Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 32

A personal selection of posts from the Poetry Blogging Network and beyond. Although I tend to quote my favorite bits, please do click through and read the whole posts. This week, poetry bloggers seemed to be channeling the general unease of the political moment and the restlessness of the soon-to-change season. There was an elegiac mood to many of the posts I read, but there were still flashes of humor, and as Sarah Stockton observed, creativity is a potent antidote to futility.


First was this from 1984: “The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.” In 1984 not only is history rewritten daily but language itself is being narrowed, and as language narrowed, thought itself stultified. Thinking and language is, for us, our wag-tongued species, inextricable. “Every year fewer and fewer words, and the range of consciousness always a little smaller.”

I have always loved words, even as a little tiny kid would leaf through a book on the family shelf called How to Build a Better Vocabulary. Words were as magic as magic, and as delightful in the mouth as chocolate chip cookies, as cake with candles. And I can almost remember a visceral sense of my mind expanding as I encountered new words that struck me, words that opening up new worlds, new ways of thinking.

I just read Robert MacFarlane’s Landmarks, a wonderful book about books and words, specifically words of regional dialect that describe things specific to regional experiences: how the fog creeps across the moor, the way certain rock formations sparkle, how the regular passage of a small animal through a hedge creates a hole. Worlds and worlds, words and worlds.

Marilyn McCabe, You Can Leave Your Hat On; or, Rethinking Writing and Editing

Shelter is always a two-way street, turning on the hinge of hospitality/prison.  In the ancient world, Greek hospitality served the purpose of putting the wandering stranger under control.  So it was in 1939 when the Spanish and Catalan Republicans fled Franco’s conquest and thought they were coming to a friendly country.  But the country wasn’t friendly.  It treated the wretched refugees whose numbers and socialist ideas were threatening, with lack of food, water and medical help.  So it was with Jews who thought they were fleeing from Germany and other countries to a safe zone, “free France.”  They were housed in Rivesaltes barracks “safely” until Vichy cut a deal with Nazis to keep their territory soldier free and delivered 2,251 Jews to Drancy and eventually to Auschwitz.  (Another half were helped to escape.)  Gypsies were brought from the north of France and detained as undesirables.  

The list goes on with successions of needs of a state’s questionable history – Algerians who fought for the French became hot potatoes, wanted nowhere, not thanked for their help, housed here until society repositioned them.

Rivesaltes also rings bells as the site of the Perignan airport – a small, Lego-like structure which is the windiest airport in France.  Riversaltes also the name of a wonderful sweet wine.  Oh, the multivalence of words!  Shelter, internment camps, hospitality centers, and all these hedgings speak of the uncertainties, fissures and failures of society to rest, humanely, with the familiar other. 

Jill Pearlman, Refugees: The Tragedy of Frenemies

“Admit that Mexico is your double, that she exists in the shadow of this country, that we are irrevocably tied to her. Gringo, accept the doppelganger in your psyche. By taking back your collective shadow the intracultural split will heal.” (page 108)

“This land was Mexican once/ was Indian always/ and is./ And will be again.” (page 113)

“So this is what happened to someone living at the border like me: My ancestors have always lived with the land here in Texas. My indigenous ancestors go back twenty to twenty-five thousand years and that is how old I am in this country. My Spanish ancestors have been in this land since the European takeover which pulled migration from Spain to Mexico. Texas was part of a Mexican state called Tamaulipas. And Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and part of California and Colorado, were part of the northern section of Mexico. It was almost half of Mexico that the U.S. cheated Mexico out of when they bought it by the treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. By doing so they created the borderlands.” (Interview, page 274)

The above quotes are from Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Fourth Edition. The book was first published in 1987; I encountered it a couple of years later, in graduate school, although I can no longer find my first copy. I’ve been meaning to reread it, because I’m advising a senior who wants to make it part of her thesis next year.

This was definitely the week. I’m sickened by U.S. gun violence and epidemic hatred without having a new or insightful word to say about them, but it felt just slightly sanity-restoring to spend time with Anzaldúa. After all, how can there be a “Hispanic invasion,” as the Texas shooter alleged, in a place to which the U.S. government has only the most recent and most dubious of many claims? Aside from the book’s reminders about history, it’s also big-hearted and wise and full of insights about language, culture, queerness, trauma, depression, artistic process, sacredness, and dreams. Plus, I loved remembering my twenty-something astonishment at its hybrid of prose and poetry: holy shit, you can do that?!

Lesley Wheeler, A slightly terrifying amount of reading

If you’re ever stuck for something to do with a damaged book, try cutting up some of the text and interspersing it with a couple of other sources to create a found poem. [Click through to view an example. —Dave]

Julie Mellor, The Observer’s Book of Birds

I’m re-sharing some of my collage poems from the recent past.  These were written for an Instagram competition (#aquietpassionpoetrycompetition) run by The Poetry School and Soda Pictures (‘A Quiet Passion’ was their biopic of Emily Dickinson released two years ago).  The judges stated that they wanted to see “poems which use the concentrated visual qualities of an Instagram post to deliver a punch as strong as an Emily Dickinson line.” [Click through to view the collages.]

Josephine Corcoran, Collage Poems

Years ago, my aunt gave me a stack of cool  victorian cabinet cards she’d been sent from relatives in Nebraska, where she and my mother were born. There were some young pics of my grandmother in the 20’s and 30’s among them, but most of the people were unrecognizeable and unknown..maybe a trace of resemblance at most–a set of brow, a curve of lip that echoed through my great grandmother, but little else.  She gave them to be to do “something artsy”  and they eventually, without their actual heads, became he unusual creatures pieces. At first,  I debated collageing on the photos themselves.  On one hand, it would ruin them. On the other, no one much cared, least of all my aunt..The originals, tucked somewhere in my studio even now, will one day be inconsequential to whoever stumbles across them. I wound up reproducing them on cardstock and then working with them.  But it scarce matters. Ultimately, they’ll ed up in the trash sooner or later.

The strange thing about being childless I suppose is knowing that my legacy, whatever that is, dies with me. Some day, I’ll grow old and die and people, probably strangers, will throw the bulk of my things in the trash –the poems, the artwork, the random bits of my life I’ve collected.  This makes me hurt. it makes me heavy in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. My dad & sister were pretty quick about dealing with my mother’s things after her death–alarmingly so, but it was probably necessary mental health-wise–the closet full of clothes, her jewelry box, a linen closet stuffed with half  burnt candles and semi-filled bottles of lotion.  Her presence is still very real in the house–the art she chose for the walls, the furniture, the photos, her dishes. .  But at the same time, she is also more absent–and in a way that has nothing to do with her physically missing.  But who can hold on to ghosts?  Or maybe ghosts are all we have?

Kristy Bowen, detritus

Not sure what I fear more:
that your house will feel the same
or that it won’t. The wheelchair
and hospital machines will be gone, but

the books in the library will still
be arranged by color, abstract
modern art constructed from their spines’
gradations. The heavy crystal bowls

of roasted nuts for cocktail hour
will still adorn the living room
where you used to hold court with
vodka soda and lime in hand, where

you let us take a family photo
that last Shabbat. I was shocked
you let us bring out the camera:
your hair was wild, unwashed.

You smiled as though nothing hurt.

Rachel Barenblat, Return

I said that her poem ‘unnerves and confronts’; I think I should qualify that. It’s not confrontational, it doesn’t insist. What Ann Gray does is to look unwaveringingly at her own trauma. There are three key verbs. I wanted. I was afraid. I watched. While she stands by the body of the man she loves the morgue attendant watched me through the window. He’s separated from the human story by glass, and by his bureaucratic routine that demands she uses the official, distancing, dehumanising formula
“He said take as long as you want, but he watched me
through a window and everything I wanted seemed
undignified and hopeless”
Meanwhile, what she ‘wants’ is to touch, and to touch passionately, but she’s afraid to hurt this man who can never hurt again. He’s gone, essentially, and separate. It makes me think of the agony of the dead miner’s wife in Lawrence’s ‘Odor of crysanthemums’. It’s this absolute honesty that told me I want to read and hear more and more of Ann Gray. So we will.

John Foggin, Poetry that really matters: Ann Gray (Part Two)

As writers, we are not limited by the boxes we fit into or those we don’t. The pot of opportunities does not have to be finite if we’re willing to push ourselves and try new things. More jobs can be created, more books published, more awards, grants and residencies offered if a greater interest is shown by poets, poetry readers and book buyers. If you don’t exactly fit the brief, be brave and try anyway. Always follow the guidelines and ask if you have any uncertainties, of course, but sometimes you might be the unexpected that gets noticed because you’ve approached things a little differently.

Gerry Stewart, Taking Yourself Out of the Box

Don’t build. Just find intact
(albeit cracked and leaky)
a house that’s there already,

one that’s rooted
firm and knows its skin;
that’s free of pain

and ghosts, with trees
and half-forgotten gardens,
mossy cold-frames, twisted

vines and sudden sundials
in the long, uncultivated
grass. Then let us blow

like puffball parachutes
in a random wind,
the achene fruit

that falls and germinates
when and where
it will.

Dick Jones, How to Build a School

You will study the maps,
make a plan, pack
the right clothes, only to find
yourself in a different country,
the one you didn’t know
you needed to explore.

It is here you find the answers
to the unspoken questions.
Here is the journal written
in a language you can’t understand.
Here the box of letters
written between two souls
you do not know.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Summer Publications

I took a bunch of pictures of roses at twilight with a flash, and got really interesting results. The best nature picture we got was this great blue heron at the penguin exhibit, and we got a flyby by a bald eagle on the way in to the zoo, too. There’s also a patch of wildflowers inside the raptor exhibit. We also had a close encounter in our own driveway with a great horned owl, which hooted at us with much urgency from a neighbor’s pine tree! Too bad no picture of that guy – it was definitely too dark by then. The garden smelled amazing at night – something beyond the roses must be a night-bloomer. The rose garden, usually almost done by August, was still in full bloom thanks to the little bits of rain we’ve gotten this August, in between the wildfire smoke and blazing hot days we’ve been having. Like the garden, in August, I’m definitely better at nighttime, out of the sun. Glenn always jokes that I’m really a vampire (I am allergic to garlic, the sun, and hate mornings) but there is something – biorhythms? poetness? – I am always at my best after dark.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Poetry News in August, Fiolet & Wing and Poetry Prompts Contributor Copies, and Night Zoos, Birds, and Roses

Night. A waxing half-moon over the Sacramento Valley. 2 AM, nearly moonset. Somewhere close by, a great-horned owl announces its territory. Perhaps it is declaring its life, its joy, as in, “I’m here. I’m alive.” At my desk by the open window, I wait a moment, and the owl calls again. “I’m here, too, my friend.” I say it aloud in the dark room, but the words only fall to the floor and lay there like frightened puppies.

James Lee Jobe, prose poem – ‘Night. A waxing half-moon over…’

Wagging is an art.
Dogs do it well with their tails.
You don’t have a tail, one would hope,
so a finger must do.
Wagging with any other
body part will get you in trouble.

And last but not least, what’s at stake.
Who gets the prize, takes
home the spoils, writes the poem.
Who’s crowned and whose
head must fall. Hint:
too often it’s one and the same.
In other words, you.

Romana Iorga, Finger-wagging

When I was younger I thought writer’s block was a lack of will, a kind of cowardice even, certainly my fault in some character defect kind of way. Now, after some long years of learning not to judge myself so hard, I experience writer’s block as something else- the body, mind and spirit telling me there is not enough, right now, to give. Just that. No judgement, no blame, just self-compassion, although there is still plenty of sorrow at times, and a kind of existential loneliness.

There’s another kind of writer’s block though: adversary-silencing.  This has its own pain scale, from Enthusiasm to Despair. Sometimes it seems the world is conspiring to silence the voices of compassion and kindness. The voices of vision and hope, of calls for reparation and change.  It’s shaming and discouraging and the most toxic of all, it can contribute to our own internal silencing. On days when I’m ok physically, I can still stop myself from writing a poem, or an essay, because who am I to say anything at all, or  it has all been said, or what I write will be wrong or worse of all, no one will ever care whether I write or not.  This is a mindset brought on by the assaultive effects of bullying, gaslighting, and fear. And the outcome is soul hurt and mental pain.

Yet, because at this point in my life I finally have the time, the means, and the luxury to spend my energy on more than the basics of survival (as so, so many do not), I must evolve beyond the comforts of privilege I might prefer to cling to. Push past the silencing effects of mental, physical, and emotional violence happening on so many levels in our country, in our world. Sometimes that means being justly and painfully held accountable for what I believe and say (thank you especially, wise millennials, for teaching me so much). We (and by we, I mostly mean white people) are rightly  being called to change at this crucial time in our human community. We all suffer when we let complacency or even despair, kill our gift of creativity.

Creativity, when practiced with a good heart, is a potent catalyst for change, no matter who is doing the work, or who the gatekeepers are, or who is sanctifying it. Creativity is a potent antidote to futility. That is something we can bring to the world, that is how we keep going, and that is how we can find a way to persevere and even to laugh sometimes in the face of the reductive absurdity of white privilege and fear; ours, or someone else’s. Creativity, at its best, seeks to alleviate suffering and to free all of us. So at least for today, I will take a minute to locate myself on the pain scale, even if I am so far up the scale that all I can do is think about what I might write if I had the energy to do so. Or perhaps I can’t think at all, but can just be a part of all creation. That’s ok too. I will at least try to remember to bow with respect to my own and the world’s beautiful and powerful resilience, and go on.

Sarah Stockton, The Energy Scale of Creativity

The blessing
of this poem,
he said, is

when it’s done
it stays done.

Tom Montag, THE BLESSING

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