April 2011

I’ll be away from May 1 to May 16, but don’t worry: new content will continue to appear at Via Negativa! Though I won’t be updating The Morning Porch from the road, Luisa, loath to give up her daily poem habit, will be delving into the Morning Porch archives for poetry prompts and posting the results here (with links to the original posts). I’ve also prepared a few things to auto-post while I’m gone, including a podcast interview with William Trowbridge and some new poems, so stay tuned for that. (more…)

This entry is part 42 of 92 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Spring 2011

We found the feathered body
beneath the window, red claws
stiffened into lower case C’s.

*

Whose voice is that then,
launching its frisson of a rising trill
across the field?

*

So little time: I clasp
the little tremor in my throat,
your hand under the table.

*

We pass the cup’s
clear lake of green
tea between us.

*

The French lilac answers,
its bright shimmer
backlit by the sun.

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Can’t… read… one… more… book… of… poems…

It doesn’t help that I’m trying to get ready for a two-week trip to the U.K., leaving Sunday. It’s getting very hard to concentrate. Which is a pity, because I still have four lovely books to blog, two of which just arrived in today’s mail. Maybe when I get back.

trout lily

This entry is part 39 of 92 in the series Morning Porch Poems: Spring 2011

rising in the morning to turn off the alarm
—from the old French A l’arme, meaning to
the arms, though I have hardly any weapons
but these limbs, once burnished and nearly
lovely in their prime; my wits (still for the most
part, gratefully, intact); and this all too common
yearning for ease and rest, pleasure and kind words…
Listen to the small feathered body singing in the dark,
its faltering lyric familiar as the prayer I’ll don
as armor for the day: oh faith, oh love, oh courage.

 

In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.

Inside the Money Machine coverReading these fierce, true poems about life under capitalism, I wonder why anyone ever thought that politics were incompatible with lyric poetry. Even as she focuses on the physical and psychological costs of hard work for little pay, Pratt makes the writing seem effortless: the poems catch you up in thumbnail portraits or brief narratives and generally don’t let you go without a gasp or sigh.

Two women lean into each other, staggered by catastrophe,
The plant fence out of focus behind them. They hold up
a crumpled paper, like the photo of some beloved lost to murder
or to war, the evidence of what lived a few minutes before:
My job, my other self.
(“Getting a Pink Slip”)

While some of the books I’ve read this month did not adapt themselves well to the book-a-day pace, this one did: not because the poems were always easy to grasp, but because reading them all in one sitting created a powerful gestalt, like the “field full of folk” at the beginning of Piers Plowman. Blue-collar, white-collar, resource extraction, manufacturing, service industry, retirement, unemployment, gamblers, demonstrators, the half-tired and the fully exhausted: it’s all here, the world of trying-to-get-by. Political messages are sometimes overt but rarely didactic, as in the conclusion of a poem that began with a female toll-taker:

…past the docks at sunset along the water, the cranes asleep
for the night, while the climbers, door-unlockers, thumb-
and-finger doers, the people who sat and thought high up
in the glass forehead during the day, have now gone home—

Past the ticket collector in the Turnpike booth, the woman at the end
of her shift, the woman who can raise, who can lower the barricades.
(“Distribution”)

And when there is didacticism, it’s expressed with disarming simplicity, no hint of unearned ideological posturing:

Jobless, I never thought I’d hear
our niagra of sound going up the stairs again, never step,
immersed, into tens of thousands rushing to work. One molecule
in the many, carried along toward the purpose of our day.
It’s never really about the money, except for the guys at the top.
They know how to make money off of us. We know
how to make things with each other. That’s what we do.
(“Standing in the Elevator”)

Whether or not political poetry in general deserves its bad reputation (do we condemn love poetry just because 99 percent of all love poems ever written are dreck?), like many other kinds of poetry it can lead its practitioners into one or two habitual modes of discourse. Inside the Money Machine is much more catholic than that, with room both for an angry denunciation of the Army guy piloting unmanned drones from thousands of miles away (“The New Commuter War”) and for an understated poem of mourning for a temp worker’s inability to put down roots:

A Temporary Job

Leaving again. If I didn’t care, I wouldn’t be
grieving. The particulars of place lodged in me,
like this room I lived in for eleven days,
how I learned the way the sun laid its palm
over the side window in the morning, heavy
light, how I’ll never be held in that hand again.

As I was making my way through the book, my brother sent along an AP story about the nearest small city to us, where he works: “Altoona, PA changes name to Spurlock movie title.”

About 31,000 central Pennsylvanians will soon be living in a joke.

Beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday, the city of Altoona will change its name to “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” after the latest film by sarcastic documentarian Morgan Spurlock.

The city is changing its name for 60 days to make some money — and to help Spurlock make a point about the proliferation of advertising in American life.

Altoona isn’t broke, but it can sure use the money, and hey, the name-change is only ceremonial and temporary. What’s a little loss of dignity? We’re all like the sales clerks in “Selling the Brand,” willing to do whatever it takes to remain solvent, even if it means acquiring a new wardrobe, down to the underwear.

I was pleased to see two poems about issues close to my heart: “Tegucigalpa,” about the Honduran coup of 2009, and “Burning Water,” about hydrofracking for natural gas and last year’s oil spill in the Gulf. In the latter, I like how she focused on microorganisms rather than something more charismatic:

We hung our legs into strange bioluminescent foam
flung up by our wake, if we’d scooped the water
up with a glass jar as we did the air for fireflies,
we’d have caught eighty species, galactic diatoms
invisible to the eye, to us just some murky water
from the Gulf, which is licked over today with oil
from the blown-out rig…

Pratt has been around for a while — this is her tenth book — but she doesn’t show any sign of losing her sense of wonder at the nonsensical way we live.

How can it be that we are all going to carry our plastic bags
out the snapping doors, and get in our cars, and leave each other,
drive away to eat in twos or threes or one alone, me in a blue room
with a map of India to study, a novel open next to three sunflowers
in blue plastic bottles on the table…
(“Eating Alone”)

Requitements coverI’ve read the poems in this slender volume at least four times in the past eight months and they have yet to lose their affective power for me — which is strange, since I would not seem to be the target audience for a collection about adoption or being an adoptee. Then again, I’ve been listening to blues music for 25 years and I wasn’t exactly the target audience for most of that, either. Who hasn’t felt, at one time or another,

double like wings
this rainy day folded
patient and oily
shedding a sky
(“I Am Double”)

or marveled at robins at daybreak?

Robins

A trickle of sweetness
out of the quiet emerges,
announcing what night
had again prepared.

How darkness works.
You come to know this
each time you are taken by it
and released.

See what I mean? These are poems with mountains in them, blackeyed susans, crows, boats and grackles. The moon joins other mythical figures in a list of famous adoptees, and you think, me too! The broken heart is not merely universal, but a key to the universe:

Creation falls to me. Its vast taxonomies,
the drifts of my ancestors. Home
is the Nebula, grandfather crab.
(“Confession”)

This is a poetry very much like the blues, full of lacrimae rerum, and reading it, hearing it, I feel the tension unknotting in my gut and a weight lifting in my chest that I didn’t know was there. How does that work? There are certain metaphors, I think, that are very close to the root images of language: when things fall from the sky, for example, something beyond mere sadness or gratitude is triggered, and natural objects such as wings and flowers are so intimately bound up with our perceptions of the world, it may be more accurate to say, for example, that the face is a flower symbol than vice versa. And:

Dark careening flecks
possess the pull of fine words,
those understudies
for the thing missing—
“snow-calm” and “trees,” too,
tug the heart out from its cave.
(“Arrival”)

Dig deep into language and emotion, as Starace does, and thought itself — “something like wind” (“Fifty Grackles”) — may become a luminous presence. Einstein in a dream says: “All space is compassion” (“Sunflower Ramble”). An absence which is more than an absence: entire religions have been built around less.

There is
no other music like this song
you can walk through, these cries
that every day erect a new cathedral
over daily streets.
(“Blue Hour”)

It’s been a long holiday, and I’m tired; I regret I can’t give this marvellous chapbook the review it deserves. (Do read the three sample poems on the page from Elephant House Press.)

Ren Powell

Poet, playwright, translator and teacher Ren Powell returns to the Woodrat Podcast to talk about her new collection of poetry (and North American debut) Mercy Island, religion in Norway, her shifting perspective on poetry animation, and other topics. She’s the third author in Via Negativa’s informal Poetry Month book club.

Ren recently consolidated her web presence at a new website. I last interviewed her in early March 2010, for the 9th episode of the podcast. My blog response to Mercy Island is here, but do also check out the more proper reviews and interviews from Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Deb Scott, Fiona Robyn, Rachel Barenblat, and Carolee Sherwood.

Podcast feed | Subscribe in iTunes

Theme music: “Le grand sequoia,” by Innvivo (Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike licence).