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.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Ink Node feature poem: "The Field"

Nice bit of news today from the creators of Ink Node, a virally edited online journal and my favorite web repository of contemporary poetry:


Greetings from Ink Node HQ here in Philadelphia—I hope all is well. I just wanted to let you know how much we've been enjoying reading your poems on the site, and I'm delighted to announce that we've decided to feature "The Field" on the front page marquee this week, where it will run in the banner spot through next Wednesday.  It's a gorgeous poem, and we're happy to share it.  Thanks for being a part of what makes Ink Node great.

Very best wishes,

Brian Christian and the Ink Node team"

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Gathering Moss

I love it when what I'm reading and what I'm doing run together in a confluence of learning.  I'm currently reading Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer and enjoying the incremental arrival of spring in the Vermont woods.

Gathering Moss is an artful blend of natural history for the non-specialist, personal narrative, and cultural reflection. The voice on the page is at once byrologist, mother, teacher, and writer of Potawatomi heritage, sharing her insights of how careful study of the simple lives of mosses bear lessons for how to live in the world.

In an early chapter, she describes the effort her biology students put into learning the ornate Latin names of mosses (of course, being so easily overlooked, most mosses lack a common name). But learning the names of species and their parts, Kimmerer points out, has its rewards.

"Having words for these forms makes the differences between them so much more obvious. With words at your disposal, you can see more clearly. Finding the words is another step in learning to see." 
 LANGUAGE as a way of SEEING!  It's true. Yesterday, seasonable weather returned, making this a cool and rainy weekend in northern Vermont. A good time to forage for some spring edibles! Out in a drizzle with friends hunting fiddleheads, I was guided by the fact that I was looking not for just any young fern's curled fronds but for those of the ostrich fern (matteuccia struthiopteris), whose tall vertical stalks feather out in fronds resembling the feathers of an ostrich. Equipped with this knowledge, the brown feather-like remains of last year's stalks became easy to spy along the river bank (even from the roadside as we drove). At the base of each I found what I was looking for-- numerous fat, green clumps of curled fronds, like the scrolls of violins. My friends and I gathered a small bagful each, and I later sauteed them in a bit of olive oil and diced ramps (wild leeks) that we had foraged elsewhere yesterday. Knowing what to look for (by name)--this kind of seeing can be delicious.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sven Birkerts on Emerson and "The Poet"

I just finished reading a wonderful little essay by Sven Birkerts about Emerson's "The Poet" and its continued importance in our culture and creative lives. Here's a snippet of it. The full text can be found here.
"For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet."
It will be necessary to keep the sentiment but broaden the reference. That the world seems always waiting seems incontestable, the feeling of waiting is everywhere—it is, I think, what makes us ever more deeply enslaved to our devices: we are glued to our screens of all sizes not for amusement or business, but because we think something is going to be announced. We can’t bear to miss it. But that something is not poetry, unless we give poetry an apocalyptic possibility. We are on the run from the anxious vibration of our living, caused in part by the sense that things are more connected than ever and that it’s the whole world that is somehow pressing in on us, “obsessing our private lives,” as Auden wrote, though the nature of those private lives has changed a great deal since that writing. It could almost be argued that we no longer have private lives, and that that lack, and the porousness that it implies, is the cause of our unease, is what underlies that waiting. We are waiting for something that will feel like a solution when it arrives; we are waiting for the oppression of “what’s next?” to be lifted. We are, in a deeper sense, waiting for our poet. But we are not waiting for the poem so much as the permission to certify ourselves, to inhabit the world on terms we understand, to be free of the feeling that everything is being decided elsewhere. The poet, then, is the emblem of self-sufficiency, and the poem, could we only find our way to it and understand it, is his proof. The poem of our age, the new confession, would find a way to shape the ambient energies and the anxiety of that interconnectedness into an expression that felt contained, that gathered the edgy intuitions that pass through us constantly and made them feel like understandings. Not closed off or insistent understandings, but clarifications, ways of abiding with the terrifying glut of signals. Moving that agitated flurry into language is no small task. It might even be impossible, given that the nature of most of these signals is pre- or post-verbal. Emerson’s assertion becomes a question, the question: can anyone, poet or artist or mere lay mortal, create a confession—an expression, a synthesis—that would alleviate the waiting world? Or have we moved once and for all beyond the pale of synthesis—with only partial versions possible? Another way of asking whether our circumstance is now beyond the reach of vision. Beyond language.

How does the poet, the serious poet, navigate what has become the inescapable porousness, the basic destruction of the boundary of the private? Is the full and authentic lyric poem possible, or is it condemned to being a nostalgic gesture—with part of its impact derived from that fact?

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

I've been away from this blog for a while now, mostly due to a drive to finish a few poems ahead of the Monsters reading last week in Madison and an overload of recent stimuli from out in the real world--notably the trip itself, which found me in a full-bloom Wisconsin spring (weeks ahead of us in northern Vermont) among friends and loved ones, while also finally getting into some of the deep waters of crazy Ahab chapters in Moby-Dick, picking up a fabulous novel (Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique) by the young Portugese luminary Goncalo Tavares, listening to Sharon Van Etten's new album Tramp, and absolutely obsessing over David Milch's latest accomplishment, the HBO series Luck, which was prematurely canceled due to tragic misfortune.

Sometime this week I hope to gather my thoughts and post something about Milch's Luck. Not a review, so much as a few thoughts on, among other things, the way its portrayal of horses is beautiful and moving and reminds me of the terribly gentle encounter the Pequod's killers have with the calm center of a pod of whales in "The Grand Armada" chapter. 

In case you haven't seen Luck or think a series only 9 episodes long, whose entire cast and crew only learned of its cancellation after completing the penultimate episode, can't achieve something artistically important, please do yourself the pleasure of watching it. I spent last weekend doing not much else and feel richly rewarded for it. Seriously.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Goldman Suchs

Kudos to Greg Smith, who resigned from Wall Street giant and Great Recession architects Goldman Sachs today and left with a parting cannon shot in the form of a New York Times Op-Ed piece.  You can read Smith's rare, bold take-down here.

I would say this is unrelated to poetry, except that it touches on a conversation Baron Wormser and I had a few nights ago after his reading at VSC. We were discussing social responsibility in poetry and its difficulty, given American poetry's long-time obsession with the self and what a fine, mature, responsible poet we did have in William Matthews. At one point, Baron suggested we need more naming of names, especially when they are our own, an outing of the forces of evil (or at least life-crushing interests) in our poetry. Look at the Polish and Russian poets who took on the regimes of the 20th century head-on. Where does such poetry exist in the United States? Could it?

So kudos again to Mr. Smith, who is stepping down as executive director of Godman Sachs and laying that company's wastrel and corrupt culture at the feet of that smirking schmuck Lloyd Blankfein and his crony, Gary Cohn.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Reckoner (take three)

Since we uploaded into the cloud
the earth misses us the ground
It hasn’t rained for months

The sleek new skins of our hand-
held devices flash menacingly calm
like the pearl blank face of the water

We go down to the lake
and bathe in its shades: gin clear
fluorescent grey

All our campfire girls
All our drowned fuselages and kelped wrecks
All our pine pollen soft parades

Our mouthfuls and gulped breaths
How many gigabytes is that?


Sometimes we float, bumping along
shoulder to shoulder in the screensaver
blue in a simulacrum of friendship
If we’re not in the lake
where are we?

Seen and unseen

like a Ghost Man on second
like a child worker in China


Sometimes we float in it almost
bodiless lost in the flickering
voices that will not save us

Even with value added

The pony-tailed technician
who assembled and wiped
to a loving sheen
our delicately cheap touchscreens

her little hands are ruined
by the solvents
by the robotic maneuvers

so we can share
with smudgeless clarity

She doesn’t even know
how to swim


Teenaged girls drop from factory eaves
like spiraled cones raining 
from pine boughs

in a sudden gust

Circles touching circles
across faces

We take and we take and
we tag


On the lakeshore a mother mallard
nestles into needles to make her
home above rocks

where a boy with a stick
is sure to find her
Where is your warm hand
for my hand?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Still Life

I haven't yet written about what might be the best new poem I've read in a long time--"Still Life with a Grain of Rice" from Alexander Long's dazzling collection Still Life (winner of the White Pine Press Poetry Prize 16). Here is an imagination set to turning objects and thoughts until they slowly transform and reveal themselves anew. Poems that take a good hard look at the world and their speaker. They remind me of some of Levis' finer work and Keats' odes, casting a mesmerizing focus through a"widening spell," particularly this poem which brings Chopin's "No. 3 in b major," the 16th-century painting The Fall of Icarus, Auden's poem "Musee des Beaux Arts" about that painting, the horrors of 9/11, and the mundane normality of eating leftovers while watching TV all together in a swirl and vortex that is mesmerizing.


I used to like the way things went together:

Chopin and Auden; apocalypse and abyss;
Given and give in; disgust

And discussed. Chopin's

"No. 3 in B major," at the end,
For instance, how he reaches 

As far as he can across the piano
With both arms--as if hearing himself

For the first time--

Like Icarus, maybe.

I used to think I'd love
To plunge like that

And be done with it.

There must be something
In me that refuses

To die, I pray.

But, Auden's Icarus stares down
At the indifferent ploughman and all

His shares he needs to live on,
Which make his lord richer


If I were there, in that Brueghel,
I'd turn away too, from something

Amazing--a boy falling
Out of the sky--because I did,

In fact, do it.

Early September in a new millennium,
And I had nowhere to get to.

I wasn't in New York yet.

A gorgeous day:
The sun shone

On the television,
Through the high windows

Of my bedroom where
I confessed an important failure

To no one:

Don't look, don't care.

I was eating a bowl of rice
With teriyaki steak

For breakfast.

I licked the white fork clean
And wanted more

While someone fell out of the sky 
For real.

And then another.

I turned up Chopin and licked
A grain of rice I'll never

Write a poem on


All I've wanted since is to sail
Calmly on.

And I do,

Letting the dead down.
The Fall of Icarus, Pieter Brueghel (1558), oil, Museum of Fine Arts, Brussells
In "Still Life With a Grain of Rice" we see an image system at work. People falling from the burning World Trade Center (on the mediated layer of the television screen and onto the actual pavement below), Icarus plunged three-quarters into the sea, Chopin spreading wings and soaring deeply into the tunnel of piano, the speaker's former imagined plungings, not to mention the unmentioned grains of rice surely falling from his plastic fork as he witnesses one of the crueler spectacles of this young century (then decides to turn up the Chopin, look away, eat more).

Long's poems turn and turn with attention around their subjects, an attention that is at once inclusive and irresistible and self-indicting. They take nimble turns (with some incredible line breaks here) and are unflinching in their gaze. It's also the only poem I've ever encountered that addresses 9/11 in a way that feels honest and real. One man's coming to terms with his "important failure"--of being the insular and insulated modern self? Of being, on the individual level, the self-interested consuming force that the nation as a whole is, which in part brought about the tragedy? Of his own (in)ability to make that leap? I don't know what I think of that yet, but Long brings it into question, echoing Auden's language of "important failure." In any case, we are given a speaker who looks away from the terrifying to focus on the comforts of appetite: "I licked the white fork clean/And wanted more // While someone fell out of the sky/For real."

Images of the WTC "jumpers" still give me shivers, as they should.

I love the Brueghel painting and what Long (and Auden before him) sees in it. The ploughman keeps his head down. The shepherd gazes upward into his own daydreams, not the boy-refusing sky. The ship sails calmly on. Not out of apathy, as some might say in interpreting Auden's poem. But because there is work to do. And how many of us can be said to work for ourselves? Poor ploughman with "His shares he needs to live on,/ Which make his lord richer / Forever." Perhaps the larger point here is one of balancing the insane with sanity, how we must (of course, always) ignore a great deal of the horrors of reality in order to function. As I mentioned in my last post, sometimes we need to see the vivid brutality we participate in daily (see FoxConn factories in China and mineral mines in Congo that feed our mobile device habit). But maybe sometimes we need to look away, too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Lowerings, Blood, Sharks & Whales

Yes, I am still slowly reading Moby-Dick and waiting for winter to salvage its lackluster performance.

In recent chapters, I was clearly in territory that Cormac McCarthy finds entertaining. Anyone who's read Blood Meridian will recognize a kinship with the gorey imagery from Chapter 61 "Stubb Kills a Whale":
     The red tide now poured from all sides of the monster like brooks down a hill. His tormented body rolled not in brine but in blood, which bubbled and seethed for furlongs behind in their wake. The slanting sun playing upon this crimson pond in the sea, sent back its reflection into every face, so that they all glowed to each other like red men. And all the while, jet after jet of white smoke was agonizingly shot from the spiracle of the whale, and vehement puff after puff from the mouth of the excited headsman [Stubb]....
     And now it is struck; for, starting from his trance into that unspeakable thing called his 'flurry,' the monster horribly wallowed in his blood, over-wrapped himself in impenetrable, mad, boiling spray, so that the imperiled craft, instantly dropping astern, had much ado blindly to struggle out from that phrensied twilight into the clear air of the day.
     And now abating in his flurry, the whale once more rolled out into view; surging from side to side; spasmodically dilating and contracting his spout-hole, with sharp, cracking agonized respirations. At last, gush after gush of clotted red gore, as if it had been the purple lees of red wine, shot into the frighted air; and falling back again, ran dripping down his motionless flanks into the sea. His heart had burst!
     'He's dead, Mr. Stubb,' said Tashtego.
     'Yes; both pipes smoked out!' and withdrawing his own from his mouth, Stubb scattered the dead ashes over the water; and, for a moment, stood thoughtfully eyeing the vast corpse he had made."
This brings to mind the heinous scenes of Apaches murdering and raping the cavalry and the very subtitle of Blood Meridian: The Evening Redness of the West. It's really one of Cormac's more infamous passages. Watch out here it comes:
"A legion of horribles, hundreds in number, half naked or clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners, coats of slain dragoons, frogged and braided cavalry jackets, one in a stovepipe hat and one with an umbrella and one in white stockings and a bloodstained weddingveil and some in headgear of cranefeathers or rawhide helmets that bore the horns of bull or buffalo and one in a pigeontailed coat worn backwards and otherwise naked and one in the armor of a spanish conquistador, the breastplate and pauldrons deeply dented with old blows of mace or sabre done in another country by men whose very bones were dust and many with their braid spliced up with the hair of other beasts until they trailed upon the ground and their horses’ ears and tails worked with bits of brightly colored cloth and one who horse’s whole head was painted crimson red and all the horsemen’s faces gaudy and grotesque with daubings like a company of mounted clowns, death hilarious, all howling in a barbarous tongue and riding down upon them like a horde from a hell more horrible yet than the brimstone landing of christian reckoning, screeching and yammering and clothed in smoke like those vaporous beings in regions beyond right knowing where the eye wanders and the lip jerks and drools.
Oh my god, said the sergeant."
That central phrase, "death hilarious," owes to my mind a debt of inspiration to Melville, who some pages later when, with the dead sperm whale secured to the Pequod, writes, "...sharks do most socially congregate, and most hilariously feast; yet is there no conceivable time or occasion when you will find them in such countless numbers, and in gayer or more jovial spirits, than around a dead sperm whale, moored by night to a whale-ship at sea."

Wherefore all this bloodshed and the celebratory, even orgiastic language to detail it? Is it simply some gratuitous male defect? Some savagery or primitive shadow on the soul? No. I suspect both a stark reminder of the more sinister forces at work in the world and an unbridled love of language, run amok. The illusion of order that we live upon rests on a foundation of others' blood and misery.

The first slaughtered whale (the corpse made by Stubb) hangs alongside the Pequod, meat-hooked in economical pieces for some 20 chapters before its spermacetti oil is collected and the unusable parts are dropped to the briny dark. The second sperm whale they kill appears in Ch. 81 when all three mates give chase to an old and maimed bull:
As strange misgrown masses gather in the knot-holes of the noblest oaks when prostrate, so from the points which the whale's eyes had once occupied, now protruded blind bulbs, horribly pitiable to see. But pity there was none. For all his old age, and his one arm, and his blind eyes, he must die the death and be murdered, in order to light the gay bridals and other merry-makings of men, and also to illuminate the solemn churches that preach unconditional inoffensiveness by all to all.
Just as the whales of Melville's era had to die to provide the goods he outlines (both literally and sarcastically), our hands are no cleaner in attaining the easy life of first world comforts most of us enjoy. Of course we know that. But learning about where the metals needed to make the chips in our cell phones and smart devices originate or the stories of the slave children assembling our MacBooks overseas deserve more than the occasional buried news item or wringing of hands by a guilt-stricken First Worlder. They need to be stated loudly, perhaps even in exaggerated tones, set to music, given a close-up. Specificity and witness....

...I feel like I've lost my thread. Well, while I am not necessarily laughing along to Death Hilarious in Cormac and Melville, I am entertained by the fireworks of the language. I find it rare and powerful and even beautiful. And it's a convincing argument--at least while caught in the boiling waters of the sentences themselves--against Romanticism. I wonder who will write as forcefully about the horrors we continue to render on ourselves and on the rest of the world today.

Friday, February 24, 2012


I'm pleased to announce that FLYOVER, a chapbook of poems by Heather June Gibbons, is hot off the press at Q Avenue.

This is my first project since joining Q Ave Press as an editor-at-large and advisory board member, and I couldn't have found a better collection to get behind. Heather's poems are playful, wry, earnest, smart, terse, and sizzling with a fresh alertness. From tract-house patterns seen from the sky to the shine of cellophane caught in a branch to the exploded Challenger shuttle, these poems are witness and anthem to the strangeness, fragility, and full-throttle thrill of being alive in "flyover" country.  Read them for yourself!

You can order directly from Q Avenue Press or come by table K9 at the AWP Bookfair in Chicago March 1-3. Heather will be at the table, signing copies 3:00-4:00pm on Thursday and Friday.

Here's a taste of FLYOVER to tide you over until your own copy arrives:


Do not leave this box in heat and sunlight.
It might rot.  It might already be rotten.  Still,

the cherry trees blossom and grow heavy,
and in the bog that stretches from the shadow

of the superstore, the Sandhill crane folds
minnows in its beak.  Stiff-legged, a woman

in the stockroom unbinds the plastic-bound
boxes from pallets that arrive on trucks,

twenty tons per container, one of many
the cranes stack stories high on the ship

loaded to heavy displacement in Shanghai
to course across shipping lines at speeds of

over twenty knots.  Be careful with this box. 
Most likely it has crossed the ocean more

than twice, first as product, then as fiber bought
in tonnage and recycled for remanufacture

as corrugated board, then expertly assembled
in the Zhejiang Province by a young woman

who pressed its corners with quick hands.
Under her mattress she has hidden a set of nested

ornamental boxes.  On the lid of the smallest
is a woodcut of a crane, for luck.

              (originally published in Southeast Review)

Artwork by Laura Foster

Tuesday, February 21, 2012


I won't bore anyone with a third draft of "The Splasher Floor" posted here, but I have taken a scalpel to it and have reconsidered several of my lines, allowing syllabics to govern in the end (a la Hayden Carruth). So the poem now exists in 10-syllable lines (with scant exceptions). If you're interested, I'd be happy to send you a copy, but I'm not going to re-post it here again.

Writing is (nearly) never done, but this piece is now, and I can focus on other parts of what I'm calling the Zinc Cycle.

Also, here are some Polaroids of the factory from my childhood days.

Monday, February 20, 2012

I *heart* Emily Dickinson

I've been meaning to dip back into The Poems of Emily Dickinson and my friend Aric, who is currently teaching a whole course dedicated entirely to Emily, has given me the opportunity, directing my attention to an essay by Martha Nell Smith and a poem I've never noticed before:  "I reason, Earth is short"
Check out ED's holograph within Smith's collection Rowing in Eden: rereading Emily Dickinson here (scroll down to page 68 of the Google book).  And now here's the poem, as rendered by R.W. Franklin, editor of the as-now "authoritative' version of E.D.'s poems (Belknap/Harvard). Dare to compare!
I reason, Earth is short -
And Anguish - absolute -
And many hurt,
But, what of that?

I reason, we could die -
The best Vitality
Cannot excel Decay,
But, what of that?

I reason, that in Heaven -
Somehow, it will be even -
Some new Equation, given -
But, what of that?

I like how we can read the line "But, what of that?" to bring into question some portion of the situation that precedes it (that many hurt, that we'll all decay when we die, that things may be equal in heaven) OR that the statement brings the speaker's own reasoning itself into question. In other words, "I what of that?" I like this second reading because of the tension it puts into play between logic and faith once we get to the final stanza.
I've been looking at the poem a bit in my Franklin edition, wondering why he didn't preserve that exclamation point at the end!?!? His choice changes the tone of the poem, stripping it of that sassy, revelatory declaration.  But, what of that! Boo-yeah! Snap! You know?

The words "reason" and "that" are also worth exploring. Reason, meaning to logically argue or engage in logical discussion but also reason as an explanation made to explain or justify (which might not have its roots in logic, but rather in hope, feeling, intuition, self-delusion, etc.). What of that?

And are all these "that"s all pointing to a direct referent, a word or phrase that comes before? Or could there be some unnamed, far-off indicator (as in THAT over there, not THIS here)????
She makes my head spin in just a few quatrains. And this isn't even close to being one of the most enjoyable of Emily's poems (for me).

Just as fun (if not more so) is contemplating the rendering of this poem from her handwritten pages into Franklin's edition (apparently E.D. wrote out two versions of the poem--one sewn into a fascicle, the other sent to her confidant/friend Susan, which is the one linked above). In her analysis, Smith raises some salient points about poems: do they exist primarily in language and breath uttered aloud? Does it matter to get them "right" in writing, fixed on the page? I hold these in my mind and also wonder to what degree the handwritten poem can be an art object of its own. I am captivated by Dickinson's handwriting and impatiently hoping for all of her fascicles and letter poems and unsewn manuscript pages to be available online free for all. When, oh when?
Detail. Jen Bervin, The Composite Marks of Fascicle 28 at

Here's a blog post from the NEA's website about a collection of E.D.'s holographs that were on display until a few days ago at Poet's House in NYC. And if you're really interested in the visual realm of E.D.'s holographs, check out what artist/writer Jen Bervin does. Amazing!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Philip Levine, Working Class Proud

It really is perfect that Phil Levine has been named the U.S. Poet Laureate in this year of Occupy Wall Street, the lingering economic meltdown/jobs catastrophe, Scott Walker-style attacks on public workers, "austerity measures" across Europe, and other bullshit that's been foisted onto working people to bear the brunt of the recklessness brought on us all by the elite 1% and the financial industry's outrageous behavior since the 1980s. A year of too much and a year of fighting back. Definitely a time to turn to a poet like Phil Levine.

All along, there have been those who've known this was coming, who have plodded along documenting the severe toll Reaganomics and de-regulated industry have taken on the environment and the common people. Phil Levine is such a poet.

Still, it is a surprise that Levine has been so honored, given the lack of posturing in his work. Levine's poems are firmly rooted in life, in the real people mauled by the capitalist system. No caricatures here, nor labyrinthine masks of identity work. No posing, no theoretical discourse, no glib detachment. Substance and style are present and go hand in hand to craft compelling human songs of suffering and discovery, an amassed body of evidence of the failure of capitalism to be a human system and of the perseverance of people even in the face of hopeless conditions. As this New York Times writer reminds us, Levine's poetry is full of people, which has become all-too-rare in contemporary poetry, where the overly self-conscious speaker is often the only human presence in a poem.

For further reading, my friend Alex Long co-wrote a damned good piece (with Devin Harner) in the Chronicle of Higher Education in the fall, shortly after the Poet Laureate appointment. They get into the radical choice of Phil as Poet Laureate, as well as the metaphysics behind the labor-centric physicality of his poems.

Levine's earlier works are alive with a fiery anger and the politics of witness. His later poems are full of tenderness and humility in which, while still enthralled by poetry, he hesitates to make too great claims for it. His poem, “He Would Never Use One Word Where None Would Do,” ends:

Fact is, silence is the perfect water:
unlike rain it falls from no clouds
to wash our minds, to ease our tired eyes,
to give heart to the thin blades of grass
fighting through the concrete for even air
dirtied by our endless stream of words.
As someone from a working class family, and as a resident of a string of crippled, post-industrial towns (and who takes these both on in subject matter), I've been aware of the importance of Levine's work for years--like since I started reading poetry. But it wasn't until recently that I've actually really sat down to read his work, poring over They Feed, They Lion (1972); What Work Is (1991, National Book Award Winner), and his recent collection News of the World (2009). These are astonishingly good poetry collections.

Here's one poem to savor and, I hope, to lead you to more. It is the opening poem of What Work Is:

Half an hour to dress, wide rubber hip boots,
gauntlets to the elbow, a plastic helmet
like a knight's but with a little glass window
that kept steaming over, and a respirator
to save my smoke-stained lungs. I would descend
step by slow step into the dim world
of the pickling tank and there prepare
the new solutions from the great carboys
of acids lowered to me on ropes--all from a recipe
I shared with nobody and learned from Frank O'Mera
before he went off to the bars on Vernor Highway
to drink himself to death. A gallon of hydrochloric
steaming from the wide glass mouth, a dash
of pale nitric to bubble up, sulphuric to calm,
metals for sweeteners, cleansers for salts,
until I knew the burning stew was done.
Then to climb back, step by stately step, the adventurer
returned to the ordinary blinking lights
of the swingshift at Feinberg and Breslin's
First-Rate Plumbing and Plating with a message
from the kingdom of fire. Oddly enough
no one welcomed me back, and I'd stand
fully armored as the downpour of cold water
rained down on me and the smoking traces puddled
at my feet like so much milk and melting snow.
Then to disrobe down to my work pants and shirt,
my black street shoes and white cotton socks,
to reassume my nickname, strap on my Bulova,
screw back my wedding ring, and with tap water
gargle away the bitterness as best I could.
For fifteen minutes or more I'd sit quietly
off to the side of the world as the women
polished the tubes and fixtures to a burnished purity
hung like Christmas ornaments on the racks
pulled steadily toward the tanks I'd cooked.
Ahead lay the second cigarette, held in a shaking hand,
as I took into myself the sickening heat to quell heat,
a lunch of two Genoa salami sandwiches and Swiss cheese
on heavy peasant bread baked by my Aunt Tsipie,
and a third cigarette to kill the taste of the others.
Then to arise and dress again in the costume
of my trade for the second time that night, stiffened
by the knowledge that to descend and rise up
from the other world merely once in eight hours is half
what it takes to be known among women and men.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reckoner (take two)

Sometimes the lake hides itself
slides its manhole cover over
and it’s over   Shunk

After the reclaiming and the dredgings
the new pilings and the shovelings
we bathe in its shades: gin clear, fluorescent grey


Sometimes we float, bumping along
in its screensaver blue shoulder to shoulder
in a simulacrum of friendship

Each heart-warm friend we reckon them up
in rosy dawn we hold and hold them
like a personal flotation device

Each name a bead in the bracelet
Each name a thanksgiving

Reckoner you know our faces
making light echoes below the ripples
like pockets of air beneath ice

like a Ghost Man on second
Seen and unseen
If we’re not in the lake

where are we?


Since we uploaded into the cloud
the earth misses us the ground
It hasn’t rained for months

All our campfire girls
All our drowned fuselages and kelped wrecks
All our pine pollen soft parades

Our mouthfuls and gulped breaths
How many gigabytes is that?


The hands of the slave girl
who assembled and delicately wiped
our touchscreens with a carcinogenic solution

her little hands are ruined so we can  
share with smudgeless clarity
So we can build community


On the lake a mother mallard
nestles into needles to make her
home above rocks

where a boy with a stick
is sure to find her.

Reckoner, take me with you.


In the face of the water at night
stars make replicas of themselves
to replace us

It is starting to rain. Ripples
separate along the blank shore
I want to stand here a little longer

Where is your warm hand
for my hand?