Monday, November 8, 2010

Some New Stuff

Here are links to some new work of mine if you're interested. In Kenyon Review Online, I have an essay/poem in syllabics on collective paranoia. The poem talks about the American tendency toward hyper-fear—and the excessive attempts to counteract any harm be it on a political scale down to a small scale such as knowing exactly what to eat to prevent cancer, exactly how to prune one’s hedges to thwart thieves, etc. And the footnotes almost serve as a paranoid voice commenting on the poem. Also, I have a new poem in Waccamaw that is a short character poem. And fellow poet-pal Stephanie Kartalopoulos has a poem in there, too, that’s a great read. And here’s an interview I conducted with novelist, poet, and memoirist Marge Piercy in Chapter 16. There's also a new interview with Loretta Lynn by Margaret Renkl up there now--and who can pass up hearing from Loretta?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Review of Frederick Seidel’s poems in latest issue of Paris Review

The five poems by Frederick Seidel in the latest issue of Paris Review were a bit of a disappointment. Perhaps I should say that in a punnier, over-the-top rhyming sort of way which would be more like his poems. I’m an admirer of his work in Ooga-Booga, and because of that, I was expecting a lot. The rhymes in the new poems such as “Store Windows” seldom move the poem in a new direction—or—and this is something that Seidel manages to succeed in and I’m not sure why—resist the new direction to the point the line warps into something else entirely, similar to a support bar buckling into odd shapes from too much pressure. For the most part, however, the new poems didn’t present much that was fresh to me. Here are two stanzas from the poem “Store Windows” which is a lyrical meditation on what he humorously calls “citywide narcissism”:

I’m so proud!

It’s so ridiculous I have to laugh.

The technician is very well-endowed.

I’m a collapsible top hat—a chapeau claque—that half

The time struts around at Ascot but can be collapsed flat just like that. Baff!

Till it pops back. Paff! Oh yes,

I find myself superb

When I undress.

A lovely lightbulb is my suburb,

And my flower, and my verb.

Seidel’s unabashed penchant for writing about conspicuous consumption, narcissism, lust, greed, and good-ol’-in-general-nastiness makes him a poet many can, ironically, stand behind. But in this example the rhymes are expected within this narcissistic persona. We go from “proud” to “endowed.” The “laugh” to top “hat” that then collapses “flat.” “Baff” is right. And “paff” is right behind it. Seidel is at his best when his rhymes create what my husband, Adam Prince, describes as a “new sense from the nonsense.” He pointed out this poem, “Mother Nature,” as an example of what Seidel does so well:

Mother Nature went to China,

China the vagina.

Wet dreams conceive there,

Where no one wants a daughter.

The perfect rhyme with “China” and “vagina” highlights that there is not any relationship between these words other than sonically. (Insert any other body part and you can hear how the couplet dies.) Yet, the stanza moves on to the last statement about daughters (the “there/where” rhyme also forcing a syntactical as well as sonic connection), and suddenly one sees a stanza that takes shape, that through force has found some semblance of sense. And it’s surprising. There is little surprise in the five poems that Seidel has now in Paris Review. But I do mean “little” as there is some freshness as one can see with the end to the stanza I quoted earlier: “A lovely lightbulb is my suburb, /And my flower, and my verb.” And my verb? I wasn’t expecting that—and I like it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Review of One of My Own Poems for a Change

I rarely post any of my own poems on this blog, but I thought I would make an exception because of the poetry class am I teaching right now. They all just turned in poems to workshop for the first time this past week. So, I feel like they should get a sense of what I’m writing, too. The following poem was published about six months ago in Denver Quarterly Review and begins the collection that I am working on titled Spike.


By: Charlotte Pence

The wind bending a thin-trunked

Pine, butterscotch-scented,

Sounds like the opening of a door.

And so, I think of my father,

How through him—

His Oreo-fat,

His hardening cock,

His damp, long-curled lashes

I stutter-stepped into myself.

Why do you say that stuff? my father interrupts as I write.

What do you mean? About your cock?

No. That right there, he says and lifts up his arms, glass of OJ in one hand, Little Debbie oatmeal cream pie in the other, so he stands like a Lady of the Scales statue. Chewing a wad of snack cake.

What are you talking about? What’s in my poems? How I see the world?

All of this, he says and circles his drink in the air like a drunk. This house. Our family. You and me. You think it’s everything. Then he nods toward the window. And what’s out there doesn’t even begin it.

I answer: Yesterday I saw something I’ve never seen before: A canary-yellow web that only one spider in the world can weave. What do you think about that?

He shrugs. That’s yesterday.

I wanted to write a poem that questioned the poet as speaker, specifically a poet in love with poetry. It is quite tempting to write about the world in terms of dewy spider webs, deserted parking lots, and butterscotch-scented trees with the poet looking outward and turning these observations into moments of wisdom, meaning, and/or beauty. While this is very much the lyrical impulse, and something that I revere, the method is too often similar from poet to poet. It feels a bit easy. Sentimental. Manufactured. Too many poems feature a poet in love with the powers of poetry—and the reader’s entrance is limited to sharing that love for the genre rather than the particular poem.

Frankly, a poet is another person, no better, no less than others. And this Romantic sense that we are wiser than other people (Wordsworth said that poets are “possessed” with “more than usual organic sensibility”*) is not only a generalization, but a cherished generalization that deserves some questioning. And that is the role of the father in this poem: the questioner.

So, I begin with a very poet-y quatrain. The poet is reaching out first for natural imagery with the butterscotch pine and wind blowing through the trees as is so often the go-to (which also stems from Wordsworth’s beliefs that: “low and rustic life was generally chosen because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity”). But then the father interrupts, calling the poet out on her sentimentalisms, and then the poem’s form changes to that of a prose poem. And who wins this argument about the wonders of the natural world, the subjects of poetry? Well, the dad does have the last word. But the poet did write that last word.

*All quotes by William Wordsworth are from the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the 1800, 1802 version.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Review of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” by Wilco

I thought I would follow-up my last blog post on songs and the ghost of the sonnet structure that I sometimes hear. The following song by Wilco is not a sonnet, but it’s a song that I could imagine someone calling a sonnet. We have the Shakespearean rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef, and so on (although the song continues on and on with it). And the rhyme scheme is sophisticated using slant rhymes and assonance to downplay the rhyme. Also, many of these lines are iambic pentameter with the substitutions that Wilco uses being standard ones: inversion of the first foot to trochaic, the middle foot also switching to trochaic, and the feminine ending. Still, that first verse employs too many substitutions for me to say that iambic pentameter was the goal. But more than all of that, this song doesn’t move like a sonnet. It lacks the rhetorical structure, change within the speaker, and the lack of exploitation between problem and conclusion. (For more details on that, you can take a look at my last post.) All of this is in no way me implying that this is not a good song. I’m just pointing out how having certain features of a Shakespearean sonnet does not make for a sonnet unless many of them are used.

I Am Trying To Break Your Heart

By: Wilco

I am an American aquarium drinker

I assassin down the avenue

I'm hiding out in the big city blinking

What was I thinking when I let go of you?

Let's forget about the tongue-tied lightning

Let's undress just like cross-eyed strangers

This is not a joke, so please stop smiling

What was I thinking when I said it didn't hurt?

I want to glide through those brown eyes dreaming

Take it from the inside, baby hold on tight

You were so right when you said that I've been drinking

What was I thinking when I said good night?

I want to hold you in the Bible-black predawn

You're quite a quiet domino, bury me now

Take off your Band-Aid ‘cause I don't believe in touchdowns

What was I thinking when we said hello?

I'd always thought that if I held you tightly

You'd always love me like you did back then

Then I fell asleep and the city kept blinking

What was I thinking when I let you back in?

I am trying to break your heart

I am trying to break your heart

But still I'd be lying if I said it wasn't easy

I am trying to break your heart

Disposable Dixie-cup drinking

I assassin down the avenue

I'm hiding out in the big city blinking

What was I thinking when I let go of you?

Loves you

I'm the man who loves you

Monday, September 6, 2010

Review of “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis

I was flipping through a poetry anthology and came upon this definition for a sonnet: “a form every poet will try.” While the definition may not help a beginning poet understand how to write a sonnet, it felt like an inside joke from lexicographer to reader—similar to Samuel Johnson’s hidden gems in A Dictionary of the English Language such as his definition of Monsieur: “a term of reproach for a Frenchman.” What I enjoy about the sonnet being defined as a form every poet will try is how it is correct even while it errs. A sonnet is, of course, a lot more than a form every poet will try—but every poet will try it. And every poet will also tell us how “sonnet” means little song (or little sound), implying some marriage between the two genres.

While sonnet does literally mean “little song,” there is no evidence that the first sonnets were ever accompanied to music. Giacomo da Lentino did adapt the eight-line strambotto, a type of thirteenth-century Sicilian peasant song to provide the sonnet’s base, but otherwise the sonnet represents a shift in poetry away from music. While this break occurred, a few songs I hear on the radio today still have the ghost of the sonnet in them. So, I’ve lately been working on an essay about that. Forgive the un-blog-like length with this post, but I thought it would be interesting to excerpt a part of my essay on songs and sonnets.

Randy Travis’s song “On the Other Hand” reveals how a Shakespearean sonnet form can function within a song. Considering that the rhetorical mode is most critical to the sonnet’s success, I’ll begin analyzing in terms of this feature. The sonnet’s rhetorical mode demands progression of thought and resolution within its three quatrains, turn, and concluding couplet. The first quatrain introduces the issue, the next two quatrains add complications, and the final couplet reaches a hard-fought conclusion. “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis organizes itself rhetorically the same way a sonnet does.

This song is written in second form (verse, chorus, verse, chorus). In the first verse (composed of four lines), the issue is introduced when the speaker tells a woman who is present that he would like to spend the night with her: “On one hand I count the reasons, I could stay with you / And hold you close to me, all night long.” As this verse ends, the speaker reiterates that he wants to play “lover’s games” and that “there’s no reason why it’s wrong.” But the speaker is married, as revealed in the next four lines which is the chorus: “But on the other hand, is a golden band / To remind me of someone who wouldn’t understand.” Here we have the complication: he is married. We also have a further complication: his wife would not understand nor forgive this act. The second verse, lines nine through twelve, provide more complication as it explains why the speaker would cheat—which is a difficult position to defend and a risky stance for a first-person song. The speaker explains that he has felt dead before this other woman came into his life, and suddenly the adulterer is presented in a more complicated way: “In your arms I feel the passion, I thought had died. / When I looked into your eyes, I found myself” (lines 9-10). Part of the attraction then, and another element to the complication, is that the speaker needs the affair. “I found myself” is not a throw-away line, but a line that emphasizes why this is not simply cheating out of a loss of self-control; this is cheating due to a sense of self-realization. The rhetorical mode of introduction of issue, followed by complication, another contradiction, then resolution is clear. “On the Other Hand” echoes other features of the sonnet as well.

The proportion of argument to conclusion is similar in both Travis’s song and the Shakespearean sonnet. For example, typically twelve out of fourteen lines in a sonnet will lead to the conclusion. In Travis’s song, eleven of the twelve lines debate what to do until the decision is stated in the last line of the chorus. As Paul Fussell wrote in Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, “A poet who understands the sonnet form is the one who has developed an instinct for exploiting the principle of imbalance.” Why this “principle of imbalance” is so important relates to the origin of the sonnet; Giacomo da Lentino shaped the sonnet form to aid in the analysis of personal problems. For a sonnet to present a true conundrum, a number of complications need to be present. Therefore, most of the poem will analyze the problem rather than emphasize the conclusion.

This song also features a turn, which helps one to reach the conclusion. The turn in the sonnet is often considered to be the moment where a shift of thinking, a change in perspective, or a movement toward a new direction occurs. Sometimes the turn is implicit in the white space on the page around line twelve in a sonnet or sometimes it is more explicit. (Granted, the sonnet may feature two turns and the turn does not necessarily have to come between lines twelve and thirteen, but it will come near the end of the sonnet.) To understand how the turn works in the Travis song, we have to first look at the conclusion because the turn often leads to the conclusion. The conclusion to Travis’s song is: “But the reason I must go is on the other hand” (line 8). Here the speaker concludes that he must leave this other woman because of his wedding vows. This conclusion, however, is partly determined by the lines that occur right before it: the turn of the song which is between lines four and five. Line four tells the listener that the speaker sees no reason why the affair is wrong. But the next lines says otherwise: “But on the other hand, there’s a golden band/ to remind of someone who would not understand” (5-6). The speaker knew all along that the affair was wrong, but the turn is that he determines to privilege the spouse’s perspective above his own.

Another distinction between a country song and a Shakespearean sonnet is that country lyricists do not wait until the song’s end to conclude. Often, the conclusion occurs at the end of the chorus. But the song will continue on after that chorus, presenting another complication in a new verse or bridge so that when the listener hears the chorus a second (or third) time, the chorus takes on another layer of development. The placement of the conclusion within the chorus reflects the songwriting tradition, but the added development after the conclusion nods toward the sonnet tradition that insists on continual complications.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Poem by Indonesian Poet Laksmi Pamuntjak

I have now returned from my summer travels and am back to this world of running water, 24-hour electricity—and blogs. Since my husband and I spent six weeks this summer backpacking in Indonesia for our honeymoon, I thought it would be appropriate to open the blog with an Indonesian poet. This idea, however, was not as easy as I thought it would be. Indonesian poetry is relatively new—with many estimates dating it back to the early 1900s. And the poetry for the first few decades was nationalistic. Also, Indonesia is made up of 17,000 different islands—many with their own culture and language. So, there are issues with translation. First one needs to translate a poem into Bahasa Indonesian and then to another language for more world-wide distribution—if more worldwide distribution is wanted. Frankly, I cannot understand most contemporary Indonesian poetry since very few poets are translated and my knowledge of Bahasa Indonesian is quite limited to food and transportation nouns.

The poet I decided to share with you is one who does translate Indonesian poets and who co-founded a bilingual bookstore in Jakarta. I thank her for her efforts.

To My Parents, Who Visited My College Town Twelve Years After I Graduated

By: Laksmi Pamuntjak from her book Ellipsis

So the both of you passed through the

brownstone. Why, it must be something

of a relic now: grimy, petulant, flaccid

around the edges. Did you go to the Bay,

find out whose sitting on my river bench?

But you didn't relate much. Like a French

film, you communicated like you and I

never did: under your breath, in silent

inference, the language of white lies.

The gas station is no more, you wrote.

The Avenue, so grand in your days,

looks like the way to everywhere else.

We tried to look your piano mentor up

but no luck there. The driveway to his

studio no flaxen with rotting lemon trees.

But both of you went to see the dolphins.

You used to laugh when I told you that

I knew them one by one--just like that, from the calm

and the choke of their gazes. You told me they

have not much use of their eyes.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Away, away, away....

I’m taking a six-week honeymoon to backpack around Indonesia, so I won’t be posting any poetry blogs during that time. I will, however, be blogging about the trip at

Happy Travels to everyone for the summer--and Cheers!

P.S. Photo from the wedding reception/pub crawl.

Review of "Highlights and Interstices" by Jack Gilbert

“A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man.” This quote by EM. Forster from Howard’s End was one that my mind kept returning to as Adam Prince and I planned our wedding these last couple of months. Yes, the wedding was fabulous, but so much occurs in the quiet of our lives that's significant, too.

With all this in mind, we asked my poetry professor (who has known me and my poems for the past twelve years) Arthur Smith to read the poem “Highlights and Interstices” by Jack Gilbert. It reiterates that the beautiful is often “when nothing is happening.”

Highlights and Interstices
By: Jack Gilbert (from The Great Fires)

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional
and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,
vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.
But the best is often when nothing is happening.
The way a mother picks up the child almost without
noticing and carries her across Waller Street
while talking with the other women. What if she
could keep all of that? Our lives happen between
the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual
breakfasts with Michiko*. What I miss most about
her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

*Michiko Nogami was Jack Gilbert’s late wife.

That image in the middle of the eleven-line poem about “the way” a mother grabs her child’s hand without noticing is critical to this poem. Since the mother keeps talking to her friend, I sense that the mother grabbed the child’s hand without much thought. Some might criticize this action saying we should celebrate everything and not take such a moment for granted. One, that’s not possible. But two, this poem suggests there is a beauty in the overlooked common parts of life. A comfort. A wealth.

I also would like to point out how effective these line breaks are—especially near the poem’s end. As James Longenbach explains in The Art of the Poetic Line, a poet has three choices for how to break a line. A line can be:
Annotated: which means the line cuts against the grammatical moments.
Parsed: which generally follows the normative terms of the syntax.
End-stopped: which means, as it sounds, a period placed at the end.
With Gilbert’s poem, he chooses to annotate in the last four lines which not only gives this poem a feeling like it is falling apart (this is an elegy after all), but also draws the eye to certain words critical to the poem’s content: “between” “habitual” and “remember.” Together, these words sum up the poem: I wish I could remember all the habitual moments, all the moments between the exceptional.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review of “What Blues?” by Adam O. Davis

As I mentioned in my past blog post, issue three of Grist just came out—and with that issue release, I am saying goodbye to a great three years with the journal. Joshua Robbins will be taking over as editor, and I know that this new journal will continue to flourish under his guidance. To celebrate the new issue, I wanted to highlight one of the poems in it.

What Blues?
By: Adam O. Davis

Horseflies hunt in the hockshop, heel
like hinges and rest like rust when dead.

They sting despite antidote, despite
aspirin, and give themselves so gladly

to every inevitable end. At this hour dust
is called for. Call it quick. The horseflies

have stung their last. In back, the blind
man’s saxophone is a sorry mess of brass

surrounded by a horoscope of household
appliances. Accordions resigned to the conspiracy

of cobwebs. Wedding rings and handguns,
comic books and collectible plates.

Dead horseflies, lucky horseshoes, defanged
hand grenades. How lost are the least of us?

In time, a bottle brings the blizzard. Ask after
an infirmary for the frostbitten. Ask another

three bars of brass, barely played in a place
where every mouth is a purse of smoke.

Someone asks for a kiss. The night
is a cash register that doesn’t know when to quit.

One of the many aspects I love about this poem is the deft use of accentual alliteration. English is an accentually structured language, so poems that make use of this sonic feature call out to us. I know many folks believe that English is “naturally” iambic, but iambic itself is from Latin and based on qualitative measures—which sonically is not a feature of English. This idea of iambic pentameter as being the most natural to English (I often hear the comparison to a heart beat) is a compromise of French syllabics and Old English accentual poetry. Our dear Chaucer is the one who popularized accentual-syllabic poetry.

The following is an excerpt I did with Adam about his work. This question in particular addresses the accentual form of this poem. You can find the full interview of Grist's Web site:

Charlotte Pence: One element to your work that caught my attention was the rhythm. Your poems use strong, stressed beats that add momentum to the poem. And the lines aren’t simply rhythmic but coupled with vivid images. “What Blues?” is a great example of this. The opening lines are: “Horseflies hunt in the hockshop, heel / like hinges and rest like rust when dead.” As I reread the poem, I realized it was in accentual alliterative form, which made me wonder; how often do you use received form? What is your poetry’s relationship with received form and open form?

Adam Davis: I’d say it’s a mixture of both. There are a series of separate narratives running through my manuscript belonging to several different characters, but one thing they share is an adherence to sound. I love the heightened musicality that poetry can offer, particularly when it’s unexpected. Most, if not all, of my work is in free verse, but there are moments of unexpected rhyme and a predominantly musical drive to the poems. I know the lines are working when I can recall them as soon as they’ve been written.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review of “Helen of Troy” by Charlotte Pence

Each year our graduate department gives awards for fiction and poetry, and this year I placed first in poetry for this poem “Helen of Troy.” All the award winners are reading this Monday night at 7:00 in the University of Tennessee auditorium. These readings are always stellar, and this year should be no different judging from my compatriots who will also be reading. The reading includes: Josh Robbins (second place--poetry), Darren Jackson (third place--poetry), and in fiction we have my fiancĂ© Adam Prince placing first, with Turning Bowling (second place) and Matthew Duffus (third place).

This is an older poem of mine that serves as the sphragis to my chapbook Last Night. Sphragis is from ancient Greek and literally means a seal placed on books. I view the contemporary sphragis as that opening poem that conveys the book’s subject and tone; the poem is also placed before the sections such as with “Temper” from Beth Bachmann’s book Temper.

This poem is one that I wrote, published, “finished,” and then two years later as I was driving a new ending came to me. Subsequently, the new ending required a whole new re-working of the poem such as changing the point of view. (I first wrote it from the point of view of Helen.) I was not working on any conscious level on this poem, but a part of me knew it was not right. Now, let me be clear. I don’t believe in easy poofs to write a poem, but for this one in particular it was an odd mix of editing, editing, editing—and letting go.

Also, the reading on Monday night will be the release of issue three of Grist (the journal I edit). We’ll have copies on sale and unveil the new look of the journal. And the writers in this issue are excellent—more on all of this in the next blog. For now, here is my poem.


By Charlotte Pence (Published in New Millennium Writings)

The Trojans kept Helen for twelve years,

winning at least a little while.

So often we focus on the loss

rather than the years of attainment.

But any love that matters will one day

be taken for granted. Last night,

lying down to sleep next to you

on wrinkled sheets, warm where

the dog curled, cold by our feet,

I realized as your hand grazed my thigh

you hadn’t touched me all day.

Each morning when I wake I understand

you’re like an eagle scanning the next ridge.

The bed heaves as you rise first,

your steps hard, stiff, while the erupting

sky behind you eases from gravel gray

to blue. You don’t glance back

at the soft curve of my body,

not yet rigid with the day’s to-dos.

What you do is place cereal and fruit

in a bowl, then call my name.

The milk cold. The peach sliced.

Without motive or need

we sleep, eat, read, breathe together,

you running a hand under my shirt

whenever you want. But I was talking

about Helen, about how she loved

as she wished at least once, willing

to witness the loss of a world for it.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Review of ''Survival Tips for a Parallel Universe, Part One" by Tim Lockridge

Survival Tips for a Parallel Universe, Part One

By: Tim Lockridge

(From the Latest Issue of Mid-American Review, Vol. XXIX, No. 2)

You wake in a field and you know

the feel of this field, the soft glance

of grass against your cheek

like a wineglass or sweater saying

yes, we’ve met, remember, it was

years ago and there were arms

and arms not yours and in them you

slept and woke to an empty blue

where the moon was and the smell

of apples hung between the blades.

And above you a single crow lights

the morning and you wonder: Is that

my soul? Is that the wind-struck

part of me? But then you see

your hands are not hands, just

gears and pulleys bound in some

intricate mess of metal. And you

lift your new arms and say, “This

is not my century, this is not the sky

I slept to.” But there is nothing near,

save the air humming wild through

the long grass and the field quiet,

just the earth waiting for a whir,

a tiny gasp that means nothing at all.

This poem just came out in the latest issue of Mid-American Review. When I first read it, I was struck by the vision of this parallel universe. It’s an imaginative poem—a break from the talk-show-tell-all type of poems. Lockridge’s poem not only presents us with something outside the conventional, but it’s done so well. We have this “you” in the poem who is constantly straddling two worlds: the one known and the one not known: “You wake in a field and you know / the feel of this field, the soft glance / of a grass….” But ultimately the “you” does not know this field because this is a new world. The “you” attempts to learn the new world through association and metaphor, which is how much of learning takes place.

One aspect to this poem that I also appreciate is how effectively the stanza breaks are used. They hold a syntactical and semantical logic to their breaks. In total, we have eight stanzas. Most of these stanza breaks occur right as the speaker dares to suggest an answer, but what follows is another statement that negates such a dare into certainty. The two clearest examples of this are between stanzas two and three and between stanzas five and six. For example, “There were arms // and arms not yours….” As soon as the “you” can claim there are arms, another thought negates the confidence of such a claim: those “arms are not yours.”

One choice about this poem, however, that does give me pause is how poet-pretty the language is. I mean, we have fields where a “single crow lights the morning” and all of this is coupled with air that smells of apples and is an “empty blue.” Don’t get me wrong: I love this type of language. But I have grown suspicious of this type of language because I see it used so often. It is bordering on the over-used which will soon become the next sentimental (if it hasn’t already). Give me some grit, some urine, something other than poets describing nature in the prettiest of terms. In other words, give me something I haven’t seen before in a poem. For the most part, this poem does do that with its other choices of subject, strong rhythms, and tight structure. I look forward to reading more from Lockridge.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Review of “Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See But You Can Still Feel"--1 and 2.

In C.D. Wright’s latest book that I’ve blogged about before, she does something quite interesting. She repeats large portions of her poems. In the second occurrence of the poem “Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See but You Can Still Feel (1),” most of the lines are exact replicas. When my friend and fellow poet Darren Jackson pointed this out to me, I was surprised. I had already read the book a few times and didn’t notice the repetition. I heard echoes, but it wasn’t until I took his advice and tracked the changes that I saw what she was doing. I’m providing both poems here—and I do consider these two poems. I marked the changes in bold.

Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See but You Can Still Feel (1)
By C.D. Wright from Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)

*Note: Many of these stanzas are one-line stanzas. The stanzas with two lines have a space and a half between them, giving the lines a sense of isolation that echoes the tonal isolation.

As if it were streaming into your ear.

The edges of a room long vanished.

She is not really hearing what he’s really saying.

The shine is going out of the ground
but they are sure of their footing.

It’s not that they have been here before, but
they are young and they have water.

There are masses of rose hips and they are noisy.

The forward direction requires almost no effort.

Consonant with this feeling of harmony
comes another, less comfortable.

Not of being lost but of not belonging.

Yet they were not covering the air
with false words.

They moved along without talking,
not touching.

They wore their own smell.

She tastes salt and they must be getting closer.

Others are out there who are drifting.

If this took place anywhere near the presidential palace

It would be nonstop terrifying.

And this could be the reason she has started to scream.

Like Having a Light at Your Back You Can’t See but You can Still Feel (2)
By C.D. Wright from Rising, Falling, Hovering (Copper Canyon Press, 2008)

As if it were streaming into your ear.

The edges of a room long vanished.

She is not really hearing what he’s really saying.

The shine is going out of the ground
but they are sure of their footing.

They have been here a thousand and one times.

It’s not that they have been here before, but
they are young and they have water.

There are masses of rose hips and they are noisy.

The forward direction requires almost no effort.

Consonant with this feeling of harmony
comes another, less comfortable.

Not of being lost but of not belonging.

Yet they were not covering the space
with false words.

They moved along without talking,
not touching.

They wore their own smell. The air was salty.

[She tastes salt and they must be getting closer.] *Deleted line.

Others were out there who are drifting.

[If this took place anywhere near the presidential palace

It would be nonstop terrifying.

And this could be the reason she has started to scream.] *Deleted lines. ***All new material begins here.

It is a bay in New England
closed to a shellfishing after heavy rains.

The house is not far from here. Next to the old
burial ground.

Most nights aren’t dark enough to see stars.

If a bad movie, a bad movie. If a bad meal,
a bad meal. If bad wine, bad wine.

They read. And go to bed early. He puts on an eyemask.

She wants a light on. She wants to read.

No, he says. Turn it off.

Let me finish the chapter.

Turn it off, C.

The page then, she says. You have your mask on.

I can still feel it, he says. I can feel it

streaming in my ear. Besides,

he is adamant,

you just go to sleep at night

I go on a journey.

What is a reader to make of repeating portions of a poem? In “(2),” Wright provides nineteen entirely new lines, repeats eighteen lines with slight modifications in three of those lines, and deletes one line entirely, leaving us with a 50/50 split of new to old. This reflects how much of this book functions in terms of these interlocking cycles. One, each character is somehow linked to the other either through global trade, war, cause and effect, and/or relationships. That is one cycle. But also the events cycle, too, such as the repeated lies from the government. To compound and emphasize these cycles, phrases are repeated throughout the book, one being el otro lado. And clearly, portions of poems are repeated, too.

My first thought when I realized she succeeded in repeating not one, but two poems was, “She got away with it. Well done.” I can rattle off hundreds of collections where this repetition would be dull at best, lazy at worst. But here, it works. It works partly because with the additions I feel like I have moved to a new place. In “(1),” I’m not entirely sure where I am. Perhaps the reader is a witness to a couple crossing the border illegally? Maybe not. In “(2),” Wright directs us to New England, specifically a couple’s bedroom. (The presidential Palace line has been cut, which references Mexico in the first poem.) This change refreshes the poem and emphasizes the simultaneous sense of connectivity and isolation that occurs throughout the book.

The repetition also works because Wright emphasizes that time has passed between these two poems. One, they are placed far apart in the book, one on page 4, the other on page 71. And the slightly modified lines cue us in to this. For example, “She tastes salt” has been changed to “the air was salty,” which not only designates past tense, but also obscures the person. And “are” in line nineteen changes to “were”. These two subtle tense changes allow the poem to expand and take on more cargo.

As in the first version of the poem, Wright is consistent with how she forms her stanzas and line breaks—even down to the exception. In both poems, except for the final lines, if the line is end-stopped, a new stanza begins. If enjambed, (which here is parsed at a natural break in speech), the line becomes a two-line stanza. But in both poems, the final lines break this pattern ending with all one-line stanzas no matter if they are end-stopped lines or not. The effect of this is a pounding home of this sense of isolation coupled with unity. People in these poems are together, yet the feeling is one of distance and isolation which the white space on the page alludes to. All of that is to say the reason why this repetition works for me is that it emphasizes the thematic concerns of the book.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Review of '“… White of Forgetfulness, White of Safety”' by Robert Hass

I’m preparing for my final doctoral exam (big yippee-yay there) which is this week, and I have been looking for poems that not only feature free-associating narrators, but passionate ones as well. (In what I read at least, I find more speakers who embrace confusion than who embrace outright joy.) Here’s a Robert Hass poem that some don’t like because they feel the associations flit by too quickly, but I find that all the images are connected to an impassioned speaker.

“… White of Forgetfulness, White of Safety”

by Robert Hass from Time and Materials

My mother was burning in a closet.

Creek water wrinkling over stones.

Sister Damien, in fifth grade, loved teaching mathematics.

Her full white sleeve, when she wrote on the board,

Swayed like the slow movement of a hunting bird,

Egret in the tidal flats,

Swam paddling in a pond.

Let A equal the distance between x and y.

The doves in the desert,

Their cinnamon coverts when they flew.

People made arguments. They had reasons for their appetites.

A child could see it wasn’t true.

In the picture of the Last Supper on the classroom wall,

All the apostles had beautiful pastel robes,

Each one the color of a flavor of sherbet.

A line is the distance between two points.

A point is indivisible.

Not a statement of fact; a definition.

It took you a second to understand the difference,

And then you loved it, loved reason,

Moving as a swan moves in a mill stream.

I would not have betrayed the Lord

Before the cock crowed thrice,

But I was a child, what could I do

When they came for him?

Ticking heat, the scent of sage,

Of pennyroyal. The structure of every living thing

Was praying for rain.

The first three stanzas can appear disconnected on first read. Why are we moving from a mother burning in a closet, to creek water, and then to Sister Damien teaching mathematics? It all comes together when the speaker says that he had an epiphany in math class about how a point is not divisible. “Not a statement of fact; a definition. // It look you a second to understand the difference, / and then you loved it, loved reason…”

Here is the passion; Hass is explicitly saying that he loved something. No confusion, no evasion, outright: “And then you loved it.”

Fine, you might say. The speaker loves learning. But what are these first two stanzas doing? What’s the connection? Hass has taken away explicit transitions and simply makes the leaps without transitioning for us. For example, the speaker never delineates who is speaking or where we are; we simply move to a memory and then to image such as the line “Let A equal” where we have Sister Damien teaching math and the speaker then imagining “the doves in the desert.” All of this is free association, but also relates to how Hass considers image.

He writes that image for him is the “sensation of clarity and sensation of perceiving it.” In other words, an image is not only showing us a moment of clarity, but the moment when we receive that clarity. And I would add that when you first understand something, there is a sense of absence. Think of an impressionistic painting and the lines that distinguish water lily from water. If you try to pinpoint that place where the two separate, you will touch nothing—not the water nor the lily. Simply color. And I suppose that is what I mean by absence here. This sense of absence informs the stanzas as they move from one to the next without explicit transitions made for us.

This is a poem about “sensation of clarity and sensation of perceiving it,” and around those moments, we have an absence designated by the white space on the page. Well, now I fear I just offered a very overwrought reading. Let me simply say that clearly what we do have is an impassioned speaker who shares with us moments of insight. What precedes and follows are images associated with these moments of quiet epiphany presented without transitions—which is often the way epiphanies arrive.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Review of "Cloud" by Kay Ryan

Kay Ryan, current U.S. Poet Laureate, is reading at my university next week. Known for her short lines (rarely no more than four words), slant and perfect rhymes that startle in a similar manner to an unexpected image, and avoidance of first-person, she is a poet who sets trends instead of following them. Here’s a new poem just published in this month’s issue of Poetry. (When doesn’t Kay Ryan have a poem in Poetry though?)

Cloud by Kay Ryan

A blue stain

creeps across

the deep pile

of the evergreens.

From inside the

forest it seems

like an interior

matter, something

wholly to do

with trees, a color

passed from one

to another, a


to which they

submit unflinchingly

like soldiers or

brave people

getting older.

Then the sun

comes back and

it’s totally over.

What we see here is fairly typical of Ryan’s work: compression, lasered focus, and an impressive ability to take on cargo in such a small amount of space. (This idea of cargo—what some might call a deepening—is something I think Jack Gilbert does better than anyone, but that will be another blog). In this poem, the deepening for me occurs with the lines “brave people / getting older.” Once I read that simile about aging, the description of the cloud takes on greater depth. In fact, this simile informs the entire poem as I re-read and associate the idea of aging to many other lines: “passed from one / to another;” “a requirement / to which they / submit unflinchingly;” “it seems like an interior matter;” and of course the ending line of “it’s totally over.” I think I just quoted the entire poem—which is my point. Nothing is wasted here. Nothing is ever wasted with her. Here is another example of a poem that takes on cargo.

The Niagara River

(from Kay Ryan’s collection The Niagara River)

As though

the river were

a floor, we position

our table and chairs

upon it, eat, and

have conversation.

As it moves along,

we notice—as

calmly as though

dining room paintings

were being replaced—

the changing scenes

along the shore. We

do know, we do

know this is the

Niagara River but

it is hard to remember

what that means.

This is one of my favorite poems by Kay Ryan. Sometimes short poems are like the quiet kid reading in the corner of your classroom. You are aware of the kid’s presence, but you can’t say exactly what he’s doing. With all the other loud demands, the quiet ones can get overlooked. “The Niagara River,” however, does not allow this. It’s eerie from the beginning with its factual set-up of a group dining on a boat but delivered in a way that makes this everyday experience sound surreal. And then we have the repetition of “we do know,” and the longing of the “o” sounds that surround like an incantation. But the repentant incantation does not end with a clear epiphany—which is part of this poem’s power. What does the group know? Well, that’s not explicitly stated which becomes part of the poem’s tension. What we are left with is a sense of struggle.

I would like to make a second (and third) link between Kay Ryan and Jack Gilbert’s work. One link is tone—which is not devoid of emotion, but distanced to allow for clarity and insight. And this is important because often what Gilbert and Ryan discuss are emotions, yet these emotions are latched onto a specific object, moment, place, or image.

Also, Kay Ryan’s poems often move in a similar way to Jack Gilbert’s poems. These two poets will often use the rhetorical movements of a sonnet. We will have the introduction of the problem/issue, followed by the complication, sometimes another complication, and a turn that happens off the page that then allows for the conclusion. Let me divide up “The Niagara River” to show this:

{As though

the river were

a floor, we position

our table and chairs

upon it, eat, and

have conversation.} .......INTRODUCTION OF ISSUE

{As it moves along,

we notice—as

calmly as though

dining room paintings

were being replaced—

the changing scenes

along the shore.} {We ......COMPLICATION

do know, we do

know this is the

Niagara River} {but} ......MORE COMPLICATION followed by TURN

{it is hard to remember

what that means.} .............CONCLUSION

Two other great links that describe her background and her craft include: