Poetry Blog Digest 2019: Week 50

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: disasters natural and political, lights in the darkness, holiday rituals, and the year-in-review ritual.


I tend not to put much personal stuff on the blog – my rule is stick to the writing. However, in my early twenties I lived in Messina, Sicily, and then on a volcanic island off the coast of Milazzo, which is where the above photographs were taken. Legendary home of Hephaestos, it was a place where the sea boiled, where the rocks reared up like monsters, where there were pools of sulphurous mud you could bathe in to cure all sorts of ailments.  Wild and dramatic, yet oddly, I’ve never been able to capture much of it in my poetry. I also remember flying to Catania while Etna was erupting, looking out of the aeroplane’s window and seeing the lava running down the side of the volcano, then after a hair-raising landing, having to wade through ash (it really does fall like black snow) to get to the airport building. All this might seem adventurous and romantic, but the hard truth is that volcanoes are incredibly unpredictable. Hearing about White Island made me feel very humble to have had such fabulous experiences and come away unscathed. My heart really does go out to the people whose lives have been devastated by this terrible event.

And now, here’s the poem. I wrote it a few years ago, but it’s never been published, mainly I think, because I’ve never settled on a final version I was happy enough with. Even today I was tinkering with the order of the lines. I realise, though, that sometimes you have to let go of a poem, even if it’s not quite what you’d envisaged when you started writing it.

Etna

after August Kleinzahler

Black snow is falling in the Straits of Messina,
brittle as cinders, sooting the prow of the Georgione,
falling like burnt crumbs on the crow’s nests of tuna boats.

Ash is blocking the sun, drifting against doorways
in the suburbs of Pace and Contemplazione.
It settles on the windscreens of Fiat Unos, grits the runners
of the Hotel Sant’ Elia’s revolving door,
where businessmen drink grappa and meet women
who are not their wives.
[Poem continues at the link.]

Julie Mellor, Black snow

I’ve got 14,532 steps on my Fitbit today & not one of them
landed me anywhere good.
Beige. Everything is beige.
I love stories about the sea because at sea
you can look out to the horizon and it’s infinite.
You can’t do that with beige.
I’m making money for the Big Boss.
All things being equal, I’d rather put him on a rocket
& set the controls for the heart of the sun.

Jason Crane, POEM: Careful With That Gene, You Ax

I think we are in rats’ alley
Where the dead men lost their bones
[…]

Contrary to Theresa May’s mantra of Brexit Means Brexit, my contention is that Brexit has never meant Brexit. It has not meant any particular attitude to Europe either economically or politically. Brexit has meant all your grievances bundled into a single package that caters to your pride and insecurity. Europe has very little to do with it.

That pride and insecurity can only be intensified through presenting any case of potential revision as betrayal (a very popular rhetorical trope for Brexiters.) So not only have you been betrayed by an external Them (though any Them would do) but are now being betrayed all over again by an internal Them.

In this case the internal Them were the Labour Party and the liberal-minded as well as radically-minded educated class (which includes most artists.)

The issue extends far deeper than being a member of the EU. It is an existential issue of honour and anger.

George Szirtes, REFLECTIONS AND APPREHENSIONS / On the General Election 2019

“Part of the Forest,” from Oppen’s 1962 collection The Materials, offers a particular vision of masculinity.  It is a negative kind of masculinity, however, which Oppen portrays as both alienating to the individuals it affects and damaging to what he sees as the important communal values of human society – love and family.  Furthermore, it is a way of being that diminishes one’s very humanity.  The male figure in the poem has not only lost his ability to use language, but as a denizen of the forest (as in the poem’s title) he becomes something more akin to an animal than a man.  In presenting this vision of maleness, Oppen is inherently critiquing the America from which it springs.  Its expression – the beer-drinking, car-driving loner – can be seen to echo the image of the cowboy, for example, the rugged frontiersman who seemingly has little need for human fellowship, an image central to the American myth.  For Oppen in “Part of the Forest,” however, this is an image which is ultimately destructive both to the sense of community which any society requires in order to thrive, as well as to the individuals within that society.

Michael S. Begnal, On George Oppen’s “Part of the Forest”

tomorrow 
i will vote then i will swim
the tides will turn

Jim Young [no title]

A promise is always an open-ended story. Holding on to one puts us in a space of negative capability.  

Women used to put lights in the windows to help fisherman find their way home.

We’ve always signaled one another with light, haven’t we?

Signaled our vulnerability.

Wood burning in the fireplace used to evoke the experience of the physical exertion of splitting wood. A wool sock is the hours put into shearing and carding, spinning and knitting, haunted by the rhythm of the fingers that looped and tugged in quiet meditation.

Someone’s grandmother’s sighs are in each row.

We live half-lives often. Or at least I do. There is something missing, something meaningful in what we have worked so hard to avoid.

The lights are in the window, but there’s so much work still to be done.

Ren Powell, In the Coming

What do we mean by “comfort zone”? People use it frequently, especially in self-improvement and creativity-related writing. Has it become an empty phrase? It’s so subjective–which is entirely the point, I suppose. If we can manage to agree on what the idea means, we still must confront the continuum of such a zone. I reflect on my tolerance for aesthetic discomfort often, especially when I am reading or observing creative work. For example, I like listening to jazz; some jazz soothes, some excites, and some takes effort to hear–I have to be in the mood for confrontational experiments with sound such as performances by The Art Ensemble of Chicago. […]

Poems practically cry out to enter such territory. Often I find that even poems that contain in their lines and imagery moments of hope or great love and comfort simultaneously discomfit me. It fascinates me; how does the poet first compose, then revisit and revise, the poem that must surely be even more uncomfortable to write–to confront? (Search for any anthology on a difficult topic and therein will be many such poems.) Most of us prefer to avoid pain zones, so we stay within our comfort zones.

Ann E. Michael, Comfort zones redux

It was half past night-blooming jasmine time when the beautiful dead rose from their graves. They had experienced so much more than us: had seen the cosmos and beyond; had played rock, paper, scissors with God. There’s only so much we can offer you, we said—human things like loving words, laughter, and tears. That is enough, the beautiful dead said as they stepped into our arms. We could only hold them for so long before they slipped back into the air. That empty space in our arms hurt us to the bone. But we knew the price we’d have to pay when we first got on this ride. The cost of love is the loss.

Rich Ferguson, The Price to Get On This Ride

You’re sick, but
still offering opinions
on which cut of trousers

best suits me. You promise
a pair of new boots, stylish
as yours, before you go.

Then you’re dead, and
I roam your closet
(Narnia-sized, infinite)

with empty hands. But look:
on a countertop, the boots
you promised, in my size.

I wake laughing.
You’re nine months buried
and still giving to me.

Rachel Barenblat, In this place

Through the years, the stable attracted
the odds and ends of our childhood toys:
a plastic soldier, his rifle chewed and mangled,
migrated from the war zone;
a horse, which once helped herd
plastic animals, now riderless and alone;
a Magic 8 ball with murky
water, the answers to our questions, obscured […]

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, Poetry Tuesday: “Nativity Scene”

Raspberry leaves go lemon pale,
the monumental pipework
of courgettes collapses soft and sour,
and
like opening a door at the end
like a spill of light, like a new day,
the last small pale green tomatoes.
Perfect spheres. You can see 
your way clear and inevitable.
Crisp white cauliflower,
green peppers, mustard, cloves,
white vinegar, brown sugar,
peppercorns, ginger, turmeric;
scalding out the jars.
This is the end of summer.
They call it piccalilli.

John Foggin, The week before Christmas

My hard copy of Abridged: Kassandra has arrived and it’s more beautiful than the virtual copy, each image really accentuates its accompanying poem and the paper quality really feels good in my hands. It’s a pleasure to flip through and read the poetry selected. Definitely worth supporting this venture. 

And this week I’ve read Melissa Fu’s Falling Outside Eden by Hedgehog Press. It’s a lovely, gentle collection, a conversation sometimes urgent, sometimes full of acceptance or regret at untenable situations. I found myself totally lost in those moments, in small beauties of eating watermelon or watching snow fall, the deeper well of watching a relationship fail. The collection allows us to enter Eden, knowing from the beginning it will eventually fall apart. Subtly crafted and weighty with beautiful language, another smashing collection from the Hedgehog.

The last week before Christmas, so much to do and no energy to accomplish most of it. I hope this time of year is not being too tough on you. 

Gerry Stewart, Getting Through the December Slog

Aiieee! Cowflop! This is 100-proof bogus nonsense. What writers want for Christmas or the holiday of their preference is for you to read one (or more!) of their books (preferably after buying, as numbers help them sell the next book to a publisher) and then to ramble around in their created worlds. Also, they want dratted Amazon etc. reviews because those things are helpful to the book, and writers are all about serving the book. What they do not want are things like mugs, literary insult charts, literary temporary tattoos, and storytelling card games. Well, maybe they want a nice fountain pen…

Marly Youmans, What writers do and do not want for Christmas etc.

Day 1
Get drunk make a baby bark like a dog.

Day 2
Absorb your neighbor’s lunatic desire.

 Day 3
Read a book about new girls and old girls.

Day 4
You will never be either.

Day 5
Give thanks with your mouth.

Day 6
Grow tentacles and a tail.

Rebecca Loudon, An advent calendar plus Christmas

This week also had me taking a hard look at my two manuscripts. One seems pretty finished, the other one is still in process, and so I printed it out again and sorted it out on the table. I’d missed that I had taken out a pretty important couple of poems in the last round of edits, and I added in some new ones, which means I need to edit a few others out. Then the harder work of targeting publishers – the ones that will take a chance on me. I also updated my acknowledgments pages with my recent acceptances, which was fun!

The tricky part of messing with poetry manuscripts – especially two at a time – is keeping in mind the themes, avoiding unnecessary repetition, and making sure the book is fun to read, even if the subject matter might be deemed “depressing.” You want a certain amount of momentum in your first ten and last ten pages, for instance. You don’t want to bury your best poems in the middle of the book, which is easy to do. You don’t want it to be too long (which is probably around 70 pages) or to feel too slight. You have to think of targeting the right presses for each book – and unless you have a “home” publisher, that means doing your research and checking out new presses, older presses that have changed direction, that sort of thing. Then, make sure your TOC is updated, you don’t have any obvious typos, that kind of thing.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Copper Canyon Holiday Book Party, Early Family Christmas Dinner, and Working on Poetry Manuscripts (Again)

I am trying, now that things have settle down a bit, to get back to my daily writing.  I’ve been picking away at some poems meant to accompany my series of collages, eleanor and the tiny machines, and they are going well, but at the same time, I also have no idea where they are actually going, like what I’m actually doing, what story I am trying to tell.  Often I can fake it until I make it–when the thread that ties everything together becomes apparent enough that I can take hold of it and pull it together. There are only a dozen or so and I am still adrift a bit, and looking for the thread, but I suppose it’s important to keep going until I have it.

I have not been overall as productive in 2019 as I was last year, when I finished the year with a big stack of poems and the better part of two book manuscripts.  This year, I worked unsteadily through the sping and early summer on various smaller things (including the summer house and licorice, laudanunm), then dig in on the extinction event series for a few months.  By then it was October and life was much in the way of chaos, so only in the last month, have I gotten back to even trying to write daily.  I am pretty much okay with that, but getting back into the habit always seems harder after you stray.  Especially since there are so many things that seem to need more attention than writing–like work and the press, which involve commitments to the college and to other people vs writing, which mostly benefits no one but me.

Even still my output for the year, when taken as a whole, is not too shabby.  Even my 100 submissions fail garnered me more acceptances than I might have had without it. After the new year, I hope to have a bunch of more recent stuff ready to submit, so we’ll try again, if not for 100, then for a much smaller number (I don’t do simultaneous subs for logistical reasons, so I actually don’t think I have enough to submit to make that happen in a span of a year.)

Kristy Bowen, daily writing successes and fails

I had the thrill of riding a bike past blooming fields of redolent hyacinth. I had the unforgettable and awful experience of watching in person Notre Dame burn; but, not to appropriate a tragedy, but I must say there was a strange grace in being able to be among Parisians and tourists sharing the grief on the bridges surrounding the cathedral.

And I have a whole new swath of poems that I’m in the in-love with stage about. (That won’t last long, but I’m trying to enjoy it while I can.)

I think it’s important, this year-in-review ritual — and I usually combine it with going to a fawncy cafe in my town for a once-a-year cappuccino and the best croissant in the world. I don’t do it often enough, and often fear counting my blessings aloud, as I’m superstitious and generally walk around feeling like there are several large shoes over my head waiting to drop (or am I thinking of Damocletian swords?), and worry that too much reveling will…well…I don’t want to talk about it.

Anyway, a pause like this helps me to live that kind of life worth living: the examined kind. And to ring my own personal bells that still can ring, and let some light in. And I share it here mostly to remind you too to ring a bell.

Marilyn McCabe, Ring the bells; or, On Successishness

The year is fleeting  like the air from a balloon with a pinhole. I like the thought of taking the Mac Book into the new year. Over the weekend I was thinking about the coming year. All the projects that I want to do, to start or the ones I need to push to the finish line. I realized that 2020 needs to stand for perfect vision. What I want, what I need to do, requires me to see 2020. This is a year in which my vision needs to lead me. The irony of having just come off of cataract surgery this fall was perhaps what brought 2020 into my mind as being a year for perfect vision. This time next year I hope to have a lot of proof to show for the combination of vision and work.

Michael Allyn Wells, 2020 A Year of Perfect Vision

‘To write poems is to sit inside of the burning bush.’ Li-Young Lee said that. The bush is no god, but it continues to burn and to make commands nonetheless. James said that. Climb inside with me. Bring pen and paper with you. There is much yet to do.

James Lee Jobe, ‘To write poems is to sit inside of the burning bush.’ Li-Young Lee said that.

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