30 April 2012

Poem: canvas and mirror by Evie Shockley

I have a weakness for poetic self-portraits, particularly those that play with the idea of how one describes anything (I still get a thrill from Michael Palmer's "Autobiography" which begins 'All clocks are clouds.' WTF?!? LOL! :)

In honor of Poetry Month and our Alma Mater Cave Canem, here is a poem from the wonder-filled work of Evie Shockley (whose critical work,  Renegade Poetics: Black Aesthetics and Formal Innovation in African American Poetry is a must read

canvas and mirror

self-portrait with cats, with purple, with stacks
      of half-read books adorning my desk, with coffee,

                  with mug, with yesterday's mug. self-portrait
            with guilt, with fear, with thick-banded silver ring,

      painted toes, and no make-up on my face. self-
            portrait with twins, with giggles, with sister at

                  last, with epistrophy, with crepescule with nellie,
with my favorite things. self-portrait with hard

head, with soft light, with raised eyebrow. self-
      portrait voo-doo, self-portrait hijinks, self-portrait

                  surprise. self-portrait with patience, with political
            protest, with poetry, with papers to grade. self-

      portrait as thaumaturgic lass, self-portrait as luna
            larva, self-portrait as your mama. self-portrait

                  with self at sixteen. self-portrait with shit-kickers,
with hip-huggers, with crimson silk, with wild

mushroom risotto and a glass of malbec. self-
      portrait with partial disclosure, self-portrait with

                  half-truths, self-portrait with demi-monde. self-
            portrait with a night at the beach, with a view

      overlooking the lake, with cancelled flight. self-
            portrait with a real future, with a slight chance of

                  sours, with glasses, with cream, with fries, with
a way with words, with a propositional phrase

27 April 2012

Poem: Our Tears are Sweet by Simin Behbahni

Simin Behbahni (b. 1927)
Simin Behbahni is a prominent contemporary Persian poets. Although she is considered Iran's national poet (The Lioness of Iran) that country denied her a travel permit in 2010 as she was boarding a plane to Paris.
Audio of Behbahni reading her work can be found on the NPR website here

This poem is from the new anthology, The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and Its Exiles, edited by Sholeh Wolpé, who I had the great pleasure of meeting at this year's AWP Conference in Chicago.

Our Tears Are Sweet

Our tears are sweet, our laughter venomous.
We're pleased when sad, and sad when pleased.
We wash one hand in blood, the other we wash the blood off.
We cry as we laugh at the futility of both these acts.
Eight years have passed, we haven't discovered their meaning.
We have been like children, beyond any account or accounting.
We have broken every stalk, like a wind in the garden.
We have picked clean the vine's candelabra.
And if we found a tree, still standing, defiantly, 
we cut its branches, we pulled it by the roots.
We wished for a war, it brought us misery,
now, repentant, we wish for peace.
We pulled wings and heads from bodies,
now, seeking a cure, we are busy grafting.

Will it come to life, will it fly,
the head we attach, the wing we stitch?

translated by Farzaneh Milani and Keveh Safa
from The Forbidden: Poems from Iran and Its Exiles, edited by Sholeh Wolpé (Michigan State University Press, 2012)

26 April 2012

C. P. Cavafy: Three translations of "The City"

Constantine Petrou Photiades Cavafy (1863 - 1932)
Happy Poem in Your Pocket Day! In addition to carrying around the poems Poets House are handing out today, many written by 3rd and 6th graders from PS 89 and I. S. 289 about the neighborhood, I also have Edmund Keely's Essential Cavafy, one of my favorite 'little books.' Here is Cavafy's "The City," first, the original, from the Cavafy Archive website then two translations.

Note from George Kalogeris: "In the original, all the rhymes are full rhymes, the pattern is a-b-b-c-c-d-d-a, and the first and last line of each stanza rhymes variations of the word for “sea” (thalassa) and for “wasted” (xalassa)."

Η Πόλις
Είπες· «Θα πάγω σ’ άλλη γη, θα πάγω σ’ άλλη θάλασσα.
Μια πόλις άλλη θα βρεθεί καλλίτερη από αυτή.
Κάθε προσπάθεια μου μια καταδίκη είναι γραφτή·
κ’ είν’ η καρδιά μου — σαν νεκρός — θαμένη.
Ο νους μου ως πότε μες στον μαρασμόν αυτόν θα μένει.
Όπου το μάτι μου γυρίσω, όπου κι αν δω
ερείπια μαύρα της ζωής μου βλέπω εδώ,
που τόσα χρόνια πέρασα και ρήμαξα και χάλασα.»

Καινούριους τόπους δεν θα βρεις, δεν θάβρεις άλλες θάλασσες.
Η πόλις θα σε ακολουθεί. Στους δρόμους θα γυρνάς
τους ίδιους. Και στες γειτονιές τες ίδιες θα γερνάς·
και μες στα ίδια σπίτια αυτά θ’ ασπρίζεις.
Πάντα στην πόλι αυτή θα φθάνεις. Για τα αλλού — μη ελπίζεις—
δεν έχει πλοίο για σε, δεν έχει οδό.
Έτσι που τη ζωή σου ρήμαξες εδώ
στην κώχη τούτη την μικρή, σ’ όλην την γη την χάλασες. 

The City

You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore,
find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
and my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look,
I see the black ruins of my life, here,
where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”

You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
This city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old
in the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
there’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
you've destroyed it everywhere in the world

from C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Princeton University Press, 1992)   
translated By Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard

The City

    You said: “I’ll go to another land, I’ll go to another sea.
I'll find a city better than this one.
My every effort is a written indictment,
and my heart — like someone dead — is buried.
How long will my mind remain in this decaying state.
Wherever I cast my eyes, wherever I look,
I see my life in black ruins here,
where I spent so many years, and ruined and wasted them.”

You will not find new lands, you will not find other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam
the same streets. And you will grow old in the same neighborhood,
and your hair will turn white in the same houses.
You will always arrive in this city. Don’t hope for elsewhere -
there is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have wasted your life here,
in this small corner, so you have ruined it on the whole earth.

translated by Aliki Barnstone

The City

    You said: “I’ll go to some other land, I’ll go to some other shore.
There’s bound to be another city that’s better by far.
My every effort has been ill-fated from the start;
my heart — like something dead — lies buried away;
How long will my mind endure this slow decay?
Wherever I look, wherever I cast my eyes,
I see all round me the black rubble of my life
where I’ve spent so many ruined and wasted years.”

You’ll find no new places, you won’t find other shores.
The city will follow you. The streets in which you pace
will be the same, you’ll haunt the same familiar places,
and inside those same houses you’ll grow old.
You’ll always end up in this city. Don’t bother to hope
for a ship, a route, to take you somewhere else; they don’t exist.
Just as you’ve destroyed your life here, here in this
small corner, so you’ve wasted it through all the world

from C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Knopf, 2009)
translated by Daniel Mendelsohn

25 April 2012

Four Sisters from Zakaria by Ghassan Zaqtan

Continuing Poetry in Translation Week, here is a poem by Palestinian Poet Ghassan Zaqtan. He was supposed to give a reading at Poets House a few weeks ago, as part of his US tour to promote a new book of English translations of his work, but could not get a visa. We went ahead with the program, with his translator poet and doctor Fady Joudah reading and translating some of the work featured on a recent YouTube video Zaqtan made once it became evident that he would not be traveling to the U.S.
Ghassan Zaqtan

Joudah also talks about talks about translating him here.

You can hear this and another poem in both English and Arabic here at the PBS website. PBS'  video of him reading is here.

* Zakaria and Artouf are two Palestinian villages in the Khalil (Hebron) area whose occupants were forced to leave in 1948.

Four sisters from Zakaria
Four sisters 
climb the hill alone 
in black clothes. 
Four sisters sigh 
facing the thicket. 
Four sisters in the dark 
read wet letters. 
A train coming 
from Artouf passed 
behind the picture. 
A horse carrying 
a girl from Zakaria
neighs on the ridge 
across the plain. 
In the gorge 
clouds slowly pass. 
Four sisters 
from Zakaria, alone 
in black clothes 
on the hill.

Four sisters from Zakariyya
Four sisters climb the mountain
in black clothes. 

Four sisters sigh in front of the grove.

Four sisters in the dark 
reading soaked letters.

There was a train
behind the photo passing from Artouf.
There was a horse
carrying a girl from Zakariyya
whinnying in the slope behind the plains. 

And the clouds were slowly passing
through the canyon.

Four sisters from Zakariyya
by the hill
in black clothes.

20 April 2012

A.E. Stallings -- Extinction of Silence

In honor of GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network) and today's "Day of Silence" to draw attention to the anti-LGBTQ name-calling, bullying and harassment in schools, a poem by the immensely talented translator and formalist poet A. E. Stallings.

Extinction of Silence

A. E. Stallings
That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

from Poetry (February 2006)

Three Poems by Olav Hauge


In the Orchard: Olav H. Hague (1908 - 1994) 
Not the E. E. Cummings poem (and that's Olaf anyway), but a Norwegian poet who spent his entire life on a farm in the small town of Ulvik. In addition to his own poems, he translated English, French, and German poets into his native language, and was influenced by classical Chinese poetry.

Many thanks to Copper Canyon Press and their selection of his poems The Dream We Carry for introducing me to this quietly beautiful writer.

I Have Three Poems

I have three poems,
he said.
Who counts poems?
Emily tossed hers
into a trunk. I
doubt if she counted them,
she simply opened another tea bag
and wrote a new one.
That was right. A good poem
should smell of tea.
Or of raw earth and freshly cut wood.

(Translated by Robert Hedin)

To My Fingers

Oh, you fingers,
how many hours you've had
to slave for a cold brain
and a dead body!
And if I didn't write then
you would take to whispering.
Didn't the poems become good then!
When you were speaking with tongues of fire!

(Translated by Robert Hedin)

The Dream

Let us slip into
sleep, into
the calm dream,
just slip in - two bits
of raw dough into the
good oven
that we call night,
and so to awake
in the morning as
two sound
golden loaves!

(Translated by Robert Bly)

from The Dream We Carry: Selected and Last Poems of Olav H. Hauge (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)

19 April 2012

Muriel Rukeyser -- Effort at Speech Between Two People

I am not sure how I first discovered the work of Muriel Rukeyser - probably through her wonderful Life of Poetry (which reminds me - it's time to re-read that...again), and then to the poetry. The best place to start looking at her poetic work is probably the Adrienne Rich-edited Selected Poems from the Library of America's American Poets Project Series. It's also difficult not to think about Rich herself as she speaks about Rukeyser's "claiming her right to intellect and sexuality, poetry and science, Marxism and myth, activism and motherhood, theory and vision..."

Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Effort at Speech Between Two People

:  Speak to me.   Take my hand.   What are you now?
   I will tell you all.   I will conceal nothing.
   When I was three, a little child read a story about a
   who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair   : 
   a pink rabbit   :   it was my birthday, and a candle
   burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be 

:   Oh, grow to know me.    I am not happy.    I will be
   Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like
   like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm
         about me. 
   There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

 :  Speak to me.   Take my hand.   What are you now? 
   When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental, 
   fluid   :    and my widowed aunt played Chopin, 
   and I bent my head to the painted woodwork, and wept. 
   I want now to be close to you.   I would 
   link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your

 :  I am not happy.   I will be open. 
    I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet
   There has been fear in my life.   Sometimes I
   On what a tragedy his life was, really.

 :  Take my hand.    Fist my mind in your hand.   What
         are you now? 
   When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide, 
   and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping
         toward death    :
   if the light had not melted clouds and plains to
   if light had not transformed that day, I would have
   I am unhappy. I am lonely. Speak to me.

 :  I will be open.    I think he never loved me: 
   he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam 
   that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls: 
   he said with a gay mouth: I love you.   Grow to
         know me.

 :  What are you now?   If we could touch one another, 
     if these our separate entities could come to grips, 
   clenched like a Chinese puzzle . . . yesterday 
   I stood in a crowded street that was live with people, 
   and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone. 
   Everyone silent, moving . . . Take my hand.
         Speak to me.

18 April 2012

Jennifer Wallace: In love

A quick poetic trip back home to Baltimore, thanks to poet, editor and educator Jennifer Wallace and her new book of poetry and photographs "that search for the place of self and the collective (human and nonhuman) in Baltimore’s urban ecosystem" It Can Be Solved By Walking, a part of her longer project titled "Shining Like the Sun" ("Using a variety of methods and media, the project investigates historical, psychological, ecological and social phenomena, and seeks to render the linkages between these ideas and the mingling of site and self") after Thomas Merton's quote "There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun."

In the interest of Full Disclosure, I was sent a pre-pub galley of the book and asked to blurb it, and was happy to do so. Both the visuals and the writing captured so much of the difficult beauty that is B-more.

In love 
because the city won’t let up
no matter how much rocking.
In love with this city
as if a surprise walked through the door
wearing suspenders and red-striped pants.
In love with the intersection
and its ingenious abutment of asphalt and grit
where chicory roots in their joining 
and age-old rainwater bubbles in the gutter,
bobbing toward the harbor and the sea.
In love with the difficult stories
because they are not mine, because they are mine.
The just-after-dawn light 
like Caravaggio’s on the row house bricks.

from the Street Corner series (Preston & Greenmount) by Jennifer Wallace  

It Can Be Solved By Walking (CitLit Press, 2012)

17 April 2012

Kay Ryan: Poetry and Money

Since April 15th fell on a Saturday, Tax Day was a little later this year, Monday the 16th. In honor of the almighty dollar, here is former US Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, re-writing Wallace Stevens' "Money is a Kind of Poetry" quote...

Poetry is a Kind of Money

Poetry is a kind of money
whose value depends upon reserves.
It's not the paper it's written on
or its self-announced denomination,
but the bullion, sweated from the earth
and hidden, which preserves its worth.
Nobody knows how this works,
and how can it? Why does something
stacked in some secret bank or cabinet,
some miser's trove, far back, lambent,
and gloated over by its golem, make us
so solemnly convinced of the transaction
when Mandelstam says gold, even
in translation?

from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems (Grove Press, 2010)

16 April 2012

Happy Birthday Essex

In celebration of the birthday today of the divine Essex Hemphill, a poem perfect for our current economic times. Please note: for the perfect "Hemphillian" reading of this poem, the " - " before the last word should be read as a "Snap!" 

Black Beans

Times are lean,
Pretty Baby,
the beans are burnt
to the bottom
of the battered pot.
Let's make fierce love
on the over-stuffed,
hand-me-down sofa.
We can burn it up, too.
Our hungers
will evaporate like-money.
I smell your lust,
not the pot burnt black
with tonight's meager meal.
So we can't buy flowers
for our table
Our kisses are petals,
our tongues caress the bloom.
Who dares to tell us
we are poor and powerless?
We keep treasure
any king would count as dear.
Come on, Pretty Baby.
Our souls can't be crushed
like cats crossing streets too soon.
Let the beans burn all night long.
Our chipped water glasses are filled
with wine from our loving.
And the burnt black beans-

from Ceremonies: Prose and Poetry (Cleis Press, 2000)

13 April 2012

Tim Seibles: Mad Poets Villanelle

I had the great pleasure this week -- after much too long a time -- of attending reading by Tim Seibles from his first book in eight years, Fast Animal. I admit to being a huge fan of his reworkings of popular culture - his Bugs Bunny, Road Runner and "Boris and Natasha" poems, from Hurdy-Gurdy and Hammerlock, for example. There are some stunners in the voice of Blade, The Daywalker in the new collection as well...but here's something to and for us crazy-a** versifiers to help us celebrate Poetry Month

Mad Poets Villanelle

The sunrise is nice, but the nightside is bad
When light breaks the dawn, a black sky turns blue
I think I know why certain poets go mad

I once rode the cosmos in a suit stitched in plaid
The Earth was my space ship and me, the rough crew
The big light was nice; but the nightside was bad

I can't understand why I can't understand
They learned m some books and their churchery too
It's pretty damn clear why the poets turn mad

It's a bootieful life! Shouldn't sex make us glad?
But the first touch of lips brings the turn of the screw
The first light's good light, but the blindside is bad

Be all you can be like it says in the ad
And do a few things that the Janjaweed do
You can see why the sweet poets run mad

Sometimes I think I've been totally had
I fell for this life 'cause I thought life was true
The daylight's alright, but the sunset is sad

It looks like this chance is all that I had
I say to the mirror, That just can't be you
I guess I see why half the people go mad

Maybe if I could just talk to my Dad:
Didn't it seem like your dream would come true?
The sunrise is nice, but the blindside is bad
I think I know why certain poets go mad
 -- from Fast Animal by Tim Seibles (Etruscan Press, 2012)

Poem: Camille Dungy for Adrienne Rich

Camille, on the Red Carpet at the NAACP Image Awards - You !GO! Girl
Continuing the libations for the late Adrienne Rich, here is poet Camille Dungy's bouquet to the great poet and essayist. Also check out VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts for their short essay series, "21 Love Poems to Adrienne Rich"

Arthritis is one thing, the hurting another

.............................for Adrienne Rich in 2006 

The poet's hands degenerate until her cup is too heavy.

You are not required to understand.
This is not the year for understanding.

This is the year of burning women in schoolyards
and raided homes, of tarped bodies on runways and in ......restaurants.

The architecture of the poet's hands has turned upon itself.

This is not the year for palliatives. It is not the year for ......knowing what to do.

This is the year the planet grew smaller
and no country would consent to its defeat.

The poet's cup is filled too full, a weight she cannot carry
from the table to her mouth, her lips, her tongue.
The poet's hands are congenitally spoiled.

This is not one thing standing for another.

Listen, this year three ancient cities met their ruin, maybe ......more,
and many profited, but this is not news for the readers here.

Should I speak indirectly?
I am not the poet. Those are not my hands.

This is the year of deportations and mothers bereaved
of all of their sons. The year of third and fourth tours,
of cutting-edge weaponry and old-fashioned guns.

Last year was no better, and this year only lays the ......groundwork
for the years that are to come. Listen, this is a year like no ......other.

This is the year the doctors struck for want of aid
and schoolchildren were sent home in the morning

and lights and gas were unreliable
and, harvesters suspect, fruit had no recourse but rot.

Many are dying for want of a cure, and the poet is patient
and her hands cause the least of her pain.

-Camille T. Dungy      

From Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011) 

11 April 2012

Adrienne Rich: Dislocations

In honor of the magnificent Adrienne Rich (1929-2012). Her essays are Essential Reading !

Dislocations: Seven Scenarios

Still learning the word
“home”    or what it could mean
                                            say, to relinquish

    a backdrop of japanese maples turning
    color of rusted wheelbarrow bottom

    where the dahlia tubers were thrown

You must go live in the city now
over the subway though not on
                                            its grating

must endure the foreign music
of the block party

finger in useless anger
the dangling cords of the windowblind


In a vast dystopic space the small things

when all the pills run out the pain
grows more general

flies find the many eyes
quarrels thicken then

tiny mandibles of rumor open and close
blame has a name that will not be spoken

you grasp or share a clot of food
according to your nature
                                            or your strength

love’s ferocity snarls
from under the drenched blanket’s hood


City and world: this infection drinks like a drinker
whatever it can

casual salutations first
little rivulets of thought

then wanting stronger stuff
sucks at the marrow of selves

the nurse’s long knowledge of wounds
the rabbi’s scroll of ethics
the young worker’s defiance

only the solipsist seems intact
in her prewar building


For recalcitrancy of attitude
the surgeon is transferred
to the V.A. hospital     where poverty
is the administrator
of necessity and her
orders don’t necessarily
get obeyed
the government
is paying
and the
used to be
are patients


Faces in the mesh: defiance or disdain
      remember Paul Nizan?
          You thought you were innocent if you said

“I love this woman and I want to live
      in accordance with my love.”
          but you were beginning the revolution

maybe so, maybe not
      look at her now
            pale lips papery flesh

at your creased belly    wrinkled sac:
      look at the scars
            reality’s autographs

along your ribs across her haunches
look at the collarbone’s reverberant line

      how in a body can defiance
            still embrace its likeness


Not to get up and go back to the drafting table
where failure crouches accusing
like the math test you bluffed and flunked
so early on
not to drag into the window’s
cruel and truthful light   your blunder
not to start over

but to turn your back, saying
all anyway is compromise
impotence and collusion
from here on I will be no part of it

is one way you could afford it


Tonight someone will sleep in a stripped apartment
the last domestic traces, cup and towel
awaiting final disposal

—has ironed his shirt for travel
left an envelope for the cleaning woman
on the counter under the iron

internationalist turning toward home
three continents to cross    documents declarations
searches queues

and home no simple matter
of hearth or harbor
bleeding from internal wounds

he diagnosed    physician
without frontiers

Adrienne Rich

from Boston Review and  The School Among the Ruins, 2000-2004 (W.W. Norton)

10 April 2012

Prose on Poetry: Jeanette Winterson

From one of my all-time favorite writers Jeanette Winterson, an excerpt from her amazing memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is one of those "If you only read one book this year read THIS" titles - although if you only read one book a year, what the HECK is wrong with you?!? LOL

I was sixteen and my mother was about to throw me out of the the house forever, for breaking a very big rule - even bigger than the forbidden books. The rule was not just No Sex, but definitely No Sex With Your Own Sex.

     I was scared and unhappy.

TS Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral, performed in 1970 in Canterbury Cathedral. 
Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images (from The Guardian UK website)

     I remember going down to the library to collect the murder mysteries. One of the books my mother had ordered was called Murder in the Cathedral by T. S. Eliot. She assumed it was a gory story about nasty monks - and she liked anything that was bad for the pope.

     The book looked a bit short to me - mysteries are usually quite long - so I had a look and saw that it was written in verse. Definitely not right...I had never heard of T. S. Eliot. I thought he might be related to George Eliot. The librarian told me he was an American poet who had lived in England for most of his life. He had died in 1964, and he had won the Nobel Prize.

     I wasn't reading poetry because my aim was to work my way through ENGLISH LITERATURE IN PROSE A-Z.

     But this was different...

     I read: This is one moment, / But know that another  / Shall pierce you with a sudden painful joy.

     I started to cry.

     Readers looked up reproachfully, and the librarian reprimanded me, because in those days you weren't even allowed to sneeze in a library, let alone weep. So I took the book outside and read it all the way through, sitting on the steps in the usual northern gale.

     The unfamiliar and beautiful play made things bearable that day, and the things it made bearable were another failed family - the first one was not my fault but all adopted children blame themselves. The second failure was definitely my fault.

     I was confused about sex and sexuality, and upset about the straightforward practical problems of where to live, what to eat, and how to do my A levels.

     I had no one to help me, but the T. S. Eliot helped me.

Jeanette Winterson
     So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs tough language - and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers - a language powerful enough to say how it is.

     It isn't a hiding place. It is a finding place.

09 April 2012

Natasha Trethewey: Pastoral

Today, I felt like hearing something Southern, and so this from the Poet Laureate of Mississippi


In the dream, I am with the Fugitive
Poets. We’re gathered for a photograph.
Behind us, the skyline of Atlanta
hidden by the photographer’s backdrop—
a lush pasture, green, full of soft-eyed cows
lowing, a chant that sounds like no, no. Yes,
I say to the glass of bourbon I’m offered.
We’re lining up now—Robert Penn Warren,
his voice just audible above the drone
of bulldozers, telling us where to stand.
Say “Race,” the photographer croons. I’m in
blackface again when the flash freezes us.
My father’s white, I tell them, and rural.
You don’t hate the South, they ask. You don’t hate it?

Natasha Trethewey
from Native Guard (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

06 April 2012

John Asbury - What Is Poetry

Taking a seat in J's Theater for a moment, where John is posting poems on poetry for April, here is a poem by  "Little JA"

"In school //All the thought got combed out"
-- yup, yep, far too often, sad but true....

What Is Poetry

The medieval town, with frieze
Of boy scouts from Nagoya? The snow

That came when we wanted it to snow?
Beautiful images? Trying to avoid

Ideas, as in this poem? But we
Go back to them as to a wife, leaving

The mistress we desire? Now they
Will have to believe it

As we believed it. In school
All the thought got combed out:

What was left was like a field.
Shut your eyes, and you can feel it for miles around.

Now open them on a thin vertical path.
It might give us--what?--some flowers soon?

from Houseboat Days in John Ashbury: Collected Poems 1956 - 1987 (Library of America, 2008)

05 April 2012

Sonia Sanchez - "In Memory of Elizabeth Catlett"

“I want the ordinary person to be able to relate to what I am doing...Working figuratively is the dues I must, want and am privileged to pay so that ordinary people can relate to my work and not get lost trying to figure out what it means.” -- Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012) 

The great Sonia Sanchez posted this on her website in honor of this wonderful artist 
(For those in the DC area the Washington Post lists locations where her art can be found in her hometown)

Elizabeth Catlett
My Right is a future of equality with other Americans,
 Color Linocut, 1947
6 haiku
(for Elizabeth Catlett

in Cuernavaca)
La Señora
making us remember
flesh and wind
O how you
help us catch
each other’s breath
a woman’s
arms climbing with
colored dreams
slides into the pool
hands kissing the water

i pick
up your breath and
remember me
your hands
humming hurricanes
of beauty.

from Morning Haiku (Beacon Press, 2010)

04 April 2012

Patricia Smith: Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah

Patricia 'Jimi Savannah' Smith at AWP Chicago 2012
Dearest Patricia: 

But, but....If you had been "Jimi Savannah" would I still be lucky enough to share your birthday?

Love always - R

Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah
by Patricia Smith

My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with her broad, practical tongue
until it sounded like an instruction to God and not a name.
She wanted a child of pressed head and knocking knees,
a trip-up in the doubledutch swing, a starched pinafore
and peppermint-in-the-sour pickle kinda child, stiff-laced
and unshakably fixed on salvation. Her Patricia Ann
would never idly throat the Lord’s name or wear one
of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees.
She'd be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,

jobs requiring alarm clock discipline and sensible shoes.
My four downbeats were music enough for a vapid life
of butcher shop sawdust and fatback as cuisine, for Raid
spritzed into the writhing pockets of a Murphy bed.
No crinkled consonants or muted hiss would summon me.

My daddy detested borders. One look at my mother's
watery belly, and he insisted, as much as he could insist
with her, on the name Jimi Savannah, seeking to bless me
with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name
of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars.
He wanted to shoot muscle through whatever I was called,
arm each syllable with tiny weaponry so no one would
mistake me for anything other than a tricky whisperer
with a switchblade in my shoe. I was bound to be all legs,
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
When I sent up prayers, God's boy would giggle and consider.

Daddy didn't want me to be anybody's sure-fire factory,
nobody's callback or seized rhythm, so he conjured
a name so odd and hot even a boy could claim it. And yes,
he was prepared for the look my mother gave him when
he first mouthed his choice, the look that said, That's it,
you done lost your goddamned mind. She did that thing
she does where she grows two full inches with righteous,
and he decided to just whisper Love you, Jimi Savannah
whenever we were alone, re- and rechristening me the seed
of Otis, conjuring his own religion and naming it me.

Shoulda Been Jimi SavannahCoffee House Press, 2012