Saturday, May 31, 2014

Between paradise and fear

...and further on.

I posted this a while ago on In and Out, but it's about poetry--other people's poetry, by and large--and ought to be here on Outdoor Poetry Season.

I noticed it got a fair number of views recently and in trying unsuccessfully to puzzle out why, I found out that Kim-An Lieberman, who wrote one of the poems featured in this piece, died last year. She was only 37.

Kim-An was a mother of three, a wife and an already accomplished poet. My heart sinks at the thought of her death, but I know she will continue to live in the vivid memory of others. I believe that is no small thing and recently wrote about how life and memory sometimes seem to be nearly the same thing.

I don't love all of "The Creation Story" by Joy Harjo, but I really do love these three stanzas:

"It's not easy to say this
or anything when my entrails
dangle between paradise
and fear.

"I am ashamed
I never had the words
to carry a friend from her death
to the stars

"Or the words to keep
my people safe
from drought
or gunshot."

Like Harjo, I've discovered I didn't (and don't and won't) "have the words" countless times, including the words to carry a friend to the stars, but here Harjo finds the words to name the shortfall. And when she rues her inability to keep her "people safe from drought or gunshot," she has named both herself and her people. Good words.

In his poem "Three Women," Donald Hall has come into possession of a few words that do get the job done. They will not carry him or anyone else to the stars, but they work for capturing the richness of some experiences and the loss that sometimes follows. In fact, they work so well that Hall uses the same words exactly in three consecutive stanzas, making up the whole of his poem:

"When you like a woman,
you talk and talk.
One night you kiss.
Another night you fuck.
You're both content,
maybe more than content.
Then she goes away."

The poem is included in Hall's last book of poetry, The Back Chamber, described on the book jacket as "full of the life-affirming energy" of the poet. But I see it full of a rich, inescapable melancholy.

Kim-An Lieberman won a poetry prize from the Dayton Voice in 1995 or '96 (I suppose I could look it up, sort through the bound copies of the paper we have in our possession, but one thing at a time here). A decade later, her book, Breaking the Map, was published and she sent an autographed copy to Marrianne and I. Her book ended up being part of the motivation for publishing Wild, Once and Captured, a book of my own poetry. Sampling Kim-An's poetry I come to "Grandmother Song," and am struck by the fact that she has found a way to lift her grandmother to the stars.

"...Underneath is a ruby of blood.
The needles and tubes are webbed like milliner's lace.
Last the jade necklace, leaking the milk of her heart."

Perhaps, the words come to Lieberman because she so clearly hears and sees and feels her grandmother at the end of her life.

"...She gestures
faintly upward from the bed; I bring my ear
to the rasp of her laboring breath. I watch her draw
pin by pin from the loose chignon
...I roll the soiled gown..."

Hunting more details, I found an interview with Kim-An where she observes that "journalism and poetry, in particular, both share a language of ear-catching 'sound bites' as well as an urge to make a permanent record of fleeting events and observations." This seems an apt description of how Ernesto Cardenal goes about writing a poetry that finds the words to make permanent a record of "fleeting events." His book, Zero Hour, is a collection of what Cardenal calls "documentary poems."

"In Mr. Spencer's gold mines they X-ray
each miner twice a year
to see if he shows symptoms of TB.
If there's a shadow, he's paid off
at once. In due course he spits blood, and tries
to claim: ...
... and so he dies on a Managua sidewalk."

Cardenal, is a poet and a Catholic priest and the Nicaraguan Minister of Culture after the overthrow of Somoza. His poetry is the work of a man who hears music in his head, but feels the urgent need to change the acoustics of the world around him so that others may hear their own music. Cardenal makes poetry relevant as Lawrence Ferlinghetti insisted it should be when he wrote:

“I am signaling you through the flames.
The North Pole is not where it used to be.
Manifest Destiny is no longer manifest.
Civilization self-destructs. Nemesis is knocking at the door.
What are poets for in such an age?
What is the use of poetry?”

And Cardenal is one of the poets I was thinking about when I wrote "Wild Dogs of Poets:" 

The wild dogs of poets
speak sharps and blunts,
wish the streets
to the back alleys

of emerald cities;
some singing separately
and, alive for now,
glow in the dusky, dreaming sky.

Some scratch for pennies
wherever there are no such
generosities. Some kill time
as though they are flush,

And some few,
the chosen,
die on the barricades,
hopeful and ready.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

What we would do, if we could

Stranger gone by,
alone in his head,
lone wolf set dreaming,
dreaming dark places,

and vast, teeming praries,
a leaping of blood
overflowing old channels,
snarling and snapping

and making the sky.
Stranger gone stalking
and sniffing
and the air sniffing back,

ruffling and dancing and drinking
the dream
of the wolf on the land,
the wolf of the forest,

wolf of the prarie.
The air becomes wind
flowing with news
of the stranger behind,

whispering places
and planning the way
to stay ahead of the sun,
keeping the secrets

of strangers and wolves
and where the blood races,
forever leaps forward
and makes its new way.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Boys and Men

Sinewy dreams,
blinding lights,
boys flexing, pulsing,
bragging, ambitious with life.
Men seeking shares of day,
shares of night.
Dreams of boys and men
carry me through dip and lift
to lands where
boys like men like me
bound and soar on good days,
and on bad days struggle
to stand straight
and still.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Zeroes, eights and the lively wet

I've revised this poem substantially. I think the new version is much better. It can be found here.

Gazing out from the porch,
wind and leaves making low sounds,
scents and sights spilling down slope and up,
mountain spruce casually swaying,

he sits, chisel in his right hand,
a beer ready to his left,
a sharpening stone sits flat
on his blue-jeaned thigh.

The round stone lies,
lightly oiled, awaits the chisel’s beveled edge.
In a big hour,
or a short two,

the sun will set,
if it stays true,
maybe while he’s still lightly
tracing eights and zeroes

on the oiled stone, the
chisel edge angled just so.
He presses a thumb to the tip,
could be sharper, sips his beer,

back to the stone,
zeroes and eights,
circling slow,
a rolling wave of oil and grit

pushed here, there by the big hand
ruling this tiny universe.
Zero here, eight there, sip here,
another thumb test for sharp,

sharp, could be sharper,
soon to bite the door jamb easy,
watches a cloud scud across blue sky,
flatters singing birds with compliments,

sips, watches, heeds the sentinel pines,
tests for sharp, sun on his face,
zeroes and eights,
fallen into a rhythm

that will not break,
until the tip of his chisel,
covered with his peaceful blood,
calls him back with its lively wet.

He examines the thumb,
with its parallel grooves,
leaking blood,
carved by his fine chisel.

Sharp enough, he thinks,
sips his beer, shuts his eyes,
listens, catching up on what
he may have missed.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Braver dreams, stronger songs, gifts that others give

It’s a soft horn
wails no comfort,
no comfort.

It’s a slow beat
moving slow feet,
slow feet.

It’s a big string bass
plucked in a dark,
dark place.

Drumming comes,
an unroused rhythm
stirring no blood,

and the voice cries next,
a sound like searching,
as if words might ignite,

burning the dead soul underbrush,
torching the tangled discontents,
opening the tender heart’s way

to braver dreams, maybe,
and stronger songs
and gifts that others give.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A Single Star Will Show Itself

Rumored or written somewhere,
the way, the path,
to touching uncoerced,
to flowing swiftly,
channels twinned,
to babbling on and silky,

involves the growling, guttural talk
of tigers,
or a passionate taste
of dark and chocolate,
or the silver leap of fish

or, yes,
to hope or, yes,
to lifting us
on swaying limbs of flowering trees,
full pink and showering
the bay below,

you wrapped in my arms,
me snuggled up in yours.
Rumored or written somewhere,
or handmade
to suit myself,

and sung to you
that were we to wait that way
for the new moon’s rising sliver,
a single star will show itself
and light our dreaming way.