really haven't put up many poems by women, a crushing oversight on my part which I'll have to remedy in future posts. So what better way to begin to fix the problem than with this prolific proto-feminist. I also think her The Life of Poetry should be required reading for all poets.

Here's The Poem as Mask, part of whose most famous line was used as the title for an important early anthology of 20th Century women poets (I've linked to it in the poem).

The Poem as Mask


When I wrote of the women in their dances and
wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, exiled from himself, his life, the love gone
down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from

There is no mountain, there is no god, there is memory
of my torn life, myself split open in sleep, the rescued
beside me among the doctors, and a word
of rescue from the great eyes.

No more masks! No more mythologies!

Now, for the first time, the god lifts his hand,
the fragments join in me with their own music.

28 April 2009

Poetry in Motion

RIP Frankie Manning, "Ambassador" of the Lindy Hop

"For Hellzapoppin', I started from the beginning of "Jumpin' at the Woodside" and worked with about sixteen bars at a time, choreographing both the solos and the ensemble section as we went along....I hate to keep saying I choreographed this and I choreographed that because it makes me seem egotistical, but for Hellzapoppin' I set up a routine for each team." -- Frankie Manning

26 April 2009

Kevin Young

Many thanks to the organizers of Johns Hopkins University's annual Joshua Ringel Memorial Reading for inviting Kevin Young to Baltimore today. Here's one of the poems he read (an audio of this and other poems he read in Key West in 2008 can be found here)

Ode to Chicken

You are everything
to me. Frog legs,
rattlesnake, almost any
thing I put my mouth to
reminds me of you.
Folks always try
getting you to act
like you someone else --
nuggets, or tenders, fingers
you don't have -- but even
your unmanicured feet
taste sweet. Too loud
in the yard, segregated
dark & light, you are
like a day self-contained --
your sunset skin puckers
like a kiss. Let others
put on airs -- pigs graduate
to pork, bread
becomes toast, even beef
was once just bull
before it got them degrees --
but, even dead,
you keep your name
& head. You can make
anything of yourself,
you know -- but prefer
to wake me early
in the cold, fix me breakfast
& dinner too, leave me
to fly for you.

from Dear Darkness (Knopf 2008)

19 April 2009

J G Ballard

We take this quick break from poetry, to mourn the loss of British SF writer J G Ballard. Best known to mainstream readers as the author of the autobiographical novel, Empire of the Sun which Steven Spielberg made into a film (with the young Christian Bale as Jim), he was already well known as part of Science Fiction's New Wave of the 1960's. His books and stories are dystopian and intentionally disturbing -- and in some cases sadly precient. His novel The Drowned World, for example, posited an earth where the ice caps have melted, turning cities into overgrown tropical fantasy lands. As always with Ballard, however, the landscape characters move through echo their mental and emotional states.

For those new to Ballard, perhaps the later (somewhat related) novels Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes might be the best place to start, before delving into the nightmarish, erotic, surreal worlds of, say, Concrete Island, The Atrocity Exhibition, or the literally auto-erotic Crash (also made into a film, by Canadian Auteur David Cronenberg).

Considering his interest in media, mass culture, and the horrors lurking under the seemingly placid, and increasingly anesttitized through technology, surface of the world, Ballard would have relished the irony of his dying on the weekend after the release of the Bush Torture Memos, stunning in both their disgusting disregard for basic human rights and the banality of its bureaucratic language. Somewhere he's thinking "I told you so"

Excellent overview of Ballard from the LA Times (PS: the story referenced in the article, whose title they cannot print in a family paper is, "Why I want to Fuck Ronald Reagan")

"Ballard articulates clearly to me the implications of living in an age of total consumerism, of blanket surveillance, of enslavement designed as mass entertainment. But he also speaks to me of resistance through irony, immersion, ambivalence, imagination — of remixing, recycling, remaking, remodelling."RIP at the Ballardian website

A review of his autobiography, Miracles of Life

16 April 2009

Poetry in/on the Air

Many thanks to Dan Rodericks, Gregg Wilhelm, Mary Jo Salter, and a flood of callers and e-mailers for a great hour of poetry on WYPR (88.1 FM, Baltimore) today (Listen to the podcast here). It was very enjoyable and all of us were suprised by how many people sent in their favorite poems. Looks like former Poet Laureate Robert Pinksy was right: there are a lot of people out there who have favorite poems and long to share them with others. Thank you all

Here's the title poem from Mary Jo Salter's collection A Phone Call to the Future: New and Selected Poems . You can also hear her read it here

A Phone Call to the Future

Who says science fiction
is only set in the future?
After a while, the story that looks least
believable is the past.
The console television with three channels.
Black-and-white picture. Manual controls:
the dial clicks when you turn it, like the oven.
You have to get up and walk somewhere to change things.
You have to leave the house to mail a letter.

Waiting for letters. The phone rings: you're not there.
You'll never know. The phone rings, and you are,
there's only one, you have to stand or sit
plugged into it, a cord
confines you to the room where everyone
is also having dinner.
Hang up the phone. The family's having dinner.

Waiting for dinner. You bake things in the oven.
Or Mother does. That's how it always is.
She sets the temperature: it takes an hour.

The patience of the past.
The typewriter forgives its own mistakes.
You type on top sheet, carbon, onion skin.
The third is yours, a record of typeovers,
clotted and homemade-looking, like the seams
on dresses cut out on the dining table.
The sewing machine. The wanting to look nice.
Girls who made their dresses for the dance.

This was the Fifties: as far back as I go.
Some of it lasted decades.
That's why I remember it so clearly.

Also because, as I lie in a motel room
sometime in 2004, scrolling
through seventy-seven channels on my back
(there ought to be more—this is a cheap motel room),
I can revisit evidence, hear it ringing.
My life is movies, and tells itself in phones.

The rotary phone, so dangerously languid
and loud when the invalid must dial the police.
The killer coming up the stairs can hear it.
The detective ducks into a handy phone booth
to call his sidekick. Now at least there's touch tone.
But wait, the killer's waiting in the booth
to try to strangle him with the handy cord.
The cordless phone, first noted in the crook
of the neck of the secretary
as she pulls life-saving files.
Files come in drawers, not in the computer.
Then funny computers, big and slow as ovens.
Now the reporter's running with a cell phone
larger than his head,
if you count the antenna.

They're Martians, all of these people,
perhaps the strangest being the most recent.
I bought that phone. I thought it was so modern.
Phones shrinking year by year, as stealthily
as children growing.

It's the end of the world.
Or people are managing, after the conflagration.
After the epidemic. The global thaw.
Everyone's stunned. Nobody combs his hair.
Or it's a century later, and although
New York is gone, and love, and everyone
is a robot or a clone, or some combination,

you have to admire the technology of the future.
When you want to call somebody, you just think it.
Your dreams are filmed. Without a camera.
You can scroll through the actual things that happened,
and nobody disagrees. No memory.
No point of view. None of it necessary.

Past the time when the standard thing to say
is that, no matter what, the human endures.
That whatever humans make of themselves
is therefore human.
Past the transitional time
when humanity as we know it was there to say that.
Past the time we meant well but were wrong.
It's less than that, not anymore a concept.
Past the time when mourning was a concept.

Of course, such a projection,
however much I believe it, is sentimental—
belief being sentimental.
The thought of a woman born
in the fictional Fifties.

That's what I mean. We were Martians. Nothing's stranger
than our patience, our humanity, inhumanity.
Our worrying about robots. Earplug cell phones
that make us seem to be walking about like loonies
talking to ourselves. Perhaps we are.

All of it was so quaint. And I was there.
Poetry was there; we tried to write it.

15 April 2009

In Honor of Bo Obama

Yeah Yeah, I know...he's a Portuguese Water Dog....but still this poem seems apt and I like it...AND the author will be here Saturday. So...."Woof!"

Golden Retrievals
by Mark Doty

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don't think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who's -- oh
joy -- actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I'm off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you're sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you're off in some fog concerning
-- tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time's warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,

a Zen master's bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.

from Sweet Machine and Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems

08 April 2009

Jay Wright....and Jay Wright

I meant to post this last week, during the NCAA Tournament: much of the time when folks were talking about Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright, my mind kept going back to the poet Jay Wright! Now that we have a poetry-reading, basketball playing President, perhaps this confusion isn't all that odd. Those of us here in Baltimore also know that the (Paul Laurence) Dunbar High School basketball team is called "The Poets," (our Afaa Michael Weaver wrote a great poem about them) and of course there's our Poe Poem-named Football Team....I guess it's no wonder I get sports and literature mixed up!

In any case, here's the opening movement ('Equation One') of one of Jay The Poet's recent books, Music's Mask and Measure:

This ordinary language finds
rhythm in ambiguous flame,
that stable density of one
and one, the urgent displacement
that nurtures light.

Call it dancing in place,
a preparation
for movement, an impulse
that will awaken
a manifest order.

The astronomer has measured
the shadows. The resting body
measures its abrupt intention.
Who now has measured the waters
in the hollow?

Fall unveils the acute
aconitum, blue
light against the garden's
edge. You might hear
a greenish bird in flight.

Does water dream of seven green
saris, or of the melodic
inversion of sorrow, and will
episode and exposition
be love enough?

Return now to the hills
in balance, the field
of turbulent disguise,
the nothing that is,
the mountain's graceful scale.


Who would go into the river
to recover a seed, or sit
with a blacksmith and bard in high
lament? There is a universe
of such molecular intent
the water folds.

A cascade of bear at
this spot might bring us
justice, a particle death
and resurrection,
the ambivalent gift
from Artemis.

Seneca praised the conjugal
craft, the thread and disposition
equivalent to a young bride's
fortune, though he had never worn
the peplos nor sworn peace to a
troubled city.

Monday is diffident.
The rosebud ignores
its shy austerity.
But should this bubbling
authority now come
to a quiet end?

The anti-ascetic river
sets no limits upon the tau
or the attributes of lotus,
a water pot that holds the light.
Resignation comes hard on this
side of Being.

07 April 2009

Thom Gunn

In honor of Iowa and Vermont, a poem from the great British/Californian poet Thom Gunn

The Hug

It was your birthday, we had drunk and dined
Half of the night with our old friend
Who's showed us in the end
To a bed I reached in one drunk stride.
Already, I lay snug,
And drowsy with the wine dozed on one side.

I dozed, I slept. My sleep broke on a hug,
Suddenly, from behind,
In which the full lengths of our bodies pressed:
Your instep to my heel,
My shoulder-blades against your chest.
It was not sex, but I could feel
The whole strength of your body set,
Or braced, to mine,
And locking me to you
As if we were still twenty-two
When our grand passion had not yet
Become familial.
My quick sleep had deleted all
Of intervening time and place.
I only knew
The stay of your secure firm dry embrace.

From Thom Gunn: Selected Poems; Edited by August Kleinzahler (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)

06 April 2009

Charles Simic: Sunday Papers

From The New York Review of Books website, a poem by one of my favorites, former Poet Laureate Charles Simic. Would that the poem's opening phrase were no longer true....

Sunday Papers

The butchery of the innocent
Never stops. That's about all
We can be ever sure of, love,
Even more sure than the roast
You are bringing out the oven.

It's Sunday. The congregation
Files slowly out of the church
Across the street. A good many
Carry Bibles in their hands.
It's the vague desire for truth
And the mighty fear of it
That makes them turn up
Despite the glorious spring weather.

In the hallway, the old mutt
Just now had the honesty
To growl at his own image in the mirror,
Before lumbering to the kitchen
Where the lamb roast sat
In your outstretched hands
Smelling of garlic and rosemary.

Charles Simic

02 April 2009

Larkin's Money

US President Barack Obama, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in London. (AP photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth / April 2, 2009)

In honor of the G-20, a poem by one of England's (dour) greats, poet and jazz critic Philip Larkin


Quarterly, is it, money reproaches me:
'Why do you let me lie here wastefully?
I am all you never had of goods and sex.
You could get them still by writing a few cheques.'

So I look at others, what they do with theirs:
They certainly don't keep it upstairs.
By now they've a second house and car and wife:
Clearly money has something to do with life

- In fact, they've a lot in common, if you enquire:
You can't put off being young until you retire,
And however you bank your screw, the money you save
Won't in the end buy you more than a shave.

I listen to money singing. It's like looking down
From long French windows at a provincial town,
The slums, the canal, the churches ornate and mad
In the evening sun. It is intensely sad.

(AP photo by John Stillwell / April 1, 2009)

Queen Elizabeth II poses with delegates of the G20 London summit for a group photograph in the Throne Room at Buckingham Palace London.

Back row from left: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, managing director of the International Monetary Fund; Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the United Nations; Pascal Lamy, director-general of the World Trade Organisation; Abhisit Vejjajiva, chair of Asean and Prime Minister of Thailand; Taro Aso, Prime Minister of Japan; Silvio Berlusconi, Prime Minister of Italy; Mirek Topolanek, President of the European Council; Professor Mario Draghi, chairman of the Financial Stability Forum; Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank.

Middle row from left: Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia; Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada; Dr Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany; Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Prime Minister of Spain; Dr Jan Peter Balkenende, Prime Minister of the Netherlands; Kgalema Motlanthe, President of South Africa; Barack Obama, President of the United States of America; Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister of Turkey; Dr Manmohan Singh, Prime Minister of India; Jose Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission; Meles Zenawi, chair of Nepad and Prime Minister of Ethiopia.

Front row from left: Lee Myung-bak, President of Korea; Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France; King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud GCB GCMG, of Saudi Arabia; Hu Jintao, President of China; Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Queen Elizabeth II; Luiz Innacio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil; General TNI (Ret) Dr H Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, President of Indonesia; Felipe Calderon Hinojosa, President of Mexico; Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, President of Argentina; Dmitry A Medvedev, President of Russia.

01 April 2009

Poetry & Jazz Heritage Month mash-up

To kick off both National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month , a poem by Jayne Cortez:

Jazz Fan Looks Back

I crisscrossed with Monk
Wailed with Bud
Counted every star with Stitt
Sang "Don't Blame Me" with Sarah
Wore a flower like Billie
Screamed in the range of Dinah
& scatted "How High the Moon" with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
Jazz at the Philharmonic

I cut my hair into a permanent tam
Made my feet rebellious metronomes
Embedded record needles in paint on paper
Talked bopology talk
Laughed in high-pitched saxophone phrases
Became keeper of every Bird riff
every Lester lick
as Hawk melodicized my ear of infatuated tongues
& Blakey drummed militant messages in
soul of my applauding teeth
& Ray hit bass notes to the last love seat in my bones
I moved in triple time with Max
Grooved high with Diz
Perdidoed with Pettiford
Flew home with Hamp
Shuffled in Dexter's Deck
Squatty-rooed with Peterson
Dreamed a "52nd Street Theme" with Fats
& scatted "Lady Be Good" with Ella Fitzgerald
as she blew roof off the Shrine Auditorium
Jazz at the Philharmonic

from Jazz Fan Looks Back by Jayne Cortez (Hanging Loose Press, 2002)