Books and Music

Austin Kleon: “How to Steal Like an Artist (And 9 Other Things Nobody Told Me)”
I usually hate advice posts, but this one is gold. For example:

There was a video going around the internet last year of Rainn Wilson, the guy who plays Dwight on The Office. He was talking about creative block, and he said this thing that drove me nuts, because I feel like it’s a license for so many people to put off making things: “If you don’t know who you are or what you’re about or what you believe in it’s really pretty impossible to be creative.”

If I waited to know “who I was” or “what I was about” before I started “being creative”, well, I’d still be sitting around trying to figure myself out instead of making things. In my experience, it’s in the act of making things that we figure out who we are.

Marly Youmans: “The House of Words (no. 11): One writer’s lessons”
The most popular post in Marly’s on-going series to date. I particularly liked this part:

Every book purchase says you want to read a certain writer and that the publisher should have confidence in him or her. In the case of poetry, a modicum of readers voting this way may even mean that a house decides to retain its poetry line rather than jettisoning it.

The comment thread for that post is also well worth reading.

Busily Seeking… Continual Change: “The Perils of Planned Parenthood”
A very different — and, I would argue, crucial — perspective on “choice,” Planned Parenthood and legislative priorities.

North Country Public Radio: “One April”
Wow, this public radio station’s web manager is doing NaPoWriMo! And they’re good poems, too. Yet another reason to move to the Adirondacks.

Call for Submissions: Festival of the Trees 59 with Spirit Whispers
For Festival 59 our host Suzanne of the Spirit Whispers blog asks, how do trees inspire you?

Watch on YouYube
via Peaceful Societies: “Lepcha Magazine Provides a Cultural Feast”

Broken Sonnets coverSonnets bore me, to put it mildly. The 16th century is over, and it’s time to move on. It would be as if symphony orchestras still played nothing but music from the 18th and 19th centuries… Oh, right. Never mind.

Kathleen sent me two of her chapbooks, but when I saw Broken Sonnets, I was all like, Fuck yeah! It’s about time someone busted the sonnet upside the head. The opening poem, “Damage,” looked suspiciously like an unbroken, traditional sonnet, much as I liked its celebration of brokenness: so Old Testament, so heavy metal.

Pain is a song I’ve sung
so long you can’t even hear it now. Open

your own broken heart. Look!

(Notice how I’m sparing you the sonnetesque end-rhymes.)

From there, the collection went right into some sexy poems about married love, if that isn’t too much of an oxymoron for y’all, and the only things reminiscent of sonnets from then on out, except for a few poems that made a side-swipe at the proper rhyme-scheme and meter, were the approximate length (14-ish lines) and the approximate mood, subject matter and approach (personal relationships, kinda metaphysical, seemed like they might go well with clavichord accompaniment). I read the first half of the book sober and the second half drunk, so don’t ask me about the second half. Actually, the book looked really good by the end of the night. I was ready to go home with it.

Seriously, there are some kick-ass poems here. “Roof Leak, Mima Calls” is the best poem I’ve ever read about ice dams.

Phone rings: your mother with the news.
Ceiling shifts: it wants to open.
Cancer: nothing falls, not even the sky.
Your voice is a long wooden level, its yellow tube
tipping the bubble of air toward hope
and back, until you hang up the phone and cry.

The last couplet of the last poem in the book “rhymes” eros with rose, which I had to admit was a pretty cool move. But four pages back, “Prose Sonnet to the Silent Father” gets into some deep emotional waters, and really grabbed my attention when I re-read it under the influence. An excerpt won’t quite do it justice:

9. You are like a poetry teacher.

10. I need to learn how to say the opposite of what I mean but without irony

11. (a prose tactic, yours).

12. I need to learn how to leave silence at the center

13. and still be able to sign my name to it

14. as if it were written by me.

In “Here in Paradise,” the protagonist and her husband fish and eat fish in (I think) Florida, and I could smell the brine —

I cannot speak, nor close my stinging mouth.
This is how I pray, across the burning sands.

— which quote, by the way, shows off Kirk’s skill with caesuras. The intra-line breaks are so regular, in fact, I wonder if that might not be part of what makes the poems “broken.” Especially since there is a poem called “Caesura.” (Nothing gets by me, does it?) Here’s the latter 8/14ths of it:

Now she sings as red October bleeds
from the edges of the day, a dull race

the night always winds. Why should I dread
these yellow leaves? I don’t believe in suffering

as a path to heaven. I walk on leaden
claws, vulture the earth into feathering

a nest for me that can cradle my bones
as they disintegrate, one by brittle one.

That’s pretty wonderful, is it not? Just don’t tell me it’s a goddamn sonnet.


UPDATE (next morning): With all my kvetching about sonnets, I forgot to mention my favorite poem in the chapbook, which communicates a mother’s experience of childbirth in the most vivid language imaginable. I hope Kathleen won’t mind if I reproduce the entire poem here. Among other things, it really carries forward the idea of breaking as a creative and necessary thing:

An Answer

Childbirth: the crashing of a steel girder
to the floor,
one room
breaking into two.
Your hips, sharp handles
on a silver cup.
Your pelvis,
a wishbone
An ocean forces itself into the wineskin that is you.
A holy book you read again and again, aloud,
on your knees.

It makes a silence, a sky

splayed open by milky stars.

* * *

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Household of Water, Moon, & SnowThese poems with their clear music and cool, unexpected depths are the perfect palate cleanser after yesterday’s rich fare. Here, for example, is the beginning (minus the epigraph from Walden) of “Thoreau Surveys the Ice,” in which the naturalist comes out before dawn to witness the break-up of the ice. Read it out loud, if you can:

In late March he tromped over rotting snow, hardened
edges, knee-high holes that held the leg until the weight
of want and momentum broke through to the next,
and the next which led to the pond’s scalloped ledges,
the distance between piled winter and spring’s wanton

The chapbook arrived in today’s mail, unsolicited, inscribed with a note by the author too flattering to reproduce here. Todd Davis is a friend and sometime guest writer at Via Negativa, and it probably won’t surprise anyone who remembers those contributions, or our conversation on the Woodrat podcast last year, that he’s now written a cycle of 22 poems about or in the voice of Henry David Thoreau. The chapbook is from Seven Kitchens Press — the featured publisher here last April — which means hand-sewn, beautiful design and typography, everything a traditional poetry chapbook should be. Plus it’s small enough to fit in a large pocket, which means I could’ve taken it into the woods to read deliberately, as it deserves, had it not been pouring rain all afternoon.

Several things occurred to me as I read this. One is that it’s cool to see an author of six scholarly works and numerous journal articles bridging the divide in his own work (and Lord knows in university English departments) between scholarship and creative writing. Harold Bloom once made the point (at the beginning of The Book of J) that every reader forms an image of the author in his or her mind, and that conscientious scholars should at least acknowledge this inevitable quirk or skew. In Household of Water, Moon, & Snow, Todd brings this mental construct into the foreground and makes him speak in a voice that is at once Todd’s and also recognizably Thoreauvian — and at times sounds a bit East Asian, too. And that’s the second thing that occurred to me: any well-educated modern poet trying to reimagine Thoreau can’t help but be influenced by translations of classic Chinese and Japanese literature, a body of work Thoreau almost certainly would’ve loved had he known it. The book begins, as it should, with a deft reference to Transcendentalist belief in “Thoreau Casts a Line in the Merrimack”:

Pickerel, pot, eel, salmon, shad, even more
fish than these swim in the waters of the Self

where he casts again…

Over the course of ten lines, the view broadens into a cosmic vision of the Merrimack River. But wait a second, I say to myself, it was the Chinese who referred to Milky Way as the River of Heaven. And isn’t that an echo of Li Bai’s “Night Thoughts of a Traveler” in the last lines?

…flow outward

beneath the stars and the heavens, the other
rivers running through the glistening black.

The next poem, “Thoreau Hears the Last Warbler at the End of September,” reads very much like a Wang Wei poem, and the one after that, “Dreaming the Dark Smell of Bear,” sounds distinctly Daoist as it contrasts the protagonist’s cabin-building with a black bear.

Look at bear’s house: a hole
in the snow where great puffs of lung
rise through the roof of his dreaming.

There’s more than a bit of Zhuangzi in this dreaming, too, of course — and sleep and dreaming form a leitmotif in the collection. Since I happen to know that Todd is familiar with all that literature, it’s no great insight on my part to see it as an influence; I’m just impressed by the seamlessness of the weaving of voices. Todd’s own, typically unsentimental view of nature seems pretty close to what Thoreau also believed. In fact, when I encountered the first two poems written in the first person, it wasn’t immediately obvious whose voice they were meant to be in.

Those two poems, by the way, might be my favorites in the collection, at least after this first reading. “Eating an Apple” and “Give Us This Day” both challenge scriptural authority and widely held assumptions about work and sustenance; the latter is something of a forager’s manifesto. Picking black raspberries, the protagonist wonders:

Who blessed by this dark
sugar could stay quiet?
Ants wander drunk
into my bucket, across
the visible world
that feeds us, that makes
an offering each day:
beach plum or paw paw,
morel or puffball, even
the spider-legs
of purslane
and the sharp
bite of sorrel.

That bite, I decide, is a Davis hallmark: relationships with the natural world in his poetry are rarely one-way, and never purely aesthetic, but transactional, characterized by loss as well as gain and a certain element of risk. A poem called “The Virtues of Indolence” stars water snakes, and is followed by a meditation “On Beauty” that uses as its exemplar a poison ivy vine. Like Thoreau himself, Davis seems most concerned with learning how to live well, with eyes open to death and the perils of beauty and usefulness. A graceful elegy and evocation, this book, and a fine companion on a rainy April afternoon.

Seven Kitchens Press is offering free shipping on all its titles throughout April.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Space, in Chains coverPoems clotted with wonder, terrifying as Rilkean angels, fertile and corrosive as volcanic ash. A poetry of grand pronouncements in a minor key, like Charles Wright with a more overt sense of humor and better rhythm. What can you say about riddles that remain recondite? Today, I never drank from the same coffee twice. Not warm enough to keep my furnace from kicking on, but still the bluebottle flies were flying and finding one another with a buzz and a zoom. As I read, I thought about things that were not in the poems but were also new to me: a sign that this book would become my next tuning fork, as the poet and translator Dean Kostos put it in a conversation last month (I had called him up to record him for the qarrtsiluni podcast), talking about those books we read before writing our own poems. Laura Kasischke, where have you been all my life? In Michigan, writing critically acclaimed poetry and novels that are turned into movies starring Uma Thurman, apparently. Why does poetry like this seem so right, even when I don’t fully grasp it at first (or at all)? I think of the way elephants return to visit the skeletons of departed members of their herd, how they are said to pick up certain bones, hold them for a while, and put them back down. There are no elephants in this book (other than a stray reference to the word elephant) but there are quite a few images of someone or something holding something in its arms. In “Time,” for example:

and the soldiers marching across some flowery field in France
bear their own soft pottery in their arms—heart, lung, abdomen.

Or “Trees in fog”:

How insistent they are
that they’ve been here all along
holding their tangible emptiness in their arms.

And in “Dread,” there’s

The season in which you carry the dead thing
up the mountain in your arms
only to be given something squirming in a sack
to carry back

This is poetry of immense negative capability. In a poem called “The knot,” many versions of the knot, or kinds of knots, are described:

This cramped signature on a piece of paper. A thickening knot. An egg like a knot. Not a fist in a lake, this knot of a stranger. Not the bureaucrat’s stamp on the folder of our fate. But a knot nonetheless, and not of our making.

That’s how it ends, with not one mention of untying.

Reading this book was especially time-consuming because I had to keep stopping to jot down stray thoughts, such as:

  • What did they mean by miracle on the last day before the invention of science?
  • The color of my shame is shimmer-above-a-hot-highway.
  • I have a looming date with waiting rooms. (This is true.) It’s been too long; I’ll have to practice at home.

Not terribly profound, but again, it’s evidence that the book made my mind crackle. I was led to consider the likelihood that all the odd things I’ve suppressed because they don’t make sense in my particular belief system have their own truth, and I should stop ignoring them. In poetry like Kasischke’s, two or more opposing truths can all be true. This is a strength of poetry generally, and one of the things that leads me to focus on it at a site called Via Negativa, I think, but one rarely finds it in such concentrated form. Here, for example, is a section of “Cytoplasm, June”:

Every morning we wake tethered to this planet by a rope around the ankle. Tied fast to a pole—but also loose, without rules, in an expanding universe. Always the dream of being a child afloat in the brilliant blue of the motel pool falling away, and an old man with cancer waking up on a bed of nails. Please, don’t remember me this way, the world would like to say. And yet…

The book is two or three times too long. It may seem odd to say this about poetry I love — clearly I got my money’s worth. But poems this intense need more space. Reading the whole book in one day with the kind of attention I prefer to bring to poetry proved impossible; some poems only got one, too-fast reading. Not that that wasn’t also pleasurable, however. I found mind-expanding images on almost every page, and after a while overcame my habitual reluctance to mark up books and grabbed a pencil. Oddly, I found that the mere act of holding the pencil with an eye toward marking favorite passages made me much more attentive. The pencil bore the name of our township tax collector, followed by the words GOD BLESS YOU — a prayer for votes.

Death and taxes: the many references to a dying father in a hospital and a mother already dead seemed to come from a mature, almost tender understanding of death, more Cesar Vallejo than Dylan Thomas. I began thinking about immortality, what a strange and repulsive idea it was — and then, inevitably, what I would do if I were so cursed as to live forever. I would get stoned, no question, and stay that way from one eon to the next. I would do my best to annihilate time. But a little while later came a different thought: there are no churches in heaven.

Down here, God just spit on a rock, and it became a geologist.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read just four of those books. Details here.

Boy Returning Water to the Sea by Andrea SelchThese are, the subtitle says, “koans for Kelly Fearing.” How are the poems koans, and in what sense are they “for” the artist, William Kelly Fearing, whose works prompted them?

for when he’s painting he’s in the ocean
for if the shell had fallen from his hands

for when he grew within her like a Volute or Olive
at first armless

for when the paintbrush fell from his hands
(“Holy Shell Waiting for the Return of the Soul/The Difficult Toy”)

Can we imagine a celebrated 90-year-old artist, one with evident mystic leanings, applying himself to the very non-mystical practice of meditating on Zen or Zen-like questions — questions suggested by a lifetime’s worth of his own paintings, drawings and collages? Wouldn’t that make him, in a sense, his own master?

Everyone and every thing has already come,
already gone, so there’s no hurry …
(“The Zebra’s Secret is Silver”)

And what of the poet then? Shall we liken her to the disobedient monks who surreptitiously recorded the questions of the ancient Chan masters and the responses of their students inside their voluminous sleeves?

Boys will be boys, but then also men:

His mantle is tattered, his feet torn,
and the handles of the basket are gone.
(“Boy Returning Water to the Sea”)

Why are so many animals here — birds, horse, owls, rhinoceros, zebra, giraffes, three pink fish and a mollusc shell — occupying the place of honor?

The cameo paper is filled
with the noise of a thousand birds.
(“Man Doing Isolation, Horseback”)

If we took our cues from birds or beasts, where would we end up?

Above him, in cobalt-becoming-marine,
the four swallows follow;
wherever he’s going will be home.
(“The Night of the Rhinoceros”)

But what sort of wisdom or enlightenment is being sought here, and by whom?

“Shall I dance for you with my one wing
under two orange suns, counting steps
three, four, five, six, seven,
or back off angrily, screeching,

“‘The secret is number one’?”
(“Owl with the Secret of the Enneagram”)

With the poem on the left and the artwork on the right, and their shared title matching the color of the latter, which is call and which is response? Is it inevitable in a work of ekphrastic poetry that the poem follow the art?

But she has stopped, lop-eared, frowning:
Why couldn’t it be one going one way,
the other, the other?
(“Two Giraffes in Arizona”)

Is the absense of page numbering intended to make each facing pair of cardstock pages, with no bleed-through from their neighbors, feel hermetic?

On the cliff above him, the angel Rafe
also hopes, as angels do, though
with his wings pinned back—impeccable.
(“The Place of Tobias and the Angel”)

Why, aside from the printing cost, are so few books of poetry illustrated in color (or at all), considering the extent to which readers of poetry fetishize books? What might we learn from color that the black type and whitespace alone are unable to express?

Not the heat in the summer,
nor the rain, when it rains, nor the way winter
lets you see miles away in perfect focus.
(“Texas is Much Smaller Here Floating through the Equinox”)

But isn’t there a kind of synaesthesia at work in this wedding?

To the eye, it’s nearly red.

Then close your eyes.
(“Large Bird Listening to the Sounds of Purple”)

If I revisit this book tonight in my dreams, to whom will the visions belong: to the poet or artist, to the painted animal or the animal that was painted?

In the gold there was copper; in the blue, fuschia;
and in the butterflies, flecks of the fallen sun’s last rays.
Little pink-faced owl, if she could choose otherwise,
she’d still choose butterflies.
(“Little Pink-Faced Owl with Butterflies”)

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Goatfish AlphabetI am reading this book for the third time in as many years, carrying it into the library like a charm to make the other books talk, and into the gourmet section of the supermarket to awaken lust among the cheeses fresh from their caves. The first few pages bear greasy smudges near the bottom — what had I been eating the last time I read it?

The shoddy design, lack of pagination or ISBN, and other shortcomings of the book as object continue to annoy me, but I find the poems to be if anything more astonishing than they were the last time. I tell myself it isn’t they that are aging but the ripe cheese between my ears. The language is so good, at one point I realize I am actually drooling. I wipe my beard and hastily look around to see if anyone in the cafe noticed. I must be

half-dead with unspoke
(“The Goatfish Alphabet“)

as I slump

inch by mouldering inch,
Towards the soft enchantment of gravity.

The other patrons are like me, I think:

Joined, hushed, we gaze upon
the vibrant core of our loneliness.
Here, for a whole minute,

there is nothing but this hum.
(“Poetry Night at the Shelter: 1”)

It might be largely the effect of sleep deprivation, but

Today I’m transparent—all my buried happiness shows.
(“Jellyfish Dreams”)

This despite my gloomy conviction, as an environmentalist, that

My whole
damn species are fools, always skittering
toward some fresh perfection, always
outgrowing what loves us.
(“Hermit Crab’s Lament”)

But see, this is why great poetry can save us: learn to love it and you will need few other “fresh perfections.” You will ask yourself,

When did this snowy rush begin
to find a place of infinite containment;
to ground itself in the frantic waters
and anchor to the sea with its monstrous beams?
(“Touring the Glaciers“)

The question is,

are you simply willing
to fall out into the open world
with no keys, no mints, no stamps,
not a saltine to your name,
lacking chapstick, phone and change?

And when put that way, I’m not sure I can say yes myself. It’s tough to cut loose, especially (this may surprise you) for us hermits, whose shoes are

sloped with wear, in reusable shades:
beige, black and navy; made for plodding
from coop to kitchen on muscular feet.

It’s far easier to merely

launder the towels,
lay down upon them and dream
clean dreams

such as:

Meeting the morning, drinking the sun through my skin,
Tanned and wholesome as a granola commercial.

The land withholds its blessings, and we feel our rootlessness as a penance. If we “settle in,” it’s

to sit out the landing stage
Of our perpetual half-time.

Maybe the problem is we are trying too damned hard. Maybe we simply need to create space in our hearts and wait.

The fact is that in the end, it came on its own
With such ease, and through the tiniest of spaces.
I knew then the difference between choice and grace.
Outside, the rain continued on, and the people.
Inside, my coffee tasted just as bitter,
But I drank it in a different universe.

Perhaps every true god is a trickster like Raven, who

your bread, your bullets,
your riddles, the last
dreamy petal
fallen to the night table.
(“The Trouble with Ravens”)

I too remember star-gazing as a child:

Who can feel small in the lap of the galaxy?
(“At Seven”)

Until one day in my early teens I did, I felt our entire galaxy’s insignificance, and was terrified to realize that none of our verities, not one, mattered a hair. After that it began to dawn on me that

Want is a sluggard tongue,
seeking its greasy kingdom. It will tempt you full
to bursting.
(“Perfect Weight”)

One could do worse than seek the grace of an addict, who

will be granted provisions and unused prayers,
Not by the angels, but by those you most despise.
(“A Prayer for Reclamation”)

I’m home now. It’s poetry night at the shelter. Beautiful book in an ungainly package, thank you for this mirror into the soul.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Temptation by WaterLive-blogging seems to be making a bit of a comeback lately, but you still don’t see too many readers live-blogging their reading, for some reason. I resolved to try and remedy that today — except that instead of a computer, I used a pen and clipboard and transcribed the whole thing this evening, so it wasn’t quite live, but close. This is the first of four books that Kristin Berkey-Abbott and I are encouraging others to also read and blog about this month. If you do so anytime before the end of the month, please send me the link and I’ll update this post to include it, right up here at the top. Also, we’re going to be interviewing Diane by phone this coming Saturday, lord-willing-and-the-creek-don’t-rise. So let us know if there’s anything in particular you’d like us to ask.

[4/7/11] Kristin Berkey-Abbott: “The Temptations of Diane Lockward’s Latest Book”

[4/9] Dale Favier @mole: “The Lesson of Loss: Temptation by Water”

[4/10] Dale @mole: “More on Lockward’s Temptation by Water”

[4/23] Nic S., Very Like a Whale: “‘Tempation by Water’ — Daine Lockward”

7:51 a.m. It’s in the high 40s and I’m sitting on the porch with my coffee, reading Diane Lockward’s Temptation by Water. There’s “the weather outside and the weather inside,” Lockward reminds me (“Weather Report”). Indeed.

A loose confederation of kinglets moves through the birches, identifiable not by their crowns — the birds are silhouettes against the overcast sky — but their diminutive size and their rootless lack of allegiance to any perch. Hard to believe they ever pause long enough to nest. “Grief, a vagrant huddled in the corner,” I read (“Implosion”). I spot a brown creeper, first on the dead elm and then on the trunk of the walnut beside the driveway, like a nuthatch with its wiring switched, ascending rather than descending, in the same way that spring is autumn played backwards. Or something like that. A squirrel trots into the woods with his black, disinterred breakfast between his teeth.

“Leaving in Pieces” is a lot of fun. “The hairless head was yellowish-white/ and shiny as a peeled clove of garlic.” Poor bald husband!

“This is the season of the centipede.” Terrific opening line there for “What He Doesn’t Know.” I wish I’d written it.

I try to stop hearing the white-throated sparrow’s song as wistful (or the bluebird’s as bubbly) but it’s hard. Like Lockward’s centipede, the birds are “without our human flaws,” but not by nearly as much.

“Pleasure,” I read, and a nearby mourning dove goes “Who-OH!”

“Outside, goldfinches bright as lemon peels” (“Pleasure”). Then in “Stripping the Lemon”: “Would you grate/ my goldfinch/ gold[?]” This is the most gold I’ve read about since Mark Doty. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The witch-doctor rattle of our smallest woodpecker, he of the down. “The slow slide of warm stones/ over hills and valleys of flesh” (“Why I Won’t Have a Full Body Massage”).

Crows, crows.

Lockward tends to put poems with similar themes together. Next up is “My Mother Turns Her Back.” Wow, I like this one! “The snake on my mother’s/ back thickens, a python/ bulging with rats.”

Is that a flicker calling from the corner of the field? Sure sounds like it.

The heat effect from my morning shower has almost entirely worn off, and the cold and damp are beginning to get to me. But listen: “I watch my mother// grow down, as if she carries/ a burden of basket, as if/ already greeting the earth.” Simply a magnificent poem.

In “Hunger in the Garden,” Lockward depicts raccoons as forming nuclear families — oops. The deer eating the spring and summer blossoms still in the bud, though, that sure sounds familiar.

“April at the Arboretum.” I’m listening to the cowbird’s liquid lisp from atop the tallest tree in the yard, as usual: the nest parasite and his mate miss nothing. Their eyes are on the sparrow, you could say. Lockward is describing an April sleet storm crushing the flowers. Then… more goldfinches! Yay! “Tarnished, soft, and brilliant.”

The sky suddenly brightens. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers are really going at it — fighting or courting, it’s hard to tell. You’d think I’d know all the neighbors’ habits by now. “Without the noun of his name” (“Without Words for It”): sometimes the simplest phrases are the most resonant, aren’t they?

I become aware of the highway noise from the southwest; it’s not too loud today. A drone note.

“All the sentences were simple and declarative” quoth she. This is one poem about language that actually doesn’t annoy me too much. Right on cue, the monosyllables of a nuthatch.

“Don’t call him witch doctor” (“Nostrum”). Cool, I was thinking about witch doctors! Not nearly as P.C. as “shamans,” but you know, some so-called shamans are or were, in fact, witch doctors. They could fuck you up and would tell you so to your face, or so certain ethnographers have reported. Anyway…

“Inside the sack, seeds that crackle like grit”: description of eating a fig in “Woman with Fruit.” Lockward is really good at food poems. I’m been considering writing a collection of food poems myself, so this is a welcome schooling.

8:55. Fingers frozen. Maybe it’ll warm up later and I can resume this after lunch.


2:45 p.m. Well, it’s up to 56 degrees. I’ll take it! One rain shower just past, the air smells of ozone and wet soil. Two, or possibly three, wood frogs are quacking in the teacup-sized pond down in the boggy corner of the field.

“If Only Humpty Dumpty Had Been a Cookie”: I’m not even that crazy about cookies, but this poem has me salivating. Damn.

And then there’s “Learning to Live Alone,” something I know a little about. “Trees that capitulate to nothing,// and speckled sparrows that light on the lawn.” Yep, companionship is where you find it. (Helps to be drunk, though. Then every beetle is like a brother.)

A chipmunk’s alarm call. The sun won’t quite come out.

“To a Potato” solidifies my intention to make twice-baked potatoes for supper tonight. “I love the smell of you just before baking,” I read. Wonderful ode. Then it’s on to “My Dark Lord” and: “Lay me among the potatoes./ Shroud me in a shirt of loam and peat moss.”

“Spying on My New Neighbors” describes a modern suburban heiros gamos, “his hoe dropped on her rake […] flowers blooming/ from ears and eyes, the red peonies of their mouths.” Nice.

One of the wood frogs has a sudden burst of enthusiasm, or maybe a fit of rage. Hard to tell. But excitement is running high after so many too-cold weeks.

There’s a “scrim of evergreens” in one poem, and a “scrim of trees” in the very next poem. That’s at least one scrim too many. One per book is pretty much the limit. I fault the editor there. But from the latter, “Bathing in Forest Dusk,” I absolutely love these lines: “I breathe the duff/ of deciduous leaves,// leave my sorrows/ among moss and mushrooms,/ among lilies of the valley/ and jack-in-the-pulpits.” And: “Your trees breathe/ me in.” Wow.

Two doves exchange baritone clarinet notes, as they are wont to do.

“When Pigs Flee” almost makes me like feral pigs. That’s something. And then it turns into another good food poem, by talking about all the pork products these pigs won’t be in. Yay, a mention of scrapple!

Was that a rumble of thunder? Crap.

Nice capture of the photobug impulse in “Capturing the Image.” Then more thunder. And more potatoes! “Jesus Potato” is written in one of those annoying forms that repeats the same rhyme words in a cyclic pattern, but it has too many good lines to dislike. The potato turns into the Pope by the end, a cool move that might be opaque to anyone who doesn’t know Spanish. (Or maybe I am reading into it.)

I read “The way lightning sometimes strikes,” and there’s a flash of distant lightning. Really! May God strike me dead if I’m lying.

The rumbles seem to be growing more distant, but here come some fat raindrops rustling the leaves. As long as it doesn’t blow in, though, it can rain all it wants.

“Ecdysiast” — bitchin’ title for a poem about an exotic dancer. Her gaze is “at once smoldering and icy.”

It’s getting dark four hours too early. This can’t be good.

“The chunk of day we appropriate/ for happiness, when we will be happy/ because that is the appointed hour” (“Happy Hour”). Yeah, mandatory fun sucks. But Lockward really evokes the mood well.

The scattered raindrops multiply into a mob. A squirrel races from the tulip poplar.

“Filbert” — a poem about the Charlie Brown of nuts. “You’re that kid whose mother named him/ Filbert.”

Oops, that flash was kind of close. The rain has already stopped, though. This storm is a bit of a filbert.

Ah, the obligatory dead-animal poem: “A Murmuration of Starlings.” I like it though, especially the ending, which laments the mass poisoning of “Birds who’d sung their own song/ and wooed their mates with lavender and thistle.” As a conservationist I do feel there are times when local eradications of invasive species are appropriate, but that doesn’t — or shouldn’t — make such actions any less horrible, or we who are the uber-invasive species any less culpable. Poems like this are essential reminders of, uh, how much we suck.

Another shower, but the thunder is now to the northeast. Well, most of it, anyway. Temperature down to 55. The smell of smoke. There’s a typo on page 61, I think, “draught” for “drought.” The poem is “Supplication to Water”: “I have polluted the pristine lake, peed in the pool, … I have … prayed for your conversion/ to wine.” A great litany of sins. “Catch me between the devil and the deep deep blue./ Let me enter the same river twice, for I am grungy.” I love this poem! Also, use of “grungy” more than atones for the earlier double-scrim offense.

Now this here’s some rain. (Have the coltsfoot flowers that were out along the road this morning — first of the year! — folded up, I wonder?) Time to put the potatoes in the oven and do a quick check of email.


4:33. It’s down to 53F, though the sky is once again brightening. Sound is coming out of the east now, whatever that might portend: traffic going through the gap.

I read: “She remembers how you slid into this world ass first,/ a comic reversal forewarning who you would be” — a poem about an asshole (“It Runs This Deep”). If breech birth is destiny, I’m in trouble.

This may well be the definitive asshole poem against which all other asshole poems will henceforth be measured. I don’t want to give away the ending, but it’s… perfect. Must get Lockward to read this for the podcast.

A robin is singing — first one I’ve heard since this morning. Nothing remarkable, I realize, but hey, it’s been a long damn winter.

A very good poem about peaches, followed by “You Offer Lychees to Your American Friends,” in which the speaker is trying to convert her Chinese friend to chocolate, urging her to “Learn to love what is decadent,/ what grows in other gardens.” I like the subtle way the topic of inequality is broached.

“Kerfuffle”: a poem made to read out loud, so I do. Again, Lockward places like with like, the decadent pleasure of language right after the chocolate. “He was onomatopoetic,” she explains.

Another poem about a male lover, “Side Effects,” is just what it says: an artful list of dangerous side effects. Impressive. I also can’t help thinking that if this could be reworked into a ballad, it might very well go platinum on the country music charts.

Song sparrow now. A car coming up the road. Another small thunderstorm rolls in — or is all the same, very relaxed storm? “The tinny sound of steel,/ wind swirling…” (“There Where Love Had Been”)

“I … want to believe/ the trees are a sign I could be wood” (“The Desolation of Wood”). Me too.

Getting dark again. This will be a day with multiple dusks.


5:25, 51F. I’m back from eviscerating the potatoes and refilling them with their new and improved flesh. Thunder still. A squirrel chisels open a black walnut. “Inside that shell, the sound of regret, relentless as any ocean.” (“How is a Shell Like Regret?”) This poem reminds me of my shell-collecting grandmother.

Reading “The Temptation of Mirage,” I make appreciative noises at “the levitation of lake.” The poem ends with a night-blooming cereus, too. Can’t go wrong with that.

Another fruit poem, “Love Song with Plum,” has some wonderful word-play with the near-rhymes: plumb, plumes, plumage, plummet. Another one to read out loud.

“‘No Soup for You!'” — In a book with so many edible things, you can’t not include an evocation of the great and holy ur-food. “I believe in the power of soup,” she says, and conjures up a Whitmanesque soup kitchen where (contrary to the title) all are welcome.

No sound now but rain and distant traffic.

“This is the geometry of longing” (“Phone in a White Room”). I’m glad she included this poem, so different from all the others in the book with its dystopian dreamscape. It’s a good antidote to the soupy utopia.

The rain’s easing up again. A crow calls. (Pretty much the only calls I get are from crows.)

“Twilight” features a baby who is also a muffin, “his pure buttery goodness…” Why is this not disturbing?

“Seventh-Grade Science Project”: last poem. The speaker is collecting butterflies all summer, her parents recently separated. She left her “multi-colored fingerprints/ on everything I touched.” Deft move to close with an ars poetica in the last two lines.

Time for supper.

Gospel Earth“A big book of little poems,” says the press release. Except not all the poems are little, and not all the contents are poems. This is a sprawling book, an unruly book, and as I read I vacillate wildly between admiration and impatience. Perhaps that’s fine. Some of my favorite prose works are similarly undisciplined: Zhuangzi, Moby Dick, Gargantua and Pantagruel, and lord knows the Bible. Not bad company! Still, my editor’s hand itches as I read yet one more page of superfluous epigraphs that serve only to overwhelm the micropoems that follow, and titles that lie heavily on certain poems, closing off alternate interpretations. I feel as if I’m on a nature trail with too goddamn many signs to tell me what I’m seeing.

Maybe reading a book like this straight through is a mistake, but after reading for an hour or so I found I was beginning to miss the signs of human civilization that are nearly impossible to escape on this globe, especially in the places Beam identifies as the origins of these poems, places in Italy, France, Ireland and North Carolina. Where are the roar of jets, the rumble of motors, the jarring clutter of powerlines and subdivisions? Then, too, despite a fine homage to William Carlos Williams, who famously declared “no ideas but in things,” there’s a relatively limited vocabulary of images which after a while feel more like ideas and less like real things: wind, water, tree, sun, etc. The book begins to feel narrow despite its girth. The nature mysticism begins to feel unearned, and the persistent vatic tone starts to ring hollow for me.

It is of course unfair to complain that this isn’t quite the book I would’ve preferred to read, but I’m not trying to write a fair-minded review, simply share my response as one particular reader with my own set of biases. The thing is, I found a great deal to like, too. I penciled little checkmarks in the corners of pages I liked, and flipping back through the book now, I see that I’ve marked at least a quarter of all the pages, which if I extracted them with an exacto knife would make a book about 50 pages long. Even in the section of the book called “Green Man,” almost all of which I would’ve jettisoned had I been Beam’s editor, I find some lines that strongly resonate:

In order to make sense
of the ground
I build an earthen hill & sit upon it
(“The Green Man’s Man”)

Another longish poem, “Foggy Mountain Sutra,” has two lines I’d love to see alone on the page:

Anxious to waken anxious to go out
What grey bones dance me to my grave

A short poem called “Resurrection” has so much I like, I am itching to white out the title and the last word, which sits in a stanza by itself:

What late fire-dragons
fume from my body
What purples
What frosts

The night tastes bitter

moss on my tongue


And don’t get me wrong: there are poems where I wouldn’t change a thing, such as “Treatise of the Daisy.” (Well, O.K., the typographic daisies separating the three sections were a bit much.) And here’s a poem where both the interpretive title and the vatic tone seemed just right:

Revelation of Beginnings

The cities pray but
not for long
Soon they will bend

Tall grass

There’s a poem just three words long, including the title, which I really admired —

Thrush’s Parable


— though I suspect that if you aren’t familiar with the wood thrush, hermit thrush or veery, it will probably make you shrug.

One more example shows I think the kind of gnomic quality that Beam was going for in many of the poems, here with great success to my ear:

The Visitation: Moth

No flame to explain me

The section called “MountSeaEden” was my favorite. None of the poems in this section have titles at all (except in the Table of Contents — an interesting compromise), and we’re told they originated from “Traversing the Healy Pass, Caha Mountains, Beara Peninsula, Ireland” with two companions in Autumn 2006. They seem appropriately light and free, and their cumulative effect lends power to the individual parts, where mountain and sea are blended to dizzying effect.

Sand in sandal

Leaf-print on pillow.

is one poem, and here’s another I really liked for some reason:

Thrifty mountains

bright & mineral

where herds graze
where saxifrage assumes

I hope I don’t seem like I’m damning this book with faint praise. I got it as a review copy, but if I didn’t own it and I saw it in a bookstore, I would probably buy it, because I do love micropoetry and there’s a lot here to admire and learn from. Beam clearly understands how brevity can make a piece more suggestive and powerful. I just wish he’d applied that lesson to the whole book.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Blameless Mouth by Jessica Fox-WilsonThere are — it occurs to me as I finish this book — too many love poems in the world, and not nearly enough poems about desire. But before I sat down with Blameless Mouth this morning my attitude was, I’m ashamed to say, more skeptical. I’d read two or three of the poems quickly, like a shopper, like a consumer, like one of the protagonists in this book: wanting it, maybe on the strength of the elegant cover, but not really sure I needed it. How original, I said to myself, poems about hunger — one of those words like bone or stone or scrim or palimpsest that makes me raise an eyebrow when I encounter it in a poem. The title of the book even comes from a line in a poem called “Hunger.” Yikes! But as the lead singer of the legendary underground thrash-metal band Violence once said: If you’re gonna call yourself that, you’d better be able to deliver the goods. And, as it turns out, Fox-Wilson definitely delivers the goods.

The book has what I guess you could call a fugal structure, with the same stories repeating in different keys: Eve and the apple, Grimm’s fairy tales, a child in a shipwreck, a placeless Middle American upbringing, the blandishments of glossy magazines. Even the sort-of title poem appears again at the end of the poem, as “Hunger, Revised,” which is such a cool idea I wish I’d thought of it first. One effect of this was a kind of obsessive feel that intensified as I proceeded through the book, pausing only for lunch. Fox-Wilson may not be the first American poet to tackle the subject of consumption and consumerism, but why should she be? There could hardly be a more crucial topic for our national discourse, should we ever decide to have one. And off-hand, I can’t remember the last time I saw it done so well.

O.K., this is the part of the inevitably inadequate review where I try to compensate for its inadequacy by quoting liberally from the book under consideration. I like animal poems, so naturally “Feeding Habits of Foxes” would’ve appealed to me even without the clever autobiographical turn at the end:

I think I am afraid
of my own natural red hair,
point of my teeth, my silent
stalking ways. No matter

which cage I put you in,
I cannot escape
our common name.

In “Waiting for Snow White,” a girl standing in line with her family at Disneyland has her menarche. The opening lines set the scene perfectly:

I waited in line for the ride when it happened,
swallowed in a thick red stream of sweating, sunburned

One of the magazine poems is called “I Turn the Page, Like Waving a White Flag,” a title which could almost stand on its own as a micropoem. It ends with the speaker wistfully recalling “my life before// all my purchases,” a moment in her childhood when she sat on a swing eating a slice of watermelon with uncomplicated pleasure, how delicious it was, and

how I giggled
with my mouth still full. Where is my receipt

for that moment? I need to know. What was
the price for that young girl’s joyful pink heart?

Due to following a lot of blogs by Buddhists and those influenced by Buddhism over the years, not to mention my own environmentalism, I suppose I’ve been led to consider this topic of wanting and the mental habits that feed it more than most people. So I think it would be unfair of me to make very much out of the three or four poems in the book that struck me as less than amazing, because they may strike readers not as accustomed to the topic as essential. What’s really worth focusing on here is that the book as a whole is engrossing, inventive and never descends to didacticism as it wrestles with its sexy but disturbing questions: “Can we teeter together/ on this knife’s edge/ of having and wanting”? “[W]hen I finally/ touch the center,/ what will I find”?

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.

Movie Plots book kit

This is syncretism at its most perverse — idiosyncretism, if you will: the word made celluloid, the world herky-jerking past in a series of unplayable movie pitches. Our hero is an author with half a mind to leave us in the lurch. You print the pages yourself following instructions on the web, fold them into the stiff gray cover they send you in the mail and prick your fingers with a needle sewing it together, all for five dollars: Epiphany Book Kit No. 1. Thirty poems square as movie screens, albeit mostly taller than they are wide, set in a font from 1680. I start them while I am making breakfast and overcook my eggs, but the eggs, eaten with “Murder Mystery,” are still delicious. It is not the first time I’ve read the poems, but it’s the first time I’ve read them in the intended order. This time I see how each movie begets the next, but I lose the sense I had the first time of being in on the joke, perhaps because I am imagining how I would film them: Nick’s text as script for a documentary narrated by someone more sonorous than God, or perhaps dribbled out into closed captioning while something entirely different plays on the screen, such as footage from a minicam strapped to the head of a dog or the security cameras from a 24-hour peep show, though the latter might be so meta as to cause a feedback loop. Without reopening the book, what stuck with me? Bullets getting married, a knife-ship big as a house, a superhero named Peace who saves the day with one eye-popping blow, the Zhuangzi butterfly turned into a sci-fi virus, the wit, the energy, the sense of things flying out of control, the desire to stay in the theatre for another long read.

I’m reading a book a day for Poetry Month, but I’m also hoping some folks will join me and fellow poet-blogger Kristin Berkey-Abbott to read four of those books, one a week starting April 3 — or even just one of the four. Details here.