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?

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Irene McKinney

I just learned from a friend that Irene McKinney died this week. She was a POET and an inspiration. Irene was the first writer I read who was from West Virginia and who wrote about our home country. Here are two of her poems.

Visiting My Gravesite:
Talbott Churchyard, West Virginia

Maybe because I was married and felt secure and dead
at once, I listened to my father's urgings about "the future"

and bought this double plot on the hillside with a view
of the bare white church, the old elms, and the creek below.

I plan now to use both plots, luxuriantly spreading out
in the middle of a big double bed. ---But no,

finally, my burial has nothing to do with marriage, this lying here
in these same bones will be as real as anything I can imagine

for who I'll be then, as real as anything undergone, going back
and forth to "the world" out there, and here to this one spot

on earth I really know. Once I came in fast and low
in a little plane and when I looked down at the church,

the trees I've felt with my hands, the neighbors' houses
and the family farm, and I saw how tiny what I loved or knew was,

it was like my children going on with their plans and griefs
at a distance and nothing I could do about it. But I wanted

to reach down and pat it, while letting it know
I wouldn't interfere for the world, the world being

everything this isn't, this unknown buried in the known.

--from Six O'Clock Mine Report (Pitt Poetry Series, 1989)


I'm stained with the iron-red water from the mines
and I'm stained with tobacco and red wine and
the rust of perpetual loss. Near Mabie,
West Virginia I pulled off the narrow road one
morning on my way to work as a substitute teacher.
I wanted to stand there awhile to see how bad
it was, my shuddering in ten-degree weather
on my way to something that couldn't
possibly matter. I had quit smoking and I felt
like a squirrel about to be shot, looking around
in a frenzy. There was a squirrel there, not
afraid at all, turning a hickory nut in its
hands and ignoring me. I must've looked
like what I was, a woman who had lost her
bearings and refused to admit it. It was 
another day in my history of posthumous 
days, another day when nobody touched my body.

--from Vivid Companion (Vandalia Press, 2004)

Monday, February 6, 2012


Description itself isn't enough for a poem--that's the premise Baron Wormser takes on in his essay in the current issue of The Manhattan Review. And I have to agree. In his examination of Mark Doty's recent collection of craft thoughts, The Art of Description, Wormser rolls out the Description defense's main body of evidence, Elizabeth Bishop's very fine and oft-cited poem, "The Fish" to illustrate how it has been misunderstood, made into a totem of description. Certainly there is no lack of mastery in the description of the creature in question:
While his gills were breathing in
the terrible oxygen
--the frightening gills,
fresh and crisp with blood,
that can cut so badly--
I thought of the coarse white flesh
packed in like feathers
[...] and the pink swim-bladder
like a big peony.

She is putting on a clinic for attentive detail, reminding us what a gifted painter she was, as well as writer.  But description alone does not a poem make. Even with this power to transport the reader with an eye for smart detail ("a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing from his aching jaw") Wormser reminds us: "the poem isn’t really a description. The poem is an evocation. The poem seeks to bring the fish to life in words, to articulate the miracle of its being....after language comes freedom," he instructs, moving the common understanding of the poem beyond its totemic place of word-painting to one of consequence. ("I caught a tremendous fish...And I let the fish go.") Right there is the crucial narrative that makes the poem matter. The fish is spared! It's true. 

I am, however, most drawn to the lines "I stared and stared / and victory filled up / the little boat" which follow the discovery of the fish's previous struggles, the hooks barbed in his mouth and trailing line, his "five-haired beard of wisdom." What is this "victory?" Does it subvert what I had long considered the speaker's benevolent whim to let the fish go? Perhaps there a moment here of moral recognition, of the living fighting thing? And that leads to the benevolence of the "I" as much or more than the beauty and transport of the language itself. After all, the speaker of the poem isn't releasing the fish because she's so in love with the portrait of that fish that she's composed in her mind (though readers seem to have made that conclusion). The "I" comes into eye contact, face to face, with a rather alien thing from below the surface that wears its own palimpsest and personal history of astonishing good luck and perseverance. "And I let the fish go."

Consequential subject matter is, I'll agree, hard to come by in contemporary poetry. But I disagree with Wormser when he waves a hand and says "The Fish" is "dawdling in the eternity of rapt language" rather than emanating from the gritty, determined stance of a Berryman or a Sexton, sweating the groundtruth of particular circumstance(s). Though I don't go for so-called "language" poetry, either, I would hardly trace its roots to Bishop's doorstep or say that she is reveling wordplay alone. So much of contemporary poetry has evaporated itself from the deep waters of subject matter and circumstance that matter to societies, cultures, ecosystems; I agree. However, Bishop's poem, which is much more focused on the spectacular creature than the nominal "subject" of the speaker, is hardly  guilty of lacking circumstance, and the poem, though "rapt" in language, never loses its footing in the boat. 

What Wormser is saying (and I am echoing) is that poetry ought to matter beyond its own sweet whisperings, which is to say it ought to move beyond merely rendering or transferring image into language through description or floating around in the ethereal, deconstructed "meaning"-lessness of L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E, else it does risk being what Doty calls in his book a "fundamentally useless, contemplative pleasure." Catching (or catching and releasing) a fish can be a matter of life or death--both for the angler and the swimmer. And as Frost put it, with the best poetry "the work is play for mortal stakes."