A Gentleness More Potent than Death in “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino” by Roy G. Guzmán

Read “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino” here.

For the past week, a dead squirrel has lain in the berm a block from our house. I walk by it every day taking my daughter to school. Sometimes I remember to cross the road before we get to it. Sometimes I don’t remember it’s there until I smell it. I try not to look. After the weekend, I forgot it was there, and when I looked down, I saw its face—which on Friday had been the peaceful, eyes-closed, sleep of death—was peeled back entirely. The skull was empty and picked bare, probably by ants. The body remained furred, but that naked skull was startling.

What do we do with death? We try to keep separate from reminders of it. Death is one of the truths of life which we have no control over, so why think about it? Or we cover fear with faith, a set of precepts or promises that can make us feel safe. Some choose to stare deeply, to inure themselves to the grim inevitability. But who can smell week-old death, who can see the bare skull, the rotting body of roadkill up close, without feeling a little uncomfortable in their own flesh? These questions rise to the surface as I read and reread Roy G. Guzmán’s poem, “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino.”

This poem is a tension rod holding death on one end and gentleness on the other. The image of a fox sets up how death and gentleness reside in the same body, are two ends of the same thing:

People who crave the jaw
& not the fox’s gentle tail—
            his land mine
            of teeth

The pairing continues throughout, a whirling two-step, first toward blood, then toward softness. Racoon feet are made into a necklace which a woman giving birth wears. Secrets are “rolled into the mouths / of strangers” while a “father can make up / suffering’s seasons.” Guzmán builds the image of a child in a garden and follows it with a shipwreck and a jawbone cup which is “handed down / for all to drink from.” Finally, the tension is drawn taut enough for this revelation: the speaker becomes the fox which has been dismembered, eaten by a coyote, and used as a vessel for drink:

I appear dead—
but here, here in my chest, is where my father
            finds the new continent
            of directions measured in forgiveness.

The father, the cause of suffering in the poem, is gifted the grace of the fox, the unasked-for “gentle tail.”

Something about this poem is so kind, even with all its focus on death, even as it draws our attention to the cruelty of humans, to our obsession with the bodies of dead animals. Guzmán questions the choices of the people described here but does not condemn. In fact, the speaker offers forgiveness. The broken body offers forgiveness. Within this generosity lies the miracle of the poem.

The poem brings into focus people’s cruelty to other people. The ways in which oppressors blithely uses human bodies in the pursuit of personal gain:

                                                Did they really mean
to leave us shipwrecked—those sailors
who recognized flesh but not what the flesh
                                    can camouflage?

The intention doesn’t change the outcome: death comes, and it too often comes by human hands. But the fact that the speaker even asks the above question show such generous empathy. What can better break our oppressive behaviors than such tenderness in the face of violence?

This poem isn’t like my hackneyed roadkill story. The poem dwells within the corpse. There is no separation between the skull and the speaker. They become, in the end, the same creature. I think that’s how this poem manages to keep death from swallowing it whole. The fallen are granted enough agency and power here to, in the end, find peace and offer it to the father, the sailors, the people with fresh blood on their fingers.

Guzmán, Roy G. “Midwestern Skulls for the Broken Latino,” Catrachos: Poems, 2020.

Time, Air, and the Body in “Sway” by Ada Limón

Read “Sway” here.

Many of the poets I admire most—poets like Marie Howe, Adrienne Rich, Lucille Clifton, and Ada Limón—have a way of speaking in plain English with a needlepoint precision that reaches the center nerve of feeling. Limón’s book The Carrying is full of such poems. I decided to look a bit more closely at the poem “Sway” from this collection because it exemplifies simplicity of language paired with intellectual/emotional precision. (An interesting note about this poem is that it was written to and in conversation with another excellent poet, Natalie Diaz. For more poem-letters between Diaz and Limón, check out the anthology They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing.)

Nothing about the spoken language of this poem is especially striking, except for the rather large matter of arrangement. I’m reminded in this poem that interesting verbs/nouns only take a writer so far. Surprising images and lyric leaps are what this poem relies on to vivify the language. Take for example this personification from early on in the poem: “I slept again once the Pink Moon / moved off a little, put her pants back on, let me be.” Who else has imagined the waning crescent as a woman putting her pants back on? I mean, it makes total sense: we all know what “mooning” means. But I’ve never seen it put so comically and informally in a poem.

Maybe this letter is to say, if it is red where you are,
know there is also green, the serrated leaves of the dandelion, lemon balm,
purple sage, peppermint, a small plum tree by the shed.

Another way Limón builds interest with simple diction is with color. Color, in fact, is very important to the poem. Named colors include pink, red, blue, green, and purple. The poem takes place in spring, and these colors lend to thoughts of the coming flowers. But the color which dominates the poem is red. Red becomes metaphor here, a way to talk about anger and pain: “Red, // like our rage. The red of your desert. Your heart too.” This thread is an undertone, a bass beat, to which Limón returns in a list of plants filled with the senses. Some I can taste or smell, all create a sense of peace for me, and the colors evoked create a full color palette:

Limón also manipulates two very common words into complex ideas: air and time. Limón speaks of the body throughout this poem—“my body feels at ease,” “will throw my body toward him,” “a body on a bridge,” “a body of air.” The body is approached in two directions, first, physically, through the senses as they experience the natural world, plants and color—air—and second, through conceptual thought and ethereal experience—time. These two directions seems to be inextricably linked. Limón writes: “What is it about words that make the world / fit easier? Air and time.” Air seems to be the medium through which feeling flows, an easiness with the physical world. Time is an integral part of the speaker, perhaps what she focuses on most as she moves through the world. A neighbor says to her, “When I see you, I become very aware of time.” Of herself, she says, “I was alone and I was time.” As the speakers focuses more fully on time, she seems to be in opposition to air. Here is a longer quote from the close of the poem:

…I know that last night, the train came roaring

right as I needed it. I was alone and I was time, but
the train made a noise so I would listen. I was standing so

close, a body on a bridge, so that I could feel how
the air shifted to make room for the train. How it’s easier

if we become more like a body of air, branches, and make room
for this red charging thing that barrels through us,

how afterward our leaves shake and stand straighter.

Time seems to be distracting the speaker at the start of this quote, and she is woken to her immobility, her inflexible nature, by the sound of the train and the sense of the air moving around it. This final metaphor is a tying together of the concepts of time/air and the red of anger. The speaker wishes not for the red, the “heart berry,” to disappear, but rather to be open to its passing through, to be capable, like air, of bending around this emotion that is so dense it feels physical.

I think what astounds me most in this poem is how much Limón is saying. Nothing here is erudite or overly complex, but the more I explore it, the more I see the deep pool of this poem. The waters are calm, but the layering of meaning dives far into the cool darkness. The passion is understated and unadorned, not exclamatory. But richness abounds in the simple words, carefully ordered into a nuanced depiction of the human experience.

Limón, Ada. “Sway,” The Carrying, Milkweed Editions, 2018, pp. 76-77.

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.

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.