When I went to grad school, I didn’t know anything about poetry. Problematic, I know, as I was going to grad school for poetry. Those first few weeks at new recruit meet and greets, my peers would ask me, “are you narrative or lyric?” I didn’t know there was a distinction, or that the binary was so fractious. I think this may be a normal MFA experience. You don’t go to grad school to write poems—you’re already doing that—but to learn who’s producing work at the time. A poet who’d shown up in town the same year I did took it upon himself to learn me and lent me 10 or so contemporary books of poetry, among which was Mathias Svalina’s Destruction Myth. I remember my reaction: you can do this? Poets can be funny? And sweet? Work can be flooring, heart breaking, absurd, and beautiful? Svalina ended up serving as my primer to contemporary poetry and as I went on to teach in environments where folk didn’t have a background in poetry—underserved kids in New Orleans, inmates in Alabama and Louisiana—Destruction Myth became my go to text. The language was available, approachable. Svalina’s work does this here as well, achieving the incredibly difficult balance of accessible and profound, culturally relevant and hilarious but never cheap.
Marcelo Castillo's poems choose their wounds over their scars. The roots are exposed, the scabs freshly ripped. This is a poetry that locates equally in hives and in semen, that harvests what poetic fruit it can from suffering. Chronicled in these two selections this week are complex processes of desire, pain, and a kind of acceptance. We find ourselves agreeing—albeit begrudgingly—with the speaker that "[t]his is the only hand I'm allowed." Castillo manages to bring us into the troubling and heartbreaking situations of his speakers without asking for apologies or simple pity. The language of these poems may fester with knives, abusive fathers, and creatures that sting, but it also serves to remind us that a wound festers because it is filled with life.
"If I am alive" Aditi Machado begins. "If I am thinking / nothing has stopped". In this selection of three poems, Machado burrows into the paired binary of thinking and feeling. On the one hand, cogito ergo sum. On the other hand, "I feel that I am happening / in a sleeve." To perform this investigation, Machado turns inward, and the space that the turning creates and navigates is sacred. With echoes of Blake, Machado moves toward the void of the god word she finds within: the word that cannot be spoken, the word that cannot speak, the word that cannot help itself but to create ripples of language that emanate from it: "Which is to say if the god word was denied to speaking, it was not / to thinking or feeling or tapestry." Because, of course, there is no difference between thinking and feeling. Both are functions that occur in and are processed by the brain. Their wedding is inevitable, and so "[b]lessed is the heart. / Blessed is my gethsemane // of florid logic."
“Tell me to stay and let me hate you, tell me to leave and let me love you.” This line conceals a novel’s worth of narrative, and a line is all you’ll get here. Jamison Crabtree’s poems subvert our desire for story. Like any good love affair, they give us elaborate backstories and complexity of feeling within a couple brief meetings. Then, these sentences cut us off abruptly and leave us wanting more. The lines in Crabtree’s poems are embedded with micro-narratives that force a reader to lean closer, to tune their ear to the music and be moved. Just as the speaker of the second of these pieces must leave, so, too the story must leave us behind. The residue of feeling, of yearning for more, of empty-pit stomach—that visceral whatever is the stuff of these poems, the tiny wild that Crabtree captures and immediately lets loose. But we wouldn’t rather read a novel than experience these brief moments of emotion. To paraphrase what Crabtree writes himself: If ever a story appeared, it would be no comfort.
“Don’t you love dancing with other people’s / shimmering / bits of thought—” Gail Wronsky’s speaker laments and possibly asks at the same time. Surely, this stands as the ethos of these poems; they drift and sway through the morass of content and form and hook particulars of brilliance along the way. The American Dream will always require movement; any piece of literature in the conversation of “GREAT AMERICAN” will always require mobility. Wronsky’s poems move like a contemplative on a walk, like the act of making love, and like a dance. Her speaker is fearless of death: “letting them go to seed, to pot, to hell, to waste, a fate which is / in some ways worse. And they respond to our neglect”.
I am in the process of a cross country move. For the last several weeks, off for summer, generally unemployed, I make to-do lists for small errands. Tomorrow I will go to the tailor’s, the next, Walmart to buy underwear. I will call Michael about his show and try to make it this time, talk to UPS about shipping an awkwardly shaped box, see Alexios one more time. A letter came—USPS lost my media mail and I have to remember which books were in that box to file claim. I have to reset my iPhone because it has stopped receiving group texts (both blessing and curse). It’s the small things I find most exhausting and I wonder how people who perform this type of daily maintenance regularly live their lives and do so without keeling over. The thing is they do. A teacher in college used to talk about a writer who could only write while driving an old pickup, grinding the three on the tree, around his property. The process and monotony of driving allowed him to think. I wondered about the logistics—if he kept a pad at the dash or at his side, if he worried about maiming jack rabbits as he took his eyes off the road to scrawl down lines of dialogue. If it’s possible to both think and actually do. I think about my own writing, how it has to exist in a sacred space, how I have to be free and clear of all thought to perform it, and how since that’s never achievable, I just don’t do it. In this week’s selection, John Estes shows us there is poetry in these patterns of the everyday. In the routine of lawn mowing, Estes considers happiness, whether its achievable or if it matters at all. Is it the same to watch an eclipse online as it is in person? Both, as Estes offers, are terror inducing but I wonder for the same reasons. He echoes Eliot and Pound, and after I wonder if I dare eat the peach, I think, why the heck not.
I used to pore over anatomy books, memorizing the names of muscles and tendons. From the anatomist's perspective, the human body resembles a complex machine: hinges, extensors, flexors. I think of this selection from Matthew Hittinger as a series of anatomies, lexical cross-sections that reveal surprising and profound relationships between body parts, objects, and words. Consider the first lines of "Cross Bucket Handle Knife" (I.i.): "out of the flower grow / shoulders ulna carpal." An apparent confusion of physiology prompts a rethinking of ourselves—the stem with shoulder, metacarpal with twig. Or take a later manifestation of this rethinking, when in II.ii the cladistic association of "condor dinosaur" leads us, eventually, to "piece curio old / desk drawers rail / ties ladder rung." The final line suggests the popular (and inaccurate) image of evolution as a ladder that moves upward until you reach, at the very top, homo sapiens sapiens. But the presence of pieces, curios, and old desk drawers complicates this image, suggesting that we don't simply move upward and onward as a specie. Instead, we inherited these organs and bones like a senior inherits junk during a college career: piecemeal, over time, often without the slightest idea where the curios have come from. Ultimately, Hittinger's poems don't just remind me of poring over anatomy books; they remind me of the strange effects that attend long periods of focus. Look long enough and the object slips, becomes something else. The closed hand might be an armadillo, the arm a walking stick. These anatomies are archeological in Olson's sense of the word, poems to read when deciding how to direct this fabulous machine of ours.
Morgan Parker’s poems are a glass not half full, but overfull, and we are invited to revel in the mess with her. “How to Piss in Public and Maintain Femininity” pours (if you’ll pardon the imagery) over its edges. The title spills into the first line, and the spill continues from there, a stream of unpunctuated, unfiltered thought. What speaks most to this reader is the blunt utterance spat out in the middle of a stream of observations and statements: “I am ashamed of my unconscious”; “I pretend things are simple but I do this / for your benefit.” This hit comes just as a reader may realize she’s talked to herself this way, each night in bed, waiting for the dream to come.
The eclectic selection this week from Steven Alvarez reminds me of William Carlos Williams' Spring and All. Not the famous parts from that book. Not the contagious hospital, not the antagonistic farmer, not even the white chickens (which, ironically, DO get a reference in Alvarez's "Bat"). No, this selection from Alvarez reminds me of the prose sections in that book. These are moments when Williams is irreverent and brilliant at the same time, the voice of a poetic revolution. The two pieces in this issue, "1992 / 5th Sun / Our Present" and "Bat," combine untranslated Spanish, regional geography (I've had to make the drive through Gila Bend many times), and futurist techniques to evoke a mosaic of sounds, textures, conflicts, and desires. "1992 / 5th Sun / Our Present" reads like a wonderful combination of The Cantos, concrete poetry, found writing, and kitsch. "The Bat" is Alvarez's wonderful response to mythic method, a story involving gods, incest, cannibalism, colonialism, humor, and loss. These two pieces honor the dust and beauty to be found throughout the Southwest. La Frontera and All.
Elizabeth Cantwell’s poems defy the poet’s task of producing art. That is not to say the poems do not qualify as art; quite to the contrary. They are filled with subversion and dangerously figurative language. They approach beauty not through its representation but against its representation. “And I Picked It Up and Held It” varies on this theme: the speaker undoes everything introduced. Watching Hoarders becomes not the typical spectacle reality television offers: scores of voyeurs/viewers watching how consumerism and what Marx called “the fetish of the commodity” put people into a symbiotic relationship with needless possessions, disallowing them the impulse to just get rid of junk. Cantwell’s speaker not only understands this fetish, but seeks to bed with it by declaring: “I think there is a betrayal / in abandoning a thing.” Betrayal, of course, is the deepest circle in Hell, but what do we ever make of our own moral barometers when our lives are polluted with the need to consume, to possess, and own useless things that we inevitably “betray” by ridding ourselves of them because of their obsolescence?