Poetry Blog Digest 2020, Week 16

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.

In this time of global crisis, who better to parse the strangeness than poets? Defamiliarization is our stock in trade. But poetry bloggers are also still enthusing about poems and collections we love. We’re just a little stunned that non-poets lately seem to be joining us in this. What took y’all so long? Should we be pleased or alarmed that it apparently required an apocalypse to remind some people that poetry exists?

One more note before we get to the digest, a CALL FOR POETS: Jason Crane, whose poems sometimes appear in this digest, is a long-time podcaster (The Jazz Session) and radio guy whose newest podcast is called A Brief Chat. The show has just started Poetry Fridays. Each Friday Jason features a poet reading 8-9 minutes of their own work. If you’re interested in contributing poems for an episode, email him at jason@abriefchat.com.


I went to a place of rewilding this morning thinking I would beat the sun and I was shocked at the desolation I felt the sudden dark sky the sad abandoned doll it mirrored my mood I took two of my books to John the Carpenter and left them on top of his goat house in a blue sparkly Christmas bag I have been fighting depression which makes its own rules outside the day to day survival grab I crave anything from a restaurant that I don’t have to cook last night I dreamed someone cleaved an axe straight into my head dreams and more dreams every night dreaming into the new world webbing of dreams so many of us are dreaming it is Saturday but it feels like Sunday as the days smash one into another

Rebecca Loudon, Day 45

One of my favorite pieces of music is Antonin Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings. Today, I listened to it on a loop, which I tend to do with most of the music I love, much to the dismay of my husband, children, and dog. That second movement in Dvořák’s Serenade melts me into a puddle no matter how many times I hear it. I hope that today’s poem conveys a smidgen of the ecstatic experience I have when listening to this piece.

Romana Iorga, NaPoWriMo 2020: Poetry from the trenches, Day 15

After the pandemic has passed, the lockdowns persist: this is the new normal…

Recorded during the 2020 coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic mostly on location at Sleep’s Hill, Blackwood and Belair, South Australia, under partial lockdown conditions. The audio samples are made from birds, frogs and voices in the immediate neighbourhood. The text samples advice from various government, business and community organisations. [Click through to watch the videopoem.]

Ian Gibbins, ISOLATION PROCEDURES

An afternoon walk. Bugle and white bugle in the meadow above Tor Wood, and bluebells, white dead-nettle, primroses and ramsons on the way to King Castle Wood.

King Castle Wood covers the remains of an iron-age fortified hilltop enclosure and is rich in native trees and wild flowers. Today it was all bluebells and birdsong and ferns unfurling. Guelder Rose and Hawthorn were just coming into flower.

In a lovely meadow called The Lyatt, on the far side of the wood, I saw a scattering of Early Purple orchids, once a common plant of chalk or limestone meadows and ancient woodland. […]

I got home in time for tea and cake before a Zoom recording of ten poets responding to “Rise: from one island to another”, a beautiful and disturbing work; you can see it here.

Ama Bolton, Week 5 of distancing

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

I would say I am horribly sad and that some days I cannot even bear it. I would say writing a book of poems about the precarity of our lives in this brutal era only to have the era be too precarious for the poems has been staggering. I would say that beauty and song have a nagging way of sneaking up on me despite my rage and grief. I would say: I am waking up at midnight and keeping a raw insomniac’s journal. I would say I feel unkempt and also deeply alive. I would say “thank you so much for asking.”

Lesley Wheeler, Virtual Poetry Salon with Tess Taylor

I’ve been watching a hell of a lot of apocalypse movies.  While the pandemic ones are a little too much right now, I do take some weird sort of comfort from other threats–zombies, aliens, global warming, weather disasters, volcanoes, earthquakes, meteors, giant reptiles.   While I wouldn’t say I’ve been bingeing things as I might on weekends previously, I still have more late-night movie watching time than when I’m working late and usually go to sleep as soon as I hit the blankets. Some of them are bad.  Some of them decent . Some of them not at all what I expected.

Kristy Bowen, disaster dreams

People say that Jesus is coming back,
But they don’t know when.
An owl lives in the stand of pines
Across the street from my house;
I hear her, but I never see her.
If she’s silent, how can I know
when she is there and when she is not?
She blends in so nicely.
If Jesus doesn’t tell anyone,
How will they know he is back?

James Lee Jobe, People say that Jesus is coming back

Do not fear
the pain you know.

It already wears you
like an old coat.

Tom Montag, DO NOT FEAR

Habits are powerful things. That’s why it’s so hard to kick the bad ones. But knowing a habit is power, you can cultivate the habit. Starting with twenty minutes. Who can’t sit in front of their screen for that long? Even if you write just one word, you’ve done your job.

Like singing or dancing, you can increase your writing endurance with practice. It, too, is a muscle — just a mental one.

Surviving a pandemic while writing is like surviving my brother’s death through writing. That’s when I began this daily practice. It was my escape from the pain. It’s become my joy through whatever else is going on in life, whether it’s tedium, stress, crazy-busy work times, anxiety, or sheltering in my home. At least I’m lucky enough to have food, a roof, and a laptop. And time and my imagination. The basics for a writer.

Rachel Dacus, Writing Through a Pandemic

Every few
rows there’s a stand with a large bottle
of hand sanitizer, but it’s heartbreaking to see
they still keep lobsters in tanks, their large
crusher claws bound close to their heads
with broad rubber bands, their walking legs
weakly paddling water. Who of us will be spared,
will pare away the extra letters to get to
the spar, which the dictionary describes as
the main longitudinal beam of an airplane wing?
Sticks of celery are green as grasshopper
bodies. Every now and then a person jumps
when someone is about to come too close.
In their baskets, loaves of bread are breathing.

Luisa A. Igloria, Day 39

Our parish priest holds twice weekly gatherings on Zoom for anyone who wants to check-in, say hello, hear another’s voice boom through the quiet of isolation or quarantine. This week a participant remarked on a fleeting but nonetheless present sense that faith wasn’t holding, wasn’t enough sometimes to carry her through the day. I wanted to give her a hug. In this pandemic, the only thing we can control is how we choose to spend the day we wake to, and even waking is a miracle. I think the crisis has been hard on those who are used to filling a day with noise and movement, who haven’t practiced finding respite by being deeply silent. In the many early hours when others are sleeping and I’m not, I’ve focused my attention on the silence, been surprised by the chitter of birds in bushes outside my window, listened to how rain sounds the closer it gets to ground, how wind sweeps through a roof space, how steps on a sidewalk come to a stop. Faith holds when you unshackle yourself from time and doing, allow yourself to be curious, to believe such things go on, though you’d swear you were just dreaming.

Maureen E. Doallas, Musings in a Time of Crisis XIV

I have always found it comforting when people of great faith admit to doubt. Then I know they are living in the same world I live in. I was going to write that these people are “honest with themselves”, but that is a judgment.

Perhaps there are people in the world who experience the world as having footholds, certainties. Me assuming otherwise is a projection of my own perspective as the correct perspective. And has a consequence of condescension at best, of accusation at worst.

Best – worst. Yeah, they are both unproductive at any rate. And neither is a form of compassion.

Judgement doesn’t have an antonym in my dictionary. Maybe it is compassion? With compassion, one can explain consequences, but one can never sit in judgement. Maybe we should do away with judges and replace them all with arbitrators.

I’ve been walking these moors for more than twenty years now, and still I can be uncertain of the ground. I can find myself suddenly ankle-deep in water, tossed by a stone tipping on a hidden fulcrum.

But isn’t that exactly why we choose to walk these trails? Isn’t that – the uncertainty – the source of the surprising joy that keeps us from being jaded with the world?

Ren Powell, Walking the Walk

the light is the same, it is‬
‪we who have lost our innocence;‬
‪hit in the solar plexus‬
‪while the sun still shines.‬
‪breathless we contemplate ‬
‪darkness ‬
‪breathless we count‬
‪our blessings‬

Jim Young, covid dawn

So I felt, “These are hard to read.” Because it can be uncomfortable to stay, purposely, in such ambiguous moments. I found the poems [in pray me stay eager by Ellen Doré Watson] puzzling for awhile until I stuck with the reading and settled into the poet’s sound and methods. And then, response, reward: ideas and experiences that struck chords, places evoked, sentences that capture the way human beings think and process their circumstances. Revelations, even.

Maybe I was just in the wrong mood for reading when I started this book…there are times when I want an “easy read,” a comforting novel with a happy ending for example. Such texts, though, seldom teach me or show me anything new, whereas pray me stay eager has made me think about the mechanics of a line of poetry as well as sound, and touched me deeply as the poet writes of her aged father and the deaths of friends and her keen appreciation of the world and the word.

Ann E. Michael, Reading, eagerly

To my mind, this is an undeniably singular and astonishing form of writing. For many like me, the relentless power and originality of this style will be all one needs to be persuaded. For despite, or in addition to, the extreme technicality of some diction (osteocyte, telomere, rhotic-to-sibilant, etc), there is a deeper movement going on here, a process of unfolding, that does not require us to grasp the precise denotative meaning of each element (though there is nothing stopping one from trying). And so instead of asking, “What exactly does this mean?” the more relevant question is, What is this doing? How is it working? What is the operation it is performing and how can I follow its maneuvers? And how might I lose myself in them more knowingly?

R.M. Haines, Reading the Pharmakon: Part I

To say that [Ian] House’s poetry embraces ekphrasis does not do justice to what has clearly been a life’s project for him. His work, I think, transcends the very idea of ekphrastic poetry and finds instead an expression of the symbiosis of life and art. Yes, he describes visual works of art, as traditional ekphrasis would, and he does so beautifully, as in his central sequence of seven poems based on the paintings of Paul Nash ‘It Must Change’: e.g. “blazing yellows and oranges / intenser than all imagining / fierce as a fusion reactor / self-unsparing self-consuming / the sunflower hurtles downhill” from the sixth poem in the sequence (‘It Must Burn’). But many of his poems are not descriptions as much as contemplations and digressions, as in ‘Now You See It’, inspired by Ai Weiwei’s 1995 triptych ‘Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn’ in which House recreates the heartbreaking descent towards the ground of a priceless work of art before questioning our reaction as viewers (“Couldn’t you admire the man / who had the balls…?”) and then proposing a way of understanding the problems surrounding Weiwei’s paradoxically iconoclastic artwork (“We… / wanted someone to tell us / … / that we share no genes with the millions / who’ve shattered statues, burned books.”).

Chris Edgoose, A Glimpse of What Hovers: Just a Moment by Ian House

In Octavia Cades’ brilliant collection of poetry Mary Shelley Makes a Monster, the famous author of Frankenstein crafts a creature out of ink, mirrors, and the remnants of her own heartbreak and sorrow. Abandoned and alone after Shelley’s death, the monster searches for a mother to fill her place. Its journey carries it across continents and time, visiting other female authors throughout the decades — Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Octavia Butler, and others. Pulling from the biographical accounts of these amazing authors, these poems beautifully examine the nature of art and creation, reading and consumption, and how monsters are really reflections of ourselves.

Andrea Blythe, New Books in Poetry: Mary Shelly Makes a Monster by Octavia Cade

I met Joanna Thomas two years ago at Litfuse. She does this really arty, fun stuff with erasure poems and visuals and — because I generally don’t do those sorts of poem — I almost skipped her workshop.

I am SO GLAD I went. More than the keynotes or anyone else I encountered that year, Thomas’s work burned a hole through my imagination all the way down to my bootsoles. She is a wonder. If you can’t get your hands on any of her limited edition books (exquisite little gems you’ll want to keep and give to friends), then you should invite her to give a workshop for you. (Adults and our delights aside, I think these would inspire some pretty wicked home school lessons.) To read more, visit Thomas’s very visual blog:  https://www.joannathomas.xyz/.

Because the poems [in Rabbit: An Erasure Poem] don’t run down the left hand margin, my blog space will just make a botch of it; hence, the photograph. In short, Thomas has erased  Webster’s Elementary Dictionary: A Dictionary for Boys & Girls (New York: American Book Company, 1941), and she shares the image from the dictionary, then duplicates the poem (and its peculiar layout) on the facing page.

Bethany Reid, Joanna Thomas

I have always loved this poem by the Estonian poet Jaan Kaplinski. It felt like only a matter of time before I turned to him during the lockdown.  I love his poems’ barehandedness, his apparent lack of artistry, the evenness of his tone when describing joy and trauma alike. And yet, as he says in ‘This morning was cold’, he has ‘no counsel to offer’, merely a presentation of the facts as he sees them. He inhabits a space in my imagination that is somewhere between a university seminar room, a log cabin and picking up a toy car from underneath his kitchen table. Or walking for a day through a forest without encountering another soul. The perfect companion for a stretch of self-isolation, you might think. A couple of winters ago I half-read Unforced Flourishing: Understanding Jaan Kaplinski, which documents his wholly social life, as filled with readings and lectures and conferences as with the ordinary concerns of a dutiful parent and grandparent. That’s what I love most about his work, the sense that while all of these noble and urgent things may be going on in the background, he gives his attention fully to what is in front of him, and thus to his reader, at any one moment.

Anthony Wilson, The wonder is

Like that final weight pallbearers carry to the grave.

Yet say the correct password, and the moon will allow you into its secret room behind the shine.

That’s where good luck wears the scent of new laundry behind its ears. Where our brightest essence illuminates dark waters.

Often, these days seem like one long, weird dream.

The clock tells me when it claps its hands, I can open my eyes. It’s then I’ll be older than I remember and younger than I care to forget.

Should you see me holding something to the light, it’s a letter I meant to send you before all these troubles left their shadows at our door.

Rich Ferguson, Certain Days Feel So Heavy

Even the stubborn hydrangea outside my porch
gate has come into full leaf, buds at the ready.
But my heart will not settle into steady rhythm.
My breath is shallow. Later, I must make my weekly
excursion into town for food—masked, gloved,
hatted, scarfed—looking like a nineteenth century
immigrant just off the boat from Poland,
wearing all of the clothes she owned at once,
frightened of the unknown new territory where
communication and comfort appeared impossible.

Lana Hechtman Ayers, Welcome to the New World, a pandemic poem

She swerves into the day,

the new day, with a breath
between her and thunder,

between her and thunder
is a breath that says rest

is coming, the slow rain
is come, and says, just stay,

just wait inside. Just hide.

P.F. Anderson, Shekhinah Lights the Candles with Lightning

I miss people.  As a self-declared introvert, I’m surprised, pleasantly – I miss people badly.  The list of what I miss is endless.  I miss their clean smells, their dirty smells, their mop of hair, their prickly beards. The irony of their eyebrows.  Their slack lids, their twitch.  Their sniffles and complaints about their sniffles.  The bass timbre of their voices. The cloud of their breath, their own personal barometer.  I miss their living quality.  (And that’s just the face.)

I miss things of the senses.  My senses gather confirmation of all kinds regarding external existence.  They are the yes to my no or yes to my yes.  They are charged fields that activate me, as plants churn sun with chlorophyll for energy.  People and their vibe – they are the other to my I.  The talk to my talk back.  

I am a skeptic of the virtual.  The compilation of pixels will never convince me, viscerally, of life. And yet, do I have a choice? 

Jill Pearlman, On Missing People

I’m intrigued with the idea of “virtual,” as most of us are meaning it these days: using technology to bring us together while we stay apart. There’s the older meaning of virtual, which often has a whiff of dismissal–something virtual is not quite as good as.

I’m thinking of the virtual community I discovered when I started blogging. And then, as people stopped long-form blogging, I felt I had lost that community–and once, that community felt almost as close as the communities I was part of in the face-to-face world, and in some cases, more so. And then, poof, it seemed to be gone.

And now, I’m seeing some of those elements returned. This morning, I thought about how tough this quarantine would be without that technology. If we had had this kind of pandemic that drove us all apart from each other in the early 80’s, when long distance phone calls were so expensive and it took much longer to get information out, it would be tougher in some aspects, and perhaps easier in others. Maybe there would have been less wrong information disseminated. But we’d have certainly been more isolated.

I’ve found it very comforting to check in with people virtually to compare notes. I’ve found it all marvelous at how we’ve all managed to move so much to online environments. I do worry about people who don’t have the technology at home.

Kristin Berkey-Abbott, How We Live Virtually Now

You’ve made dinner. I tell you
about my divorce, but
don’t mention the pandemic:
why intrude on your afterlife
with something so terrible?

I wake to more headlines
(the world is dust and ashes) but
for a moment I almost felt
that loss isn’t forever, that
the world was created for me.

Rachel Barenblat, For me

I’ve been sending out work tentatively, as it feels hard to believe that poetry can be important in such a time of crisis. On the other hand, I’ve been buying books from local bookstores to keep them in business, subscribing to lit mags even with the post office being threatened by the President and his bullying GOP with shutdown. (Write to your congressperson to protest this lack of funding for the Post office, the lack of which would make us effectively a third-world country, and would prevent voting by mail.) So many things are uncertain: when will we be able to get out of lockdown? When will we have a treatment, much less a vaccine? When will the death tolls start to dwindle? How will this hurt people’s mental health and the economy? Uncertainty is difficult for human beings to sustain for long amounts of time. Poetry and music seem to offer some comfort for me as they resist certainty, and encourage us to dwell in possibility.

Jeannine Hall Gailey, Easter During a Pandemic; Life as a Writer During Lockdown, and Pink Supermoon with April Flowers

I started writing poems about the pandemic back in March, before NaPoWriMo began, because the emergency was beginning to hit us locally and hard. And I decided early on to post a lot of them on Instagram (@amymillerpoet). I’ve been dabbling with Instagram poetry the past few months; I like the mixture of text and images, the block of art. The whole thing about how the poem is now published because I went and blabbed it on Instagram is just another interesting thing; I’m not sure what to do with that. But suddenly it felt like a time to let the poems walk out the door, since I literally couldn’t. We are truly all in this together, and I had a strong compulsion to get poems out in the world where all sorts of people could read them, not just the ones who subscribe to literary journals. And, I don’t know, maybe I just needed a gigantic distraction. The discipline and techie geekiness of making those Instagram poems was like a lifeline I was following through some very dark water.

Amy Miller, NaPoWriMo, Plague Year Edition

The only thing that feels sure to me is a future that is different from the past. Not in every way–but also, in every way. If I think of my life as a set of systems–work, home, health, money, relationships–the foundations remain the same (at least for now), but each of them is also so changed that it feels as if there can be no true going back to what they once were. Can’t step into the same river twice and all that.

This is not, at this point, an original thought about the future. But it might be an important one for thinking about how to regard and live through the present.

Late last week, a friend referred to the time we’ve been living in isolation as “lost” and talked about a “return to real life.”

“No,” I said, pushing back. “This is real life. These days are our life, too. We haven’t lost them.”

In the past week I’ve felt myself resisting the idea that this is some time apart, some blip, some brief interruption to our regular programming, in part because the only thing that’s become clear to me in the past week is that our experience with this virus is going to be a long haul, and I don’t want to, in any sense, give away such a big chunk of time by thinking of it as unreal or somehow apart from the whole of my life.

But also, because the life I’m living now is beginning to feel normal.

Rita Ott Ramstad, Of real life and new normals

Words and images will speak to each other through time. This doesn’t perhaps mean much other than that you were paying attention. You were feeling things. You were allowing sparks to fly. You were allowing the universe in.

I was going to write a post that more directly addresses the surreal world we’re currently living in. And I’m sure I’ll be doing more of that, though others are doing a good job of digging into the nuances of it and how this is affecting some of us differently than others, and what that’s going to look like afterwards. Whatever we write now, is going to say something about the time. I was thinking about why I was drawn to this particular image right now. And maybe it is just that I’ve been mulling over the before and afters of where we are right now. The unknowns. Which is the same with the Irving Penn photograph. It says so much, and leaves us not knowing anything for certain.

Someone walks into a room, dines, wipes their mouth, leaves.

There’s a whole life around that moment, an entire long story. A mystery.

Shawna Lemay, The Empty Plate

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