The Simple and the Sublime in “Ice Storm” by Robert Hayden

Read “Ice Storm” here.

Robert Hayden’s posthumous collection American Journal is filled with secret pains and guilts, remembrances, and tributes as Hayden reflects on his life and builds a collection which ultimately interrogates life itself, death, spirit, God, and the dubious possibility of continuance after death.

I think the framing of this book is supported by some of the larger, more epic or elegiac poems such as “Elegies for Paradise Valley,” “Boneflower Elegy,” and “[American Journal].” Poems between these pillars are like the foliage, the life-giving green, and I found “Ice Storm” to be one such, powerful in its carefully crafted simplicity.

“Ice Storm” is deceivingly simple—there’s not much there on the page, and what is there is mainly in plain, Germanic language. But the shortness of the words, paired with the lyric structure and reined-in form, creates poem not soon forgotten.

An average conversation in English will yield at least 1.5 syllables per word. “Ice Storm” has just 62 words, comprised of 83 syllables, or 1.33 syllables per word. The diction here is not flowery, Latinate, nor academic—not at all what one might think of as “poetic language.” In fact, it is even less florid than the average conversational diction would be. What this means is that Hayden didn’t pick simple words because they were what first came to mind; he deliberately simplified his language as much as he possibly could. This sparseness mirrors the sparse imagery in the poem: the moon and winter trees, the ice and snow. The landscape is bare. So is the language. This parallel wouldn’t necessarily be noted just in a first reading of the poem, but it is felt as an emptiness, perhaps tinged with despair, and creates a vivid tone.

In the final stanza, the first two lines have a higher syllable-per-word count, which serves to build some energy before the epiphanic and lyric last two lines, which contain almost entirely one-syllable words and releases the energy in a final prayer. This prayer takes on greater significance considering the first lines, “Unable to sleep, or pray, I stand / by the window looking out.” Only after seeing the ice storm can the speaker find prayer:

The trees themselves, as in winters past,
will survive their burdening,
broken thrive. And am I less to You,
my God, than they?

Only here in the last two lines are we removed from imagery into the speaker’s mind. As in many great image-rich poems, this final, ungrounded, and rather metaphysical pondering is only able to engage the reader because of the great image-building done throughout the rest of the poem. I think here of the ubiquitous “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” by James Wright, which employs the same technique. Only a poet with meticulous craft can pull off this type of lyric poem without sounding moralistic or proselytizing.

An additional strategy Hayden uses in this poem is adherence to form. Although the poem is free verse, each stanza follows a pattern of syllables: lines one and three are long (seven to nine syllables), line two is slightly shorter (six to seven syllables), and line four is about half the length of lines one through three (two syllables). The shorter final lines create a jagged, ungrounded sense to the poem, and unfinished-ness which references the speaker’s unease. Death is an unknown, God is silent but for the ice on trees. The speaker hopes for salvation, hopes to “thrive” as do the trees, but the hope goes unanswered.

Yet, at the same time, I hear in the poem a parallel to the biblical parable of the lilies of the field in which Jesus asks his listeners to consider how God cares for the flowers: “Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30). Perhaps these two questions echo through each other into eternity, the perpetual interplay between faith and mortality.

Hayden, Robert. “Ice Storm.” Collected Poems, Liverlight Publishing Corporation, 1996, p.175.

A Study in Disappointment: “George Washington; The Whole Man” by Diane Wakoski

Read “George Washington; The Whole Man” here.

Who is the George Washington that Diane Wakoski presents to us through The George Washington poems? He seems a shapeshifter, a metaphor for many things: old lovers, her father, capitalism, the United States. But he is also himself, a version of himself, the man we Americans love through legends, and the man we revile for the ways he betrayed us. The final poem in the collection seems to be an encompassing of all that has transpired; titled “The Whole Man,” we see Washington as prism, four aspects parsed through four poem sections.

The poem begins with an introductory stanza, which seems to foreshadow each section of the poem. The first and last line speak of “disappointment,” the speaker’s ultimate feelings toward Washington. This disappointment comes, she writes, “through the hope of communication / and follows the lack of it” (section I); from her hope that Washington “would live up to my idea / of the great man” (section II); and “without heartbreak or the / malfunctioning of body and brain” (section III). Section IV seems to be a remedy to this disappointment, or a wish to rewrite what has been so much less than what was hoped.

Section I is titled “Reticence” and is rife with both loss and silence. At Mt. Vernon, Washington’s trees are lost to blight, his imported pheasants ail, and his deer eat new saplings. Washington seems unable to communicate with his land, even as he refuses to communicate with the poem’s speaker: “your aristocratic lands were / tight-lipped / (much as you are)”; “You learned silence”; “you closed your mouth silently.” Toward the end of the section, Washington finally speaks, but even here the speaker is sorely disappointed:

We talked of each plant in detail
and yet you never told me 
about yourself.

The emphasis given to these words, the one- or two-word lines, underscore the loss here. What could have been, if only Washington had been more open? Ultimately, Washington fails, both with his land and with relationships: “The reticence of a man / who had / never learned to talk.”

In section II, “The Classical Code,” Washington is buttoned up, dull, stiff, even boring, as he attempts to embody the classical. The rules of this code necessitate complete conformity and renunciation of enjoyment: “cut out all curves / and melodies / all close connections / and off-beat poses / …be sparing about my sex life.” The speaker is unable to conform in such a way. Wakoski writes, “My life is definitely not one long bicycle ride / or one long / anything else.” The speaker is certainly disappointed here, but she is also angry, and even amused by George’s absurd curtailment of enjoyment in his life. Within his adherence to these rules, Washington becomes subsumed. “George, you did all the right things, / but you hardly seemed alive.”

Wakoski attempts to create an emotional connection in section III, “Pathos,” but seems unable to do so when speaking of the “real” Washington of the previous section. Instead, Wakoski enters the speaker’s dreamscape. Washington is disappointed in his attempts to win his early love interest, Betsy Fauntleroy, who, being “a belle, did not like his manners.” In the speaker’s dream, Washington gifts Fauntleroy with “18 lizards in their glass box / hardly calculated to win the embroidered heart of Betsy Fauntleroy.” But also, we see that Washington is dear to the speaker: “your historical hands / that should sign great documents move over my body, / into my brain” and “your life / touched me in a way I respond to no one else.” These sentiments seem at odds with the opening stanza’s claim that the disappointment “comes without heartbreak or the / malfunctioning of body and brain.” Could it be that the only Washington who can touch the heart and brain of the speaker is the dreamed-up Washington, the disappointed lover, this “George of many / perceptions,” who is so different from the one we see in earlier sections?

And so, as the poem moves into the fourth and final section, “Triumph,” Wakoski abandons the Washington of Mt. Vernon and the classical code, and rests inside a dream of Washington, a rewritten figure, “transforming” his “cold life” into one of sun and gold, heart and passion:

George, you dreamed the sun sucked out your heart
infusing itself with red as it set.
the bony moon coming out of the kitchen while sun fills your genitals
and begs someone other than Martha to give you one last embrace.

Wakoski writes, “How often we ought to rewrite history.” It is only in the rewriting that Wakoski can discover triumph rather than disappointment. In dream, “In triumph we see the great man covered with gold.” Wakoski ends here, in the false—ends not only the poem but the entire collection. Is this an effort to reinfuse hope, or is it sadder to end in this fool’s gold, after the lackluster Washington has failed writer, speaker, and reader so thoroughly? Even the title rings false as we have searched Washington and found his life hollow, his only redemption in Wakoski’s—and maybe also our—revisionist tales.

Wakoski, Diane. “George Washington; The Whole Man.” The George Washington Poems, riverrun press, 1967, pp. 52-56.

Behind the Third Eye in “Fiddleheads” by Maureen Seaton

Read “Fiddleheads” here.

I love a poem that expands, like an upside-down funnel, from the minute detail of a single moment into the universal. It’s as if, in these poems, the poet realizes that the universe is contained within every image, if only one has the depth of sight to realize it. Maureen Seaton’s poem “Fiddleheads” has this sense of enlargement, but it’s also a tightly controlled poem which folds back on itself often, each image seeming disparate yet connected to something that came previous.

The poem progresses in a kind of three steps forward, one step back fashion, but each step creates not only distance on the page but a panning further back, including a larger swath of experience. For example, in the initial image, the speaker hears “tiny cries” coming from “hundreds of fiddlehead ferns boiling in an enormous pot” and considers “what an odd person” she is to hear the voices of vegetables. The speaker quickly moves to a new image of “a mouse curled behind my third eye,” but links this metaphorically  in several ways to the fern image: the mouse “furls like a fern” and “whimpers like a fern being boiled.” In turning from the mouse, Seaton pans out from the more immediate and tangible images of ferns and a mouse to DNA, then undertow, then planet earth and brain cells, and so on. Each image references a previous image, sometimes the one it directly follows and sometimes one several lines back in the poem. In this way, the poem jerks the reader forward and back through images, the mind building connections and sidetracks and dead-ends as it continues forward.

Along with the images are two pronouncements, which seem to be the core of the poem and which all resurface at somewhat regular intervals. The first is the idea of the speaker as odd, which shows up twice in the first quarter of the poem and then is reprised about four-fifths of the way through the poem: “there’s something odd, I thought, about someone whose imagination runs this wild.” Second is the poem’s addressee and the specific phrase used three times when addressing this person: “when you hurt me.” This phrase appears at the beginning of the poem and twice about two-thirds of the way through the poem. These two concepts, the speaker’s oddness and the hurt which the speaker is addressing, seem connected. As the poem moves out and out from image to image, the speaker seems to be searching for answers: why am I odd, and why did you hurt me? Did you hurt me because I am odd? Or perhaps even the question, is it because I’m odd that what you did hurt me? I can relate to these questions. I imagine many people, like me and this speaker, have a part of us that wonders if we are the true source of the hurt perpetrated against us. Sometimes it’s easier to believe that we are wrong than that we have been wronged by someone else. This poem seems to wrestle with such feelings.

Ultimately, the poem wants to abolish these questions by creating an existence where everything is interconnected, so individual differences become irrelevant. This is discussed in terms of the Earth as consciousness: “this planet Earth, is she alive and we’re her brain cells, / each one flickering, going out, coming back to life?” And the ending of the poem returns to the individual as simply one brain cell, the Earth as one whole being: “I can do this, I say, / and the planet shifts imperceptibly. From a great distance, she appears to be at peace.” The individual cells are in turmoil from day to day, but the whole creature seems well and peaceful when viewed from farther out.

Not only is this enlargement a way for the speaker to create something bigger than herself to put her pain in perspective, but she also creates a sympathetic sufferer. In the third line, the speaker says, “…when you hurt me, I curled like a mouse behind my third eye.” And here, at the end of the poem, the speaker is to the earth what that mouse is to the speaker: a small, internal part, an acute pain not visible for someone looking at the whole being.

The space behind her third eye is where the speaker’s pain resides and also from where all the questions seem to bloom, keeping her separate from others, and sweeping her away seemingly without her consent. Seaton writes, “ Think of…the way a sudden wave can drag a child under…her / siblings farther away and more powerless than she ever imagined, the pure and ecstatic / irreversibility of undertow.” Later, the ocean returns:

…When you hurt me, I evolved like a backboned sea creature, translucent
nervous system sparking along in the meanest deep where I was small enough not to care
my passions ran to swimming, gulping, spitting bubbles back into new oceans.

Here, the speaker is again out of control of her rambling thoughts and back in a loneliness reminiscent of one from her childhood. The childlike state of her mind saves her, though, from feeling too bad about this—she’s “small enough not to care.”

But small as she is and in this deep place, she is not seen, and her pain is not seen. In her aloneness, she wonders if the pain is really her own doing, that the “you” of the poem is not to blame as much as her own oddness is. Yet the poem doesn’t read as if the speaker is giving in to despair. It’s a playful poem, one in which many questions are raised and many synapses connected but which also lands on acceptance. The Earth cares for each small part we humans play, sending “Winter and red-tailed hawks when we least expect them,” nourishing the speaker into her resolve: “I can do this.” And it is in this same way that I imagine the speaker cares for her poor mouse, trapped and hurt within her.

Seaton, Maureen. “Fiddleheads.” Little Ice Age, Contemporary Classics Poetry Series, 2001, pp. 25-26.

Questions Without Answers In “Is It True?” By Anne Sexton

Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Toward God is obsessive in that best of ways which all the best poetry is. Every poem contributes to the theme of the book, which creates an extremely satisfying whole. But calling this book “satisfying” may be misleading: it’s a book of hungers and questions. In the middle of the book is Sexton’s long poem “Is It True?” This poem is strategically placed as a centerpiece for the manuscript, illumining the central questions and themes of the book. A closer look at this poem is a good way to get a sense of Sexton’s big questions and feelings on this most existential question which the book poses: Is there a God? How can we know?

“Is It True?” is rife with repetitions. The poem swirls and circles. It moves us in and out of questions which never resolve, which is just how uncertainty presents itself in life. Sexton captures exactly how an existential crisis feels: the worry that we are not good enough, the search in every part of life for an answer that feels satisfying, the return again and again to that same question: “Is it true?”

The words “is it true” are repeated thirteen times in the poem. All but once Sexton creates couplets of “Is it true? / Is it true?” Every time the speaker seems to be approaching understanding of a sort, this refrain echoes. Interestingly, a little over halfway through the poem Sexton has these lines which break the refrain:

If religion were a dream, someone said,
then it were still a dream worth dreaming.
True! True!
I whisper to my wood walls.

Sexton’s speaker searches everywhere for answers and the only one she seems sure of is that the search is worth it, even if the answers continue to elude.

Sexton repeats phrases within a stanza in ways that reference mantra, liturgy, or religious text. Three times she includes sections of blessing; first, blessing women’s rights; second, blessing “all useful objects”; and third, blessing animals and plants. Additional sections that feel like sacred texts include the repetition of the Hare Krishna mantra, a section of praise (“Let me now praise / the male of our species”), and the following intriguing section which reads like a prophesy:

In heaven,
there will be a secret door,
there will be flowers with eyes that wink,
there will be light flowing from a bronze bell
there will be as much love as there
are cunners off the coast of Maine,
there will be gold that no one hides
from the Nazis,
there will be statues that the angel
inside of Michelangelo’s hand fashioned.
I will lay open my soul
and hear an answer.

The answer which follows I’ll examine later; for now, I am interested in how this section moves from enigmatic to specific. The first five of these lines could be pulled from the Bible or another religious text—maybe Hindu scriptures. Then, Sexton gets specific: “Maine” and “Nazis” put us firmly in the modern era and the new world. The prophet here is transformed from sacred mystery to something tangible and possible in contemporary times.

Sexton creates motifs which, in their insistence, begin to feel obsessive. One major theme in this poem is hunger and eating. In fact, the prophetic section quoted above concludes,

I will lay open my soul
and hear an answer.
Hello. Hello. It will call back,
“Here’s a butter knife,” it will say.
“So scrape off your hunger and the mud.”

Before this prophesy, Sexton has mentioned hunger, eating, or food at least five times. A notable example is when the speaker is asked “Whose God are you looking for?” and responds, “a starving man doesn’t ask what the meal is.” The idea returns another five or more times. “Eggs” specifically are mentioned three times, and “butter” is mentioned twice. The first mention of butter is above; it returns in the poem’s denouement:

Maybe I’m dead now
and have found him.
Maybe my evil body is done with.
For I look up,
and in a blaze of butter is
soiled with my tears,
a lamb that has been slain

The repeated “maybe” keeps the conclusion from holding the satisfaction of an unequivocal answer, but Sexton allow here for the possibility that the hunger—for answers, for something to truly fill the soul and body—is sated in Christ as meal, of sorts.

I must backtrack here to explain another motif throughout, a countermelody to the hunger and the blessings/praises: the body as evil and poisoned. Early in the poem, Sexton relays a conversation the speaker has with a priest about how she is evil. The priest doesn’t understand at first: “Do you mean sin? he asks,” and the speaker says, “What I mean is evil, / (not meaning to be, you understand, / just something I ate).” While the speaker is hungering after God, she seems also to be filled with evil. At other points, the evil is refenced as the devil, who “has crawled / in and out of me” and as shit, which “was poison / and the poison was all of me.” Just as the speaker longs to be filled with goodness, she feels filled with evil. This tension heightens the need for answers:

Because to one, shit is a feeder of plants,
to another the evil that permeates them
So much for language.
So much for psychology.
God lives in shit – I have been told.
I believe both.
Is it true?
Is it true?

Again here, all that can be repeated is the deepest question of the soul, “Is it true?” The tension between these differing viewpoints remains unresolved, leaving room for subjective truths.

Sexton ends this poem by returning to the book’s motif: the rowing of a boat upon the sea toward, as she calls it in the book’s final poem, “the island called God.” Here are the final lines of “Is It True?”:

a lamb that has been slain,
his guts drooping like a sea worm,
but who lives on, lives on
like the wings of an Atlantic seagull.
Though he has stopped flying,
the wings go on flapping
despite it all,
despite it all.

If the speaker is upon the sea rowing, and God is the island, Jesus becomes here a third party, one who was blessed to be able to fly above the sea and island, separate. From his vantage, perhaps he knew the answers. But he also fell, was slain, became a meal for the speaker. Jesus, though, is not yet dead. Something continues to beat. And the book goes on, and the rowing goes on, and the questions remain unanswered in the poem, as they are in life.

Sexton, Anne. “Is It True?” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 48-57.

Sexton, Anne. “The Rowing Endeth.” The Awful Rowing Toward God, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1975, pp. 85-86.

Leave the Red Rags Behind: Miroslav Holub’s poem “Bullfight”

Read “Bullfight” here.

Czech poet Miroslav Holub was, by his own admission, a scientist first and a poet second. Perhaps what this means is that his poetry couldn’t exist without his work as a scientist, which I can understand. Our obsessions are what drive our poetry; if Holub were to deny his obsession, his poetry would serve no purpose. I’m not familiar with Holub’s work as a whole, but I recently came across his poem “Bullfight” in the anthology The Rattle Bag, and was drawn to the stark language and simple but effective use of sentence structure.

It isn’t surprising to me that such a poem was written by a man who considers himself a scientist first. There is a kind of distance to the language, and a cleanness. It’s not flowery or sentimental; it’s image-driven, which is what gives it its power. Here are a few lines of the narrative center of this poem:

Red blood spurts between the shoulder-blades.
Chest about to split,
tongue stuck out to the roots.
Hooves stamp of their own accord.

Red is of course an obvious choice for the mood Holub is setting in this poem, and it appears four times. First, “Red flags flutter,” then the above line, then “the red rags,” and towards the end of the poem, “the black-and-red bull.” Two allusions to the matador’s cape, two to the blood of the bull. Holub draws an easy parallel here between human violence and animal suffering—the core of the bullfight. Also note the three latter lines above. Each is pared down, the language simple and straightforward. Holub isn’t evoking emotion through deep detail but rather through stark image. There’s no gauzy poeticism, just the body of the bull in its animal nature. Plain, honest.

One of the most striking aspects of this poem for me was Holub’s use of parallelism and repetition to quickly create setting and emotion. As mentioned above, the first two uses of “red,” set four lines apart, are parallel in structure, but the stronger examples come in three places in the poem: the opening, the climax, and the closing. Here’s the opening:

 Someone runs about,
 someone scents the wind,
 someone stomps the ground, but it’s hard. 

These lines set up a couple feelings for me. First, the repetition of “someone” gives me a sense of confusion; who are these someones? The speaker can’t seem to parse one from another, can’t fully process the scene clearly. Second, I get a sense of animal immediacy. The following parallel verbs—“runs,” “scents,” “stomps”—are all very animal words, full of physicality. Pairing such words alongside “someone” makes for images that could be describing the bull as easily as the matador, picador, and bandoleros.

The second use of parallel sentence structure comes at the high point of the poem. The bull is severely injured but not yet fatally wounded. But all the players have been named and are deep in the action, the final blow soon to fall. Holub writes:

 And then someone (blood-spattered, all in)
 stops and shouts:
 Let’s go, quit it,
 let’s go, quit it,
 let’s go over across the river and into the trees
 let’s go across the river and into the trees,
 let’s leave the red rags behind,
 let’s go some other place, 

The more times “let’s go” is repeated, the more I feel the desperation of this “someone.” There is no real possibility that killing will be avoided now. And the desperate repetition is more effective in meting out panic than further description of the violence could be.

The second-to-last stanza includes the repetition of the phrase “and be dragged away” three times. Because parallel structure has been set up as a norm within the poem, this repetition doesn’t come off as overdone but adds a final push to the last scene. We end not with any of the human elements but within the mind of the bull himself, who will “fall” and “be dragged away”

 without grasping the way of the world,
 without having grasped the way of the world,
 before he has grasped the way of the world. 

The final repetition is parallel, yet not perfectly so, the tense shifting from present, to present perfect, to present continuous. “Continuous” seems a good word for this final tense; the bull remains not quite killed, and not understanding, ad infinitum. Both the repetition and the changing tense aid this final image: repetition by creating a cyclical, never-ending feel to the event, and changing tense by creating a sense of always getting closer to, but never reaching, understanding and/or the release of death.

Holub, Miroslav, “Bullfight.” The Rattle Bag, edited by Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, pp. 90-91.

What right, for art? A look at “The Last Class” by Ellen Bryant Voigt

Read “The Last Class” here.

Why do poets write poems? I wonder if this question is asked most often by the poets themselves. We spend our days shut away with our own words, filing the edges, hoping what we hone down will become a pure crystal of meaning, a distillation of truth. But the more time we spend with our words, the more we begin to doubt that what we have created holds meaning anymore. Have we, by pruning the boxwood of our words into a perfect sphere, or a flamingo, or any other arbitrary shape of our art, created something more meaningful than the natural chaos of the original shape?

These are the questions Ellen Bryant Voight’s poem “The Last Class” evoke for me. For her, the dilemma is taken a step further: she’s not just writing poetry; she’s teaching it. She is standing in front of young people and saying with authority, “Here—this is how you write a poem,” which is, of course, an impossible task. Richard Hugo wrote that he often started a poetry class by saying, “You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you.” Does the teacher of poetry eventually start to believe what they are teaching is also wrong for themselves?

Voigt starts “The Last Class” as if she were teaching: “Put this in your notebooks: / All verse is occasional verse.” A risky couple of lines to begin a poem. It’s almost like putting the moral of the fable at the beginning—a didactic setup, not what we think of as the start to a lyric poem. But that’s the point: she is bringing didacticism to the forefront right away to prove its weakness as a method for teaching or writing a poem. She wants readers to enter this poem with skepticism because that’s what she’s feeling, too.

The rest of the first stanza sets up a scene for us—one which seemed, in the experience of it, to be an opportunity for a poem. She is in a Greyhound station, and she encounters a drunk man who is bothering a woman. She doesn’t intervene, but we get the idea that Voigt is disturbed by something about the encounter. She describes her mood as “distracted / and impatient.” The stanza concludes:

 A poem depends on its detail
 but the woman had her back to me,
 and the man was just another drunk,
 black in this case, familiar, dirty.
 I moved past them both, got on the bus. 

The speaker seems to feel she missed the opportunity, in her hurry, to see anything that might set this scene apart from all such scenes of mild public disturbance. And there are many questions: what was the woman feeling? Hard to know since she had her back to the speaker. If the man is “just another drunk,” why bother writing about him?

In the second stanza, Voigt considers the process of writing a poem about this scene. I love how layered this poem feels: a poem about a time when Voigt interrogated her motives and process for writing poetry, set within a framework of teaching the process of writing a poem. She writes, “The man is not a symbol. If what he said to her / touches us, we are touched by a narrative / we supply.” Voigt supplies such a narrative for us:

 he meant to rob her of those few quiet
 solitary moments sitting down.
 waiting for the bus, before she headed home
 perhaps in a room in Framingham,
 perhaps her child was sick. 

Voigt shows how a poet—or any writer, for that matter—may have the impulse to flesh out a moment in time to create drama, poignancy, sympathy. We need to know all about this woman to feel sorry for her. We also want to have a reason to dislike this man who does not measure up to our ideas of respectability, and I wonder if this is Voigt’s biggest reason for telling this cautionary tale. The writer, out of prejudice, might humanize the woman but demonize the man who, Voigt says, was saying “‘I’m sorry, / I’m sorry,’ over and over.” Perhaps he is not a demon. Should we make him one, for the sake of a nice, simple poem? Or even for a “larger truth” that we think our fabrication might reveal?

The next stanza has the speaker on her bus, and we see a leap here that helps drive home the dubious nature of creating fake lives for real people for the purpose of the poem: “I postponed my satchel of your poems / and wondered who I am to teach the young, / having come so far from the honest love of the world.” There is nothing unique, to Voigt’s eyes, about this moment, but because she experienced it, and perhaps out of mild guilt for not intervening, she feels the need to write about it. But in writing, she questions the validity of her right to write about the scene because of how little she knows about the altercation and because her limited perspective might lead to the omission of important details.

I’m not sure of the original source of the idea of “coming up for air” in a poem, but it’s an idea I first learned from Tyree Daye, in a workshop during my MFA studies at Converse College. The idea is that the process of writing a poem is akin to swimming through a river of images. Occasionally, the writer must come up for air, departing from image for a moment to make a statement. Voigt does so here, and additionally sets off her statement with a double indent, a space in which the reader also must take a breath: “I wanted to salvage / something from my life, to fix / some truth beyond all change.” This is the idea Voigt’s been leading us towards, but the speaking of the statement is not enough for a good poem. Voigt dives back into the river for a final image. Here are the last lines of the poem: fix
 some truth beyond all change, the way
 photographers of war, miles from the front,
 lift print after print into the light,
 each one further cropped and amplified,
 pruning whatever baffles or obscures,
 until the small figures are restored
 as young men sleeping. 

It seems risky to me that Voigt takes us to a place so disparate for the final image in this poem, but the metaphor is perfect, and the risk pays off. Is it right to restore these youths from death to sleep? Has the photographer—or the poet—created truth, or obscured truth? Does the cropping of an image bring the subject into greater focus, or remove meaning?

A poem is not a snapshot of reality. As a poet, Voigt realizes she will always be cropping the photo to create meaning. She also will always be questioning whether she framed the right subject, whether she captured the correct exposure, whether the details she enhanced led to a poem of substance and truth. It’s a question worth asking, for any writer, who finds themself stealing moments from others’ lives for their poems.

Hugo, Richard. The Triggering Town. W. W. Norton & Company, 2010.

Voigt, Ellen Bryant. “The Last Class.” Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women’s Spirituality, edited by Marilyn Sewell, Beacon Press, 1991, pp. 290-291.

Mystery and the Thin Place in “Language Barrier” by Robert Penn Warren

In Robert Penn Warren’s book Being Here, the poem “Language Barrier” comes amid poems written from the quiet desk of a man who sees many of his active years as already behind him. He reflects on life and aging, on death and the afterlife, within natural imagery, often recalling moments from his past in which he had adventures in the wilderness. “Language Barrier” is one iteration of this, and it drew me in especially because of its ruminations on death and God.

I recently learned the term “thin place,” which is used in religious and spiritual circles to describe moments in which the boundary between the plane of human existence and a larger, eternal, and unseen plane grow very close to one another—in a thin place, the separation between God and the physical seems no more than a thin gauze. I think the scene Warren paints in “Language Barrier” is of one of his own experiences of a thin place.

Warren begins with a stanza of pure description, leaning heavily on “snow” and “blue,” both of which appear three times in five lines. There is a piercingness in the language, a pull between heat and cold—“snow-glitter, snow-gleam” on the peaks above, and waters below which “face upward to sky-flaming blue.” The landscape is anything but static: the “peaks scream joy”;  “the shelf falters, fails.” The mountains and cirques below are full of movement, perhaps even agency, and each element is in conversation with the others—the peaks screaming joy to the sun, the waters facing upward, the shelf, giving way under the great distance below and tumbling in a “tangle of stone.”

We see a world which speaks, perhaps of this struggle between warmth and cold, and Warren brings the struggle to a head in the first line of the second stanza in the simile “like Hell frozen,” which, if a bit cliché, also captures this deep dichotomy of good (or maybe joy—the joy of the peaks) struggling against evil, warmth and cold pitted against one another. The speaker as “I” never shows up in this poem; the closest Warren gets to an “I” is in the second stanza, when the speaker draws inward, reflecting on himself in relation to the landscape: “Alone, alone, / What grandeur here speaks?” Whereas the landscape is active, even interactive, the speaker stands apart, alone, but only for a moment because in the very next line, the speaker expands to include a larger humanity: “The world / Is the language we cannot utter. / Is it a language we can even hear?” I can’t help but pause in this space as a reader, thinking about the language of the world, especially as it relates to human destruction of the environment. The world has a language; we are separate from it. The world is active, alive, but because we don’t hear it speak, we don’t care enough about it to take good care of it.

At this point, Warren turns from the scene to a later time—“Years pass”—and now, the speaker addresses us in second person: “at night you may dream-wake / To that old altitude, breath thinning again to glory.” In this way, we move from “alone” to a collective “we” and then back to singularity, this time focused not on the speaker but outward, toward the audience. We are each of us alone, reflecting; but in our aloneness, we find similarity, a collective.

Additionally, time seems to have changed the landscape, perhaps dulling the awe to something less fierce, because it’s no longer “Hell frozen” but rather “glory.” I’m sure these word choices are not an accident; Warren is thinking about death. Perhaps, he is thinking about how as we age, if we live long enough to grow tired in our old bodies, death becomes less scary, dulls from terror to a welcome rest. Still, whether the world is hell or heaven, it remains a mystery, as much upon later reflection as upon that moment in the thin place. Warren writes, “What, / Long ago, did the world try to say?”

After these two middle stanzas that feel more meta, both of which end with questions, the fourth stanza mirrors the first in that Warren returns here to pure description, now of the homely scene from which the old body reflects: “The stars have changed position, a far train whistles / For crossing. Before the first twitter of birds.” In the fifth line, Warren shifts focus again from loneliness to the corporate experience, writing, “You may again drowse. Listen—we hear now / The creatures of gardens and lowlands.” This gathering together seems to me reminiscent of death again, perhaps of heaven or the garden of Eden. It is a waking from sleep—an image of returning to life, but in the context, it feels like an ending, a waking to an entirely different world.

And in this new world, the answers to the questions that the lonely humans ask of the world come clear, if not in the straightforward way we would prefer. The single-line final stanza reads, “It may be that God loves them, too.” The implication here, I think, is that God loves us—but just as much as God loves us, God also loves the world which is so mysterious to us. Our view, even from the thin places, is limited to what our lonely minds can imagine. And in poetry, such as this poem, I think we come as close as we can to understanding.

Warren, Robert Penn. “Language Barrier.” Being Here: Poetry 1977-1980, Random House, 1980, p. 72.

Gwendolyn Brooks: “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith”

Until this year, I had not read Gwendolyn Brooks beyond a few anthologized poems, most notably and ubiquitously, “We Real Cool.” This particular poem has such a breezy voice, I mistook this for the tone of Brooks’ poems in general; rather, the poem is indicative of her work in a different way: she is a master of creating tone that reflects each poem’s characters.

I finished Brooks’ Selected Poems, originally published in 1963, this January, in which I found the painstakingly exact craft of the master. Some of the poems were so honed that the process of reading became for me like mentally lifting lead weights. Each phrase was densely packed, its smallness belying its depth of meaning, so that when I hefted it, I found it much heavier than my initial glance judged.

The poems from Annie Allen were especially this way, and I read and reread some of these poems in an effort to decode them. It was tough work, but I could also see through my own fog how perfect each poem was. Perhaps too perfect. Perhaps their tight construction actually kept the humanity they described from being fully realized. In an interview with Studs Terkel from 1961, Brooks said of Annie Allen,

By the time I began to write Annie Allen I was very much impressed with the effectiveness of technique, and I wanted to write poetry that was honed to the last degree it could be. . . . I no longer feel that this is the proper attitude to have when you sit down to write poetry, but that’s how I felt then. . . . I feel that my poems at any rate should be written more in the mood that I had when I wrote A Street in Bronzeville. I was just interested in putting people down on paper and, although it is rougher than Annie Allen, I feel that there’s more humanity in it. (24)

Incidently, I found that many of my favorite poems from Selected Poems came from A Street in Bronzeville, and this interview relieved my fears that perhaps I was just an inferior reader, considering that Annie Allen won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950. But if Brooks, looking back, found merit in the Bronzeville poems, I think I can safely say that I’m in good company. 

The poem that struck me most on a first reading and stuck with me over the past couple of months is “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith,” a long poem about a black man living in a poor, urban neighborhood. Satin-Legs Smith is a man with aspirations, though, and presence: Brooks begins the poem with heightened, religious or kingly diction: “Imoratas, with an approbation, / Bestowed his title. Blessed his inclination” (1-2). As Satin-Legs Smith awakes and gets ready for his day, Brooks builds kingly description: “royal,” “reign,” and “power” describe this man (4, 6, 13). But even from the beginning, Brooks makes us aware this is a facade. Here is the fourth stanza:

He sheds, with his pajamas, shabby days.
And his desertedness, his intricate fear, the
Postponed resentments and the prim precautions. (9-11)

In sleep, Satin-Legs Smith is vulnerable to his poverty, to his mortality and shortcomings. But as he dresses for the day, he armors himself with lavender scent, a feather in his lapel, and “wonder-suits in yellow and in wine, / Sarcastic green and zebra-striped cobalt” (48-49). Brooks couches this armor in stark contrast to true kingliness, which the reader has perhaps mistakenly attributed to Satin-Legs Smith:

Would you have flowers in his life?
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                                                            Maybe so.
But you forget, or did you ever know,
His heritage of cabbage and pigtails, 
Old intimacy with alleys, garbage pails,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

No! He has not a flower to his name. (17, 25-28, 32)

And his showy clothes also hem him in, with “Ballooning pants that taper off to ends / Scheduled to choke precisely” ( 51-52).

At this point in the poem, Brooks steps briefly out of the close description of Satin-Legs Smith with a brief couplet, a well-earned moment of telling after two pages of images: “People are so in need, in need of help. / People want so much that they do not know” (57-58). Here, Brooks brings us to a moment of deep feeling for this not-king, this man dressing in a gaudy show of imaginary wealth and power. Perhaps Smith has fooled himself. Perhaps he has us fooled. But Brooks sees the truth of it.

On the next page, Brooks turns to a deep description of Satin-Legs Smith’s community, a very human place, a place of a certain amount of depression and dilapidation. But as Brooks describes Smith walking through his neighborhood she says “He sees and does not see” the run-down poverty of the place–presumably because the wreckage is so part of his average landscape that he no longer takes any special note of it (92). And in the midst of this woe comes blues music–

The Lonesome Blues, the Long-lost Blues, I Want A
Big Fat Mama. Down these sore avenues
Comes no Saint-Saëns, no piquant elusivegrieg,
And not Tschaikovsky's wayward eloquence 
And not the shapely tender drift of Grahms.
But could he love them? Since a man must bring
To music what his mother spanked him for 
When he was two: bits of forgotten hate,
Devotion: whether or not his mattress hurts:
The little dream his father humored: the thing
His sister did for money: what he ate
For breakfast--and for dinner twenty years
Ago last autumn: all his skipped desserts. (105-117)

In other words, blues is the language of the life Smith has lived. Could he love something so foreign as high-culture classical, music indicative of wealth as well as whiteness and respectability? Certainly Smith wants respect and see himself as cultured, but, just as with his gaudy dress, what those with true power and true wealth deem as classy are out of reach for Smith. Smith may love himself, but Brooks believes Smith has no real agency. He is trapped in his fate by history and racism. She says, “The pasts of his ancestors lean against / Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity” (118-119).

We see this same dichotomy again when Satin-Legs Smith goes to the movies: “the heroine / Whose ivory and yellow it is sin / For his eye to eat of. The Mickey Mouse, / However, is for everyone in the house” (126-129). White supremacy has deemed him unworthy of the high-class heroine, so it creates a racist, farcical mouse for Smith. This line packs a severe punch and points the finger more directly at white America’s racism here than anywhere else in the poem.

He takes a different woman out for Sunday dinner every week, but they are all same in that they dress in sickly extravagance just like Smith’s own dress–a style that’s “scheduled to choke” (53). The restaurant is cheap, one where “You get your fish or chicken on meat platters” and “You go out full” (147, 148). Immediately following this line, Brooks once again comes up for air, after pages of imagery, and she does so in a parenthetical: “(The end is–isn’t it?–all that really matters” (150). Smith goes out with a Hollywood-esque happy ending, one that fills but is also cheaply manufactured, and only thinly veils poverty and ancestral pain.

The final eight lines are shorter, indented, and, after the first two, in italics. They are also tighter in meter. All this suggests the falseness of Smith’s happy ending–rather than true satisfaction, it is another forgetting, another not-seeing. He loses himself in his date’s body, but even this is cheap, “brown bread” rather than oysters, and “Woolworth’s mignonette” (153, 154). In the end, he is buried in her body which “is like summer earth, / Receptive, soft, and absolute…” (157-158). There is no escape, and such Sundays of false comfort and imitation kingliness, Brooks implies, will be the entombment of Satin-Legs Smith’s whole life.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “Studs Terkel Interviews Gwendolyn Brooks, 1961.” P.S. in Selected Poems, Harper Perennial, 2006, pp. 18-33.

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Sundays of Satin-Legs Smith.” Selected Poems, Harper Perennial, 2006, pp. 12-18.

A Poem Up Close: Eulogy for the 40th

As I approach the graduation date for my MFA, I’m realizing how much I will miss exploring poets and looking closely at poems which I found intriguing.

So I’ve decided to publish some of these thoughts here. Some of the posts will be work I wrote in the MFA; others will be new poems I’ve encountered which I feel I’d benefit from dissecting. I hope you find these posts interesting; my goal here will be to keep delving deep in my reading, even though I won’t have mentors and deadlines asking this work of me.

Qwo-Li Driskell’s Walking with Ghosts exposes the intersection of two marginalized populations in the US: the queer community and the indigenous population. The focus of Driskell’s academic work, Cherokee Two-Spirits and Cherokee gender identities prior to colonization, seems to also be the focus of Driskell’s poetry. I think this intersection is important for me to consider because it is one answer to a question I’d like to explore further: how can the sacred (for Driskell, the sacred is embedded in cultural identity: language, heritage, tradition) and activism find common ground within poetry?

At the heart of the collection is the poem “Eulogy for the 40th.” A eulogy itself is a type of sacred text, a testament to a life, a meditation upon or prayer for a deceased loved one. This poem is a critique of America’s “sacred” grounds: war, bigotry, and Christianity, set up for us by an epigraph from the book of Matthew. Alongside these critiques, we find a counter-narrative of sacredness in Driskell’s ghosts, here referring, I think, to AIDS victims and other gay men who lost their lives during the Reagan administration.

Driskell’s use of the first person plural evokes a liturgical responsive reading: “We’re tired,” “We don’t care,” “We sing,” “We died” (8, 15, 42, 56). The imperative “say it” towards the end of section I and at the start of section II further sets the piece up as something spoken aloud as a group. Section II brings in a counter-liturgy for the oppressor, the “you” in the poem: “Go on, rewrite / history. Name him Father of Peace” (28-29). “Father of Peace” is the rewriting of “King of Lies” from section one. Both these titles have a biblical feel about them, “Father of Peace” being a conglomeration of “God the Father” and “Prince of Peace” (Jesus), whereas “King of Lies” brings to mind “Prince of Lies” (the Devil). Reagan is represented by these opposing views as a hyperbolic biblical figure of either good and evil, respectively.

Repetend, such as the repeating of the Matthew epigraph in lines 27-28 and 36-41, strengthens the cadence of “Eulogy for the 40th,” evoking song refrain, chant, or mantra, as well as public speech. The first line of the poems is also repeated, but as the poem progresses, words are removed to alter the meaning. This erasure mimics the lives lost to AIDS, but it also has redemptive power. The original phrase reads, “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” (1). It is repeated verbatim once and then is pared down over three repetitions to ultimately read, “When I kiss my lover, / a generation rises” (24, 68, 75-76). I am reminded by this final rising of Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” which may have been an intentional reference by Driskell.

The final repetition is the beginning of the letter to Reagan in the poem’s final section. Because the letter is written to Reagan a week after his death, it takes on a spiritual tone, bringing to mind an incantation. The power of the incantation lies in the gentleness of the language and the immediacy of the imagery. While other sections of the poem sweep across years and histories, this final stanza is a single moment at Reagan’s funeral. With this focused-in lens, the poem becomes tender, less a raging fire and more a candle flame, a spark of hope.

“Eulogy for the 40th” doesn’t address Driskell’s spirituality as directly as other poems in this collection. However, Driskell’s heritage of the sacred, informed by his Native American roots, is central to his identity and thus invades the poem in subtle ways. I think the central image of the poem, the ghosts rising, which is also reminiscent of the collection’s title, certainly has the feel of the spiritual. Ritual incantation and chant inform the structure of the poem. Also, because Christianity was forced on native peoples as a way to erase them, the use of the Matthew passage and the erasure of “When I kiss my lover, a generation of ghosts rises like dust” create an anti-spirituality, a desecration of true sacredness, which, for Driskell, lies in the remembrance of ancestors and the rediscovery of lost culture.

Driskell, Qwo-Li. “Eulogy for the 40th.” Walking with Ghosts. Salt, 2005, pp. 40-45.