Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Friday, June 21, 2013

West Virginia, Still Home

Yesterday, I came across this beautiful Op-Doc piece by Elaine McMillion for the New York Times:

It touches a nerve for me and nearly had me in tears by the end of the 7 minutes. Like Elaine McMillion, I feel complicit in the exodus of young people from my home state and therefore complicit in West Virginia's mire. I left for college in 1999 and have only been back once or twice each year since to see family. I've lived in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Michigan and Vermont, yet West Virginia still feels most like home.

But I (and thousands of others) may never return there, for lack of opportunity. Why fight an uphill battle when life in Vermont affords me a similarly spectacular mountain landscape, a forward-minded community, and a satisfying job that simply doesn't exist there? Still, West Virginia tugs at my heart and heels, like a friend in need. Or family. I can't just turn my back on it. And in truth I'm deeply thankful my family is still rooted there, so I have plenty of cause to return.

It's a place to break your heart and in countless ways: its magnificent waves of blue mountains, the thickets of laurels and rhododendrons, the senseless self destruction of the coal industry and regressive politics. Beauty and destruction abound in this complicated place. And being not-there has been definitive for me.

Though I may not ever live there again, I often turn to poetry, much as McMillion (who lives in Boston but grew up in the coal country of southern WV) turns to documentary film and photography, in order to remain rooted to this place that will always be home. By the end of the summer, I'm aiming to have completed the manuscript for my first full-length collection (tentatively dubbed North Fork, South Branch) which centers on the complexity of Appalachia.

Here's an early poem, first published in Green Mountains Review:

In the Frame of Innings, Pendleton County, W.Va.

Remember it shin-deep, that coppery, sulphuric hue:
the North Fork of the South Branch –

the way it caught the summer glow
and threw it back to us tarnished?

We cruised those towns along the shallow ribbon:
Petersburg, Moorefield. Wampler farms. August heat.

The summer’s sweet promise grown over-ripe,
scudding away downstream where eagles once nested

in the high-eaved banks. Bruised stink of poultry on the air.
Our fathers’ work shirts crumpled on the bedroom floors

in a sweaty heap; twenty years old and nowhere to go.
Just get ahold of what you can and swing like hell, Dad said. D’ya hear me?

We were young men, old boys grown too old from work,
the Guard, the low empty skies of our homes.

Sundays we gathered at the ballpark by the swale,
at the edge of hairy cornfields, where  crows swarmed

and the river’s dog-legged riffles kept the beers cold.
Filling into our bodies roughly, abundantly,

we were ready to put order to the green frenzy, our randy lives
with ball and bat, the smack of knuckles on leather palms,

the hey-nana-nana of pop and fling, gulping
our fleeting youth in the frame of innings.

Around there it all floats down the Potomac, on to Washington,
someplace else. The jobs, the college-bound, the new corridor

they had to run so many off to lay—a gash
in the ridgeline marks the route—

Eminent domain, the government called it.
Farm lines redrawn. Mountains thrust aside and scarred.

Big chugging trucks headed out of state. Loss arriving
in rehearsal for departure, hauling out the pieces.

So when someone like Travis Harper
could manage to rear back and uncoil

from some sweet sovereignty of motion
a slider that swept in from the knees

and bit the heart out of the plate, you bet
I dropped my shoulder, held my stare

and followed through with all I had.
It left me slack-jawed, glazed, then smiling.

What else to do but tip my hat
and marvel at that little bit of mastery?

—a moment of perfection amid
the sloppy, high-scoring hours of those days.

Afterwards, swerving down dirt roads,
throwing dust into the gleaming night,

we pressed the pedal home and since we could,
took one last swig of the high life before retiring.

Friday, June 7, 2013

To the Common Loon

After a weekend of paddling and camping on the Green River Reservoir, a true gem of a wild north-country lake, I've tried to cobble together years of impressions of the common loon into one small poem. The effort is indebted (perhaps too much) to John Haines and his very fine "Prayer to the Snowy Owl," which I've written about before on this blog.

To the Common Loon

Black-throated diver, you
arrive where I least expect you—

rising from the sweet marrow of the lake
within my own life.

You who split the air with eerie falsetto.
Weird yodeler of the quavering, tremulous cry

that makes the throes of joy
and pain indistinguishable.

Wolf-bird prowling the night country,
steward of sky-water,

artificer of True North,
swift gulper of those who dwell in darkness

Friday, May 17, 2013

Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows

I recently started reading the journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson and stumbled upon this gem, where Emerson claims that a person must do the work with that faculty he has now. But that faculty is the accumulation of past days. No rival can rival backwards. What you have learned and done is safe and fruitful. Work and learn in evil days, in insulted days, in days of debt and depression and calamity. Fight best in the shade of the cloud of arrows.

Seems like an appropriate banner to carry these days as we rush toward global climate catastrophe amid other horrors. In Emerson's time slavery was the evil to overcome. We still have our work cut out for us. Keep fighting the good fight and doing the work that is real.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Django Unchained

There's a Django Blowout at The Rumpus. Actually, it's been up for several weeks, which in the interwebs is equivalent to the T'ang Dynasty. But I was slow to get to the movies (the nearest theater is an hour away) to see Django and slower still in simmering a head full of thoughts about Tarantino's latest (and arguably greatest) film.

I'm fascinated by Django Unchained, captivated by the deft balancing act Tarantino pulls off between the cartoonish over-the-top violence and the disturbing, painful scenes that are almost unbearable.  I am reminded of a phrase from Cormac MacCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is: “death hilarious” (which I believe owes its origins to the sharks surrounding the Pequod in Moby-Dick). Anyway, there’s a sense throughout the film that Tarantino wanted to make this film entertaining so that we are more inclined to deal with the issues it brings up than if it were a brutally realistic portrayal.

It’s almost too easy to make a film like Schindler’s List, where it’s so realistic and so awful and so distancing for the viewer, where misery trumps entertainment and viewers go away feeling depressed. Or an historical "and then" dramatization wiped clean of grit. With Django, I found myself laughing, fist-pumping, flinching, gasping, on the verge of tears, on the edge of my seat….and it’s a film that I will watch again. Americans (all of us) need to examine the bloody, destructive, oppressive pillars on which our nation [empire] was constructed and continues to be [see drone wars, etc.].  Django is devilishly crafted to make us look at ourselves in a dark mirror of violence. And there’s just enough slick style and panache to go with the truly horrible to spur conversations and further viewing. Kudos to Tarantino.


I join Anisse Gross in applauding Tarantino’s risk-taking. And yes, it’s far from a perfect film. For instance, it’s definitely a problem that Broomhilda isn't developed into a real character but remains a voiceless figure. But I’m impressed that under the ultra-loud, in-your-face exaggeration of Django (a hall-mark of Tarantino’s style) there is also a "hive of subtlety” layered throughout the film. Much of this subtlety and subconsciousness is referenced by Ade Adeniji in Take #4 “Substance Amidst Spectacle.” Like the scene where the white sheriff welcomes Django into his cabin for birthday cake. Or when Django has to talk his way out of his rock-mine fate. His question to the Aussies, “Do I sound like a slave?” echoes out to Douglass and others who had to take on the twin burdens of proving their humanity (i.e. yes, I really wrote this book about my life) and also the burden of later proving—often on the lecture circuit—that they had indeed been enslaved (i.e. yes, these are scars upon my back).

The points of criticism I've heard all seem a bit tired. The use of language. The violence. The fact of a white man telling a story of slavery. The frustration that Django doesn't free his fellow slaves.  The first two don't really merit commentary. The third is a failure of imagination and a discredit to empathy. And as for the last, critics who want Django to more of a Touissant L’Ouverture than a man on a mission are expecting too much and are forgetting the film works within the tropes of the Western. This can’t be THE film about slavery in America. (Besides… who knows what the freed Django and Broomhilda might do after leaving Candyland? And how many fellow slaves did Douglass free on his way out of Maryland?) I don’t find fault with the film for building it’s premise on the hero’s journey (to rescue his love) instead of on a grander rebellion scheme to free the millions in chains. We can only assess it for what it is, not what it isn't.

The role of Dr. King Schultz has been taken to task, too, but I think Tarantino addresses this well in part 3 of his interview with Henry Louis Gates (see, where he dismisses the notion of Schultz as a White Savior:
QT: “…one of the tropes of Westerns and telling a story like this is you have an experienced gunfighter who meets the young cowpoke who has some mission that he has to accomplish, and it’s the old, experienced gunfighter who teaches him the tricks of the trade: teaches him how to draw his gun, teaches him how to kill.
“… Now, you go to the kung fu films — that’s always the case. There’s an older guy teaching the younger guy and sending him on a vengeance journey.”
“… I actually was hoping to get a little bit of narrative anxiety going on about halfway through the movie: Wait, is this just going to be Schultz doing everything? What’s going on here? Hopefully, if you’re unbiased, from where I’m coming from, it makes sense how the whole first part of the story’s going. But when is Django going to be the hero? Because truthfully, in the first half of the story, he is Schultz’s sidekick. But to me that’s OK.
HLG: But that’s an apprentice period.
QT: Exactly. It’s his origin issue of his comic book.”
Tarantino has the genre of the Western on his side. See also the Slave Narrative where, for example, Frederick Douglass has the likes of William LLoyd Garrison write a preface to his tale. This device is likely attributed to racist publishing practices or at least directed at racist readers who couldn’t believe a former slave could write such an eloquent tale. But I digress…in the content of the narrative itself, at least in the popular 1845 edition, Douglass attributes his escape to freedom to the assistance of several white sources, notably a white mistress and some Irish street kids in Baltimore who taught him to read and write.
As with Melville’s novella Benito Cereno, (another contentious, misunderstood tale of slavery by an American original) the aim is both entertainment and soul-searching. Americans need to feel our complicity in the violence of slavery, and one way to do that is to try to make a film about such a brutal topic through stylized fantasy rather than historic realism. Thus that recognizable Tarantino coolness that leaves me feeling uncomfortable with how much I enjoyed the film and wanting to talk about it more, to go away and think about it all more. Ultimately, we need MORE works of art, film, literature, that examine slavery and from multiple angles. Django Unchained is a vibrant addition to this canon, and there is plenty of room for expansion.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

On Reviewing

A friend recently asked if I might write a review for him (he's reviews editor of a popular online journal), and I agreed, though I've never written a review in my life.  You'd think we would have been required to do something like this in poetry school before being deemed "Masters of the Fine Art," but no...Which made me confront a very basic issue: why DON'T I write (or read) reviews?

Partly it's that the few times I DID look at reviews (in the early 2000s, in Poetry), I was turned off by the snide, biting deconstructions I found. And also because when I think of all the new literature, art, music, and film I've come to love in recent years, it's come directly from friends, teachers, and colleagues with an eclectic array of tastes. As much as I admire a number of publications that run reviews and want to believe in the idea of the review, I hardly ever find myself discovering a book of poems or short story collection or novel because of them. In fact, I can't think of a single thing I've discovered or read because of a review.

As a result, perhaps I sometimes miss out on The Hot Thing Of The Moment, whatever is "trending," as they say. Though what's good enough to stick around in the cultural craw is usually still there years later when I manage to stumble upon it or have a friend place it under my nose (Pavement sounded as good to me in 2009 when my friend Adam introduced them to me as they must have in the '90s. Same with poet D.A. Powell who I've just started reading thanks to his VSC visit last year). Plus part of me is always thinking my god, I've not yet even read all of Nabokov!  How could I possibly bother to read enough books that were published in 2012 to find something good or even create a Top 10 list?!?  I digress....

What inspired me to think a bit differently came from an essay by William Matthews, who writes:
In the midst of such distractions [publications, prizes, grants, careers, the whole ego thing], one way to care for your share of the literary climate is to sit down with some poems, read them as intelligently and passionately as they and your own limits as a reader will allow, and to describe accurately to yourself your affections for and distrusts of those poems.
To do this in public is to write a review.

William Matthews, from New Hope for the Dead: Uncollected Matthews (Red Hen Press, 2010).
He's appealing to our duty as "literary citizens," and though there's no small amount of egoism and slime hiding under under the banner of so-called artistic citizenship, I agree with what Matthews is saying here, for it's really about the same as what I always strive for as a reader--intelligent, responsible readership. Readership that is itself an active, creative force and a welcome collaboration with the writer.

So I welcomed the assignment of writing a review and took my pick of recent titles I'd never heard of and scanned a few. One rule, I decided, is that--as with recommendation letters for former students--I cannot write a review of a book I feel less than enthusiastic about. I read a few reviews of recent poetry and fiction and thought about why I read poetry and came up with a rough outline for reviewing:

1. What is the thing before me? Describe it.
2. What does it seem to be doing/trying to do? Does it succeed in this effort?
3. Why would it be worth someone's time to read?
4. What do I have to say about it that someone hasn't already?

That's how I approached reading and reviewing the chapbook The Branches, the Axe, the Missing (Black Lawrence Press) by Charlotte Pence. You can find the review here.

January First

My friends Michael & Phoebe called me up New Year's Day with a shove: write a sonnet before the end of the day titled "January First" and use the following words: 

Old Dan Tucker

Somehow I failed to work "umbrella" in there, but here's my attempt (influenced a bit by Gerald Stern, whose latest collection, In Beauty Bright, has been at my bedside all week)

January First

How when family or the flu comes knocking
Humming a tune, say, Old Dan Tucker or Auld Lang Syne,
Pay no never mind. January First comes and wipes its salty
Boots on your stoop, waltzing through with lips puckered,
With visions of clementines, smoked meats, melons,
Pineapples, pinstriped candies, intent on unscrewing
Your last stopper in a reckless holiday rejoinder feast.
But the mugs of cheer have been drained, the pantry laid waste.
What’s a new year but old snow made to look fresh
From wind drifts? Another number to hang on the wall
Or a pink baby to slap on the ass then bed down in a breath
Of lullabies. Nor could you avoid or escape it if you wished.
Take a good-will draught of winter chill. You’re likely hung-over.
Besides, we’ve cleaned the fridge. It’s too late now to get your supper.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

It’s Ironic, Isn’t It? - In These Times

It’s Ironic, Isn’t It? - In These Times

Here's a smart, short essay from my pal Barrett Swanson (In These Times) in response to Christy Wampole's "How to Live Without Irony" piece (Nov. 17, 2012 New York Times). 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Blackbirds piled on the ground

Another poem I started in January 2011 at the Vermont Studio Center that is now getting the light of day is "Painting," which is perversely (I think) being shared via the VSC Holiday card to all our friends, donors, alumni, etc. Nothing says Happy Holidays like a storm of dead blackbirds falling from the sky! Oh well...


I paint a field of snow
and a man standing in it.

That’s my picture of solitude.

I paint a red bird in flight above the man.
His head is raised. I call that song.

If I paint the bird black and then another
and another until there are 5,000 blackbirds
piled on the ground, it is the sinks.

Perhaps snow covers all the blackbirds but two.
The man is drifted over by white and blue.

Two birds remain to share a black seed (once was bird)
in the snow crust. What would you call that?

Black ice the driver didn't know was black ice

Good news after long slumber: The most excellent Forklift, Ohio will be publishing a poem, "Before the Word," sometime next year.  It's a poem I started writing two winters ago when I was a resident at the Vermont Studio Center. It was probably "finished" last winter right before the Monsters of Poetry reading. Though I did change a line or two after talking about it with Srikanth Reddy this past summer. And it will appear in print sometime in 2013. 

That seems about average for me with getting work out there. I am slow. And choosy. I only send work to the journals I read and treasure. It's a long process of getting a poem to the page in handwritten scrawl, then the re-working in my journal, then the typing it up nice and clean and tinkering with precision, then submitting it to possible homes and probable scorn. So it goes. At this rate, I may just have a book one day.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Back out of all this now too much for us

I think I get it. Now, at last. That this blogging thing is a winter-time (or sick day) occupation. Now that the world is teeming with spring, I can't afford extra time on the computer. I have a garden that needs tending, a boat that needs water, boots that need trailing, pages that need poems, books that need reading. Etc, etc.

I'll be back before the first snow falls, I'm sure. But hardly in between. I hope you'll find yourselves smack in the real world, too, with far less time on the screens.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Maurice Sendak: 1928-2012

 The beloved writer Maurice Sendak died yesterday. Terry Gross dedicated the whole of "Fresh Air" to this great imaginative man.

I was really moved by their conversations, especially on hearing him talk about belief:
Terry Gross:  Do you ever wish that you had faith?
Maurice Sendak:  No.
TG:  Why not?
MS:  Because I don't need it. I don't believe in that. You know who my gods are, who I believe in fervently? Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson (she's probably at the top), Mozart, Shakespeare, Keats....These are wonderful gods who have gotten me through the narrow straits of life.
You can listen to the whole "Fresh Air" episode here.