poetry

Vive le Salon!

This piece was first published in 2008. Throwback Friday!

The Art Salon takes the art dialogue away from the exhibitionism of the public square, back to the privacy of personal circles, even the intimacy of the home. Salons first became popular among the nobility of 17th century Europe as a time when the comtesse and her girlfriends got together to hear about things that mattered – in the salon, their equivalent of our living room. Salons became a form of meeting integral to the shape of society – at least one gave rise to the French Revolution in the 18th century. For the trophy wife, the revolutionary, the avant-garde artist, salons have always been about standing up to the status quo.

Recently, I went to one such inspiring salon evening. Ryan Callis, an artist, and Chris Davidson, a poet, just hosted their fifth installment in Seal Beach, California, near Los Angeles. With the blessing of their wives, these two co-workers and neighbors open up the Davidson home every other month to other rabble-rousers and creatives. As the sun was setting, a few dozen friends and strangers milled about the front lawn, porch, and kitchen, and finally settled into the living room. That night, we heard a pair of artists speak, viewed a slideshow of Nokia-sponsored photos of India, listened to a poet recite from her book, and were acoustically serenaded by a rock outfit. Weeks later, I catch up with Ryan Callis via email, and tell him how smart he and his compatriots are for luring the art crowd to their surf and turf.

So is your artist salon REALLY called, “The Society of Interested Persons” ?
Ha, ha, ha, yes sir, it is. I have an affinity for creating titles as a potential for fun word combinations. My MFA show at Claremont, with Evan Roberts, was called The Grand Order of the Salt Dippers. We both surf, so we were “The Grand Order”. I think “The Society of Interested Persons” has a fun ring about it. For a poet, Chris had called it the very un-fun “Second Saturday Salon”. Yawn. I spiced it up.

What kinds of people typically show up to the Salon?
As founders and key inviters, Chris and I look to our friends and families as repeat customers. Next come those that visiting artists and lecturers bring. A few neighbors and an occasional passerby join in. We run in different circles and have a ten-year age difference between us. So we already mix it up with our own crowds. But maybe our crowd can be summed up best as 18-70 years old, poor to rich, Christians and not Christians, G.E.D. to Ph.D.

Do they fight?
It’s awesome because all these folks get together in a somewhat neutral environment, compared to, say, a gallery. Because we have breaks between presenters, I think it is amazing to watch everyone mingle, network, and be able to have topics for conversation.

Are art salons on the endangered list of art world species?
I don’t know. I know that in this day and age, anything without money or drool-inducing entertainment is automatically a rare species. But I observe the art world as more community-based – more potential for interesting community than most other worlds.

What in your opinion makes for a good salon gathering?

One in which quality of presenters and the enthusiasm of the crowd come together! A good salon is just an awesome evening all around; you can just feel it.

I still wanna know what unexpected things have happened.

Drunk, chatty housewives have been the surprise! Lots of inappropriate commentary or questions during presentations, but always innocent enough and funny in hindsight. There was another time when a presenter’s dad came to hear her speak, but thought a college party a few houses down was our salon! He ended up hanging out at that rowdy “salon” for two hours until he wised up. All alcohol-related things I guess.

Tell me something that’s printable about your co-host Chris.

Chris is an awesome poet. He is a man of many ideas and little time to make them happen, which is where I come in handy. He is also a very generous guy and he’s let us invade his house.

Tell me something about what YOU do when not co-hosting the Salon? You’ve got that solo show at the gallery coming up.
Yes. When I am not salon-ing I am painting, surfing, family-ing, and praying. I make art; the salon is a part of that. A less-cool-than-painting part of that. Oh, and I teach university sometimes. The salon is my way of acting out Dada urges.

What’s in store for next time? I missed the drunk housewives last time, I guess.
Next for the salon will be Chris as poet, me as the artist, and a local singer/songwriter named Barrett Johnson. Barrett is awesome, and I did the art for his album. It’s a question mark as to our lecturer, although on my mind is local and surfboard-shaping legend Rich Harbour, or Otis College of Art’s curator, and an interesting gal, Meg Linton. People keep asking for our work to be featured, but we had felt it was too soon, until now. Los Angeles artists Lynne Berman and Steve Roden, as well as LA critic James Scarborough have tentatively committed to the next, next salon. That would blow my mind.

photo by:

Tiny Poetic Vessels

“That was epic!”

This is what contemporary teenagers often exclaim after experiencing something impressive, whether the epic in question is a blockbuster film, a huge fantasy novel, a multi-state road trip, or a resounding crash by an accident-prone friend.

From the Greek epic to the haiku, the tragic drama to the sonnet, poetry has spanned the history of literary scope as well as of social and linguistic change: in other words, poems can be big or small. Each size has its attendant values and uses, of course. An Oedipal agony will not fit into a haiku, but neither does Oedipus Rex focus a sharp beam of attention on one exquisite blade of grass.

At the moment, American poetry tends towards the smaller end of the scale. A full-length collection usually runs between 80 and 100 pages, somewhere in the range of 40 to 60 poems. The poems themselves are not expected to run onto a second or third page. We like to be able to take in the shape of a poem at a single glance.

There are, of course, exceptions. Dana Gioia’s brand-new collection Pity the Beautiful includes an extended narrative poem. It’s called “Haunted,” and it runs for an impressive 8 pages. There are a few genres that still require poetic virtuousity over considerable length: opera libretti come to mind.

But in general, Americans are not writing epic poetry. We’re not writing long verse dramas. We’re not writing extended narrative ballads. Our poetry is tiny, isolated, incidental, and frequently insignificant.

 

Tania Runyan’s A Thousand Vessels manages a large scope within the confines of contemporary minutiae. It is a collection of 46 painful, exquisite, prosy monologues. The book as a whole sweeps across thousands of years of Biblical history, from “Genesis” to “The Empty Tomb.” Her organizational method is also ambitious: in a mildly feminist strain that yet reaffirms many stereotypes, the “Thousand Vessels” are women. This volume gives voices to women from the Biblical narrative: Eve, Sarah, Dinah, Ruth, Esther, Mary, the woman at the well, Martha, Jairus’ daughter, and Mary Magdalene. There are four or five poems for each of these women’s stories, all imagining ways into their lives. Yet the concept is far more nuanced and original than this description suggests. The poems in each section are not predictably and consistently in first or third person, nor even tied to a historical locus. Rather, 11 are in the third person, 32 in first person, and 3 in a second-person direct address. More interestingly still, 27 are set in biblical times (the “right” time period for the characters in question), but a few in each section (19 total) are set in the author’s own time and place.

In other words, we are also numbered in the Thousand Vessels. When Sarah waits at home to see whether Abraham comes home with Isaac—or with Isaac’s body, or ashes—for instance, Runyan herself worries about “Keeping My Daughter” in perhaps the most perfect poem in the collection. She is at her best with the intimate details of mothering—or fathering; when Jairus mourns the death (and struggles through the strange restoration) of his daughter, Runyan pairs his grief and confusion with a poignant three-section poem on “Children of Near-Death.” These children, nearly drowned, electrocuted, or smashed in a bike accident, could be our own kids, ourselves, or ancient children. What’s the difference, anyway?

That seems to be the overwhelming effect of Runyan’s book: to take away the differences between ourselves and Ruth, Boaz, Jairus, Mary Magdalene. This is brilliantly done: prostituted children are identified with the ravished Dinah (“Drift”); two teens in bikinis compete in King Xerxes’ beauty-and-sex contest for virgins (“Beach Walk”); Runyan herself gives birth to the first baby in the world (“The Birth of Cain”).

The sad side of these stories haunts Runyan’s verse. Her twist on the title is metonym for this approach. “A Thousand Vessels” first appears to be a reference to the thousand ships launched by the beauty of Helen of Troy; however, in the “Sunday” section of her poem “Mary at Calvary,” Runyan re-interprets the phrase thus:

God creates women for no reason

but grief. He can’t cry himself

and needs a thousand vessels for his tears.

Helen of Troy herself, then, is a vessel, and joins the historical procession of all the fragile vials for holding tear drops, cups for wrath, vases for grief, down to today when Runyan and I add our crystal agony to the shelf.

This is not a very pretty picture of God: pouring women full of suffering, setting them aside, letting them break. A reader can imagine this deity dropping the spun-glass woman and watching her shatter into agonizing fragments.

Nor does the story have a particularly happy ending: outside the empty tomb, Mary Magdalene “for a moment / held the souls of the nations like a basket of figs.” Which way will the figs go? Will they become nourishment, or fall to the ground in her astonishment, to be trampled underfoot?

The end of A Thousand Vessels leaves the reader with another question, too: What, then, is the scope of these poems? Do they manage to hold a thousand women and many thousand years in their slender lines? The technique argues against a huge compass: Runyan tends towards the easy word choice, the random line break, and the facile simile. The pieces are simple, generally avoiding the kind of double vision that can lend depth to truly great verse. Yet there are also surprising turns in these poems, unexpected endings, and memorable individual lines. Her greatest strength is bringing ancient women to life through a consistently impassive narrative voice, giving stories and characters a different color than they ever had before.

Here is one final example, showing Runyan at her imaginative best. After the expulsion from Eden, Eve watches Adam grow more and more distant:

For a moment I see

his eyes, then they float over my shoulder,

as if another woman stood behind me,

beckoning him toward paradise.

The reader might be that other woman, with a chance at a second Eden; it is more likely that the reader is Eve, watching her husband fade away, entering into the age-old grief of all women at all times, in all places. That may not be “epic,” but it strains the limits of these tiny poetic vessels.

The American in Me

The American in me drives a Chevrolet,
spells carborator however he likes
and purposely leaves the grease in his skin.

The American in me is more muscular,
talks loud shit with the boys
and drinks beer because he likes it.

The American in me smells right,
like wood chips, cigarettes and sweat
and his wife likes two out of three.

The American in me votes ardently,
carries the political history of his father
and holds country up to family.

The American in me married his high school sweetheart,
said “I love you” through the tears
and has been saying it every morning ever since.

The American in me goes to the coast on vacation,
always says he’ll retire there
but knows he won’t make it that long.

The American in me is a veteran
of everything if you’re asking him
and yes, he is ready for a fight.

The American in me hits hard,
like the first cold wind of winter
freezing brittle bone to break inside out.

The American in me works on the clock,
hates and loves the overtimefor the effort it takes
and the empathy it creates.

The American in me sits at the head of the table,
flanked by loving wife and obedient children
and he loves them when he has time.

The American in me tries to stay healthy,
dilutes his tuna with beer
and wears his gut like a varsity jacket.

The American in me goes by Jon,
spells it without the “H”
and always peers over just to make sure.

The American in me is the American in you,
and the American in you doesn’t recognize the American in me,
nor me in you, nor you in me, nor us in I.

Standing Stones

The wall of stones marches

on, straight as an

arrow into the infinity

of forest.

 

It does not care for

tree or trail, for it was

here before their birth.

It stands as a mark

of Adam’s dominion

flowing through

New England farmers’ veins.

Like human bulldozers

they wrestled with stone

to make an altar to

private property and agriculture,

their own immovable

political philosophy,

which has seen presidents and kings

come and go,

come and go.

 

Now it stands a mere memorial

in the midst of nature’s

take-back-the-neighborhood campaign,

intransigent and venerable,

it has earned its steady place

in the detritus of trees.

 

Daisy

“…any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde…”

John Donne

 

The blank page beckons like the first cut with the scalpel—

tremulous, uncertain, unknown.

How does one eulogize the unknown?

 

We walked in silent that first day—

death replaced—diluted with chemicals

sterilized and fixed, but still present.

 

I caught myself resting my hand on the table.

Your table.

Ashamed of my casualness, I withdrew it.

There is comfort in the dead—comfort in you, Daisy,

as I hold your hand, with fingernails vivid pink.

I did not know you, not even your name, but I knew

your sacrifice for science—in vitro resurrection.

Your life after death.

 

I mine for rubies of coagulated blood—

deep, muddy red. They cover my gloved hand.

I take you with me when I leave—on my clothes—

your sanguine life force, condensed

Given up. No more. Reborn.

 

I see you everywhere.

At the grocer’s

and coffee shops

in my mother.

It is your organs I envision,

My first patient—my only patient.

 

I hold your heart up—pick your life apart,

the background you never knew—

 

the source of your love, the object of mine

my love of science heightened by your gift.

 

I am in love with a compete stranger, not complete,

I know part of you. The carnal half.

 

I wonder: what did you love?

 

photo by: nimishgogri

Laundry at Dawn

The peach pink clouds lying across the day’s new blue

are the clothes we washed together last night—

one load, button downs and my green dress.

They smell like that lemony detergent

you pulled down, white sides slick with soap.

I pretend that they smell like you.

Where they touch me, you touch me.

And now, at sunrise, they’re hanging in the sky—

whites stained soft pink by your new red shirt

and I can hardly bear to look up.

 

Orion’s Belt, My Hips

 

It is the first day of 2012.
What are you afraid of?
Last night I cried
and said out loud

I didn’t expect I’d still be waiting tables
at the same restaurant I was at 6 years ago.

What changes in the heart?
Where is solitude?
Who makes the body pure?
What soulish fiend am I?

Always hungry for the escape,
the deeper inside to get away from
reality.  Who said reality was where anything
mattered anyway? I swallow beauty,

rail against the beast of skin
when too much of everything
growls back at me.

What year is this?
What woman am I?
Who nailed the spikes into my heels?
Who told me heels made a woman?

East Village you dirty, loud, unruly heart.
East Village blood and chambered fruit.
East Village pump my heart chokes

on seeds of every pomegranate
reminder of love.
Love and marriage.
You can’t have one without the other.
I want.

What is Purity?
Whose hands fashioned the hips, the back?
Who curled the rib cage around a fluttering bird?
I heart.

I wail for a living’s sake.

I drink my tea with sugar.
Year.
Year.
Year.

No coffee.
Sugar cubes no milk.
Soy milk.
What kind of half alive is this?

What kind of cancer comes from smoke?
Stacks back against family?
Liver.
Throat.
Breast.
Lung.

When does it come together?
The dots unconnect themselves,
sprawl across the sky as stars.

Orion.
Legs like God.
Whose footstool
am I?

 

photo by:

Opening Your Life to Purple-Bottled Dreams

Two years ago I sat on a bare window seat at an inn in Pittsburgh. The air was dry, the day light, as sun reflected off deep, deep snow outside. On this morning, my last at the inn, the owners had gone and I was left with the tawny-haired dog who was keen on shedding. My New-York-black attire was in constant jeopardy as I had earlier roamed the old Victorian with my camera, taking shots of antique irons, a spinning wheel, purple bottles, an out-of-tune piano (How did I know it was out of tune? I had sneaked a little time with it of course.)

Photo by flickr user Evil Erin.

My amateur photo session finished, I was at the window with a book about poetry-writing. The wooden seat beneath me was worn and heavily grained, and this reminded me of a photographer friend who takes a lot of pictures of woodwork. I mused that she would have taken better shots than I did, since I was not a photographer in any significant sense.

What surprised me was not this moment, of knowing I wasn’t photographer, of admitting it almost fondly in my ponderings, and silently admiring my friend. Rather, my surprise came when I opened the poetry-writing book.

“Did you think it would be easy?” the author asked, meaning, did I think that being a poet was a simple thing. The answer? Yes, I had. But suddenly, and forcefully, I understood my error.

“I am not a poet,” I said to the room, and the dog shifted a little on the braided rug near the fireplace.

Truth be told, I was not really making my statement to the room. I was dropping it into a timeline that I now recognize. I was experiencing these audible words as a turning point, or at least the offer of a turning point.

As it goes, I accepted the deal.

How long did it take to come to that point? Decades perhaps? Could I trace my poetic life back along many moments and claim a series of markers? If I wanted to make a memoir of it, I suppose I could.

But that day is when the ship began to turn, in a way I could actually feel, and I needn’t write the memoir (at least not now). On that day I took action, determining to buy more books on poetry and read more books on poets and criticism. When I returned to New York (and after I got the dog hair off my black sweater), I also began writing poetry in earnest. I opened myself to possibilities I could not even yet imagine. The imagining was not the important thing; it was the opening that counted. I had already published a book of poetry with International Arts Movement, but this was different. It was a looking forward, potentially to an entire life of poetry ahead— an odd pursuit, it seemed, considering the odds of how little renown and financial support it might lend; yet, as a professional writer, I had to consider these odds, because a person only has so much time to give, and a person must have a livelihood (though not renown, and that is probably a good thing).

Unexpected outcomes followed. That sounds so business-like! And yet that is exactly what it should sound like, because poetry is now, in significant ways, my business. It is my business in the reading and the writing of it. It is my business in the acquisition of it, for a small press I started just a year after my recognizable turning point. It is my business on Facebook, where I am happily gathering an audience for poetry. And it is my business for a daily-poetry subscription, which takes a great deal of delightful work and which I must charge a small annual fee for ($2.99), to cover my costs.

It remains to be seen if I can actually live off of poetry as a business. Few have done it. Many entities that sponsor poetry are, themselves, sponsored by grants and donations. I feel unusual, focusing on a business model instead of a non-profit model. I wonder if people will think my efforts are counter to the very spirit of poetry.

Still. Once a ship begins to turn, it is exciting to stand on her and look to far-away waters, open to where you might travel—to lands of coconut trees, and jingle-shell beaches, or groves of oranges and new-ripe peaches, or even back to an old inn in Pittsburgh, to pick up some purple-bottled poetry for the uncharted days to come.

The Devolution of Christmas

IAM, the publisher of The Curator, is a movement upheld and supported by those who are a part of it. Please consider making a donation to help us continue to serve artists and creative catalysts all over the world.

For those who’ve forgotten, and those who never knew, there is a rich, diverse, and beautiful history of this holiday that has, for over two thousand years, quietly crept up on the others to be one of the most celebrated occasions around the globe. Here’s to remembering why.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, that’s the day Christ was born
There hadn’t been a Christmastide before that Spring morn
But a Yuletide there was, each December up north
As part of the pagan rituals of the Norse
For each winter solstice brought the threat of life’s end
With famine and frostbite as the annual trend
But those Norse never failed to keep spirits up high
They gave thanks to their gods until the ale ran dry
And they chopped down Yule logs from oversized trees
Dragging them home through the snow and the leaves
These logs they would burn for twelve days and twelve nights
While they drank toasts to Odin, and their faithful king’s might

Indeed, all of Europe was drinking their fill
The wines all fermented, and not a drop spilled
But it was further yet south, in the city of Rome
Where pagan traditions first found a new home
In Century Four, the Lord’s birth was declared
A national holiday by the church leaders there
With competing religions and the date up for grabs
The church schemed a plan to make Christmas the fad
Coincide with the pagans, the Catholics declared
So that Jesus might infiltrate their parties and prayers
Thus December was chosen, the twenty-fifth day
To celebrate the birth of a New Man and His Way

But there were strange side effects, for though Christmas caught on
The church couldn’t control others’ customs or songs
Thus the Norse gave to Christmas those Yule logs so thick
While the Lycians invoked a jolly saint they called Nick
Who gave to the needy, the timid and the poor
Putting gold in the shoes that they’d left by their doors
There’s e’en an account, they insist that it’s true
That he once dropped gold coins down a fireplace flue
And they fell into stockings that were hung there to dry
Though nobody since seems to understand why
A man so renowned for his wisdom and love
Was prancing about on the rooftops above

It was all so mysterious, so magical and strange
That folks started rumors to help them explain
So dear old Saint Nick was turned into an elf
With a stable of reindeer, and a sleigh for himself
And the children believed that each cold Christmas night
That same old Saint Nick would fill their hearts with delight

Meanwhile, back at the Middle Ages’ end
The Germans had started the next Christmas trend
Putting apples and candles on evergreen trees
Even in their own homes! if you can believe
This created a business for special treats to be made
To place on the branches, and if the children behaved
They each got a candy, and the most coveted of these
A peppermint stick that looked like snow in the trees
Well, I don’t have to tell you how these sticks have evolved
For I’m sure it’s a riddle that your children can solve

Now somewhere in there, Nick got mixed up with these trees
For presents began to appear underneath
Until people were so taken with that fat, jolly elf
That the meaning of Christmas became personal wealth
Each year lists grew longer so that all the North Pole
Could no longer keep up with all the demands from below
And people forgot all these things of the past
In favor of money and toys that won’t last
Dear Santa was fired by the Corporate Machine
The elves all laid off, on the workshop a lien
While people, instead, looked to cheap warehouse stores
A modern day miracle, God’s gift to the poor
They bought all their goods at a fraction of the price
Ignorant to all someone else sacrificed
The worst part of all, they kicked Jesus out, too
So that Christmas, it seems, now means something new

And now nobody remembers from where Christmas comes
All the festivals and cultures and praise for the sun
Or the charity or giving, how it spread through the land
Then was rightly taken up by our Lord, the Son of Man
Now it’s all about the Benjamins, Bentleys, and bling
And how much in revenues each store can bring
It’s no wonder with all these monetary distractions
We fail to find ourselves with curious reactions
To chopping down trees just to bring them inside
Singing songs about pagans and that thing called Yuletide
Or that rosy old elf whose first name is Saint
Or a babe in a manger looking unusually quaint

So this Christmas my wish is that we’ll stop to remember
The reasons we do what we do each December
To give thanks to the One who saved us from death
Who taught us to love, down to His last breath
Yet even despite how we’ve strayed from His way
If He returned to us now, I think He’d be the one to say
Speaking warmly and clear, with His love shining bright
“Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

photo by:

My Sister Walking on Sand

St. John of Damascus

 

The gold frame, swung crooked again

draws my eye—and rehearsing: stepladder

and shift, retreat, observe, stepladder, shift

again, more to the right—deciding all

of that was still far too much to be born.

I think it hangs that way, anyway.

And the poster print of ships in deep harbor

behind the glass likes a slant—pitching decks

more pitched. I lean back, stroke the table’s grain

and think—if I can be forgiven for quoting

a saint—I will not cease from praising

matter, through which my salvation was worked.

 

 

My Sister Walking on Sand

 

As she steps, the small bones

of her small foot

lift to press against her skin,

stretched over them

like pink bats’ wings.

 

I can hear her joints groaning

as her arms swing

 

and everything floats on the surface

as she shivers into the ocean.

 

 

-Abigail

 


 

 


Tuesday

For Matthew Yarnell

 

1.

How appropriate, those two “ones” in eleven

standing side by side, the left only slightly longer. Like a left leg is slightly longer.

Or two haystacks standing side by side

one burning more quickly and thoroughly, the one that got the first match.

 

Korean grandmother beside me on the R train

Nose deep in her paper and sticky bun

feels the meteoric fireball warm her plastic window.

She glances up then turns back to Page Six.

 

I mumbled under my breath

I trust you with my life as I walked to 25th street station.

Steps from Greenwood Cemetery the almost ghosts of firemen screamed

up the Avenue, disturbing my reverie. I thought of the firemen I pulled groggy

from their beds to rescue a brood of half dead kittens pinned beneath scaffolding.

 

Later, drunk on gin and tonics I saw the image of the Virgin in soot;

human flesh and fax cover sheets carried on the breeze

to my brother’s front yard in Brooklyn. Financial Projections, Interoffice Memoranda,

singed at the edges, but otherwise perfect, unharmed.

 

2.

1986 Honda Civic, light blue, with Terrapin Station bumper sticker parked

under gathering trees. Pot & patchouli, Tijuana blankets in the backseat; forbidden

from riding in it I headed home. The next morning

it was wrapped around a telephone pole.

Then that next summer there was another car, a truck,

I traced its oil rainbows with my toe in a puddle outside Pasquale’s Pizza.

This time it was a boy I liked. Streets lubricated with summer rain, an unseen ditch, and ditchweed. Two teenaged

drivers lit like Roman candles on Christmas.

 

Only it wasn’t Christmas or even night.

It was Tuesday; clear and blue and beautiful.

You were fast asleep in the back seat of Kate’s dad’s

brand-new Passat as black ice pounded us for 6 hours on the New Jersey Turnpike

and a blazing, neon cross sneered from the grill of an 18- wheeler riding our tail.

 

I chewed my mouth to ribbons, a pocket-sized bird thrashed in my chest.

I recited the Lord’s Prayer (I made it up, I didn’t know the Lord’s Prayer),

and smoked. You slept, then the rain finally stopped.

 

The highway was about to end at Pittsburgh

When ice, or was it glass, shot out in a perfect arc, mid-air

It was the impact of a crash 30 feet in front of us.

Just keep driving baby, I said, just keep driving,

and we did, and the glass fell softly all around us.

But you knew nothing about this

You were asleep in the backseat and why would I tell you?

Should I have?

 

 

3.

Then so many year later, all that glass and fire and metal;

I saw the smoking carcass

(My brother and I’d walked 14 blocks with a wine buzz)

but I didn’t think of you immediately.

Or for days, even. I called your voice mail.

 

Then I remembered the view from your office

and how there aren’t any other buildings

with 103 floors. There aren’t any other buildings like that one,

from where standing and looking just right you can see

all the way back to your parents house in Jersey.

You can see all the way back to tiny cars and trains,

snaking one by one over the river and through the tunnel,

taking us, innocent as doves,

from one place to the next. From this life, to the next.

 

 

photo by:

Blank Slate


I hate to see that evening Sun bite down
one ruler for another, one America
for the next, the race starts over, fresh
forgetfulness.   Blank slate.

Firms fix to win
unless the grid browns down, turns black;
contender nations bud; the rush is on,
the riders high and winning’s all.

Overawed tots pop and thrive, sugar their thighs.
Hetty Greens titivate on Corporate War.
What fun!  And never-failure banks fleece the sky
while teeny-show-me-yours repeat cock-sure clichés.

And they’re off!  Pristine, the chargers gallop
bigger than grand – loser nags steered underground.

Photo by flickr user mheisel

Haint

In the highway’s curve, in the swept
light that precedes the car, I am
coming home. I imagine you
safe, enfolded in the blue quilt.
I know you’ll have left a lamp lit
as a pact with the fear I have
of stumbling, of entering the house
asleep to find no one I recognize.
I pull the wheel against the gravel’s slide.
There are more and more moments like this:
the key hesitates in the lock and I cannot
remember what side of the night I travel on.

Photo by Kelly Sauer.

Choose Your Words

One of the most striking tiny details in Madeleine L’Engle’s bracing and beautiful memoir, Two-Part Invention: The Story of a Marriage, is L’Engle’s habit of swimming for half an hour before breakfast while internally reciting an “alphabet” of verses:

The movement of the body through water helps mind and heart to work together . . . It is a good way of timing my swimming and by holding on to the great affirmations of the Psalms, of Coverdale and Cranmer, of John Donne and Henry Vaughan and Thomas Browne, I am sustained by the deep rhythm of their faith (169).

As she swam, L’Engle deliberately chose some of the words that would become part of her and would sustain her during the months her husband was dying of bladder cancer.

Slicing through a watery expanse. Sustained. Mind sharing cardiac rhythms. This is how many advocates of memorizing poetry describe their pursuit. “Between the covers of any decent anthology,” writes Jim Holt, whose mental anthology spans from Chaucer to present, “you have an entire sea to swim in.” Essayist Emily Gould speaks of “allowing the singsong of iambic pentameter to regulate my heartbeats.” More starkly, poet Mary Karr writes, “In memorizing the poems I loved, I ‘ate’ them . . . I breathed as the poet breathed to recite the words: someone else’s suffering and passion enters your body to transform you.”

In memorizing poetry, the words enter through eye or ear and become so intimate they are almost part of your cells. And the incredible thing is, when memorizing poetry, you get to choose which words become part of you.

How often does that get to happen?

Most of the words pinging around my brain got there by accident. There’s a Snack for That . . . If You’ve Been Seriously Injured . . . Can You Hear Me Now? . . . Everywhere You Look, There’s a Heart, There’s a Heart, There’s a Hand to Hold on To . . . These words have become like static that obscures words and meanings instead of enhancing them. Reading, and getting deliberately-chosen words into my head, is a way of reclaiming parts of my mind. A memorized line snaps me to attention, and then quiets me as I give the line my undivided thoughts. It’s a way of decluttering.

Each line of a poem is a mystery, a puzzle for the mind to solve. Good poems are mysteries so absorbing that only by carrying them around with me does the mystery begin to make sense. They give rest from the petty or profound life problems that often knot my brain, offering exuberant mysteries and calming rhythms. On the other hand, when the static foists itself to the fore, the only puzzle it gives me is “How’m I gonna get enough money to buy that?”

When lines of poems grab my thoughts, they make the world in front of me seem a little more graceful. It’s kind of like the thread of my thought doubles — something else, something good, a companion’s reminder, entwines my simple observation.

Photo: Sean Talbot

But, OK. Before my praises of poetry memorization get too lofty, I should let you know how much I suck at it.

When I was young, I was — like most kids — a walking tape recorder. My parents took care that the words that became part of me would be positive and poetic. I had awful dreams of rats and tarantulas (that, in hindsight, make me think that if those were my worst fears I had a pretty easy childhood). I’d wake up panting and see yellow teeth in the street lights’ variegated shadows and a hairy thorax in the ceiling’s cracks. My mother comforted me by helping me memorize Psalm 121, “He who watches over you will not slumber” and Psalm 139, “The darkness is not dark to You, but the night shines as the day.” Like L’Engle, she organized an alphabet of verses I could say to myself.

My memorization skills skedaddled long ago. Memorizing poetry or Scripture seems to require a silent soul, undivided attention, and love of repetition only possible as a child, when things like swinging back and forth for an hour are legitimate pursuits.

Last year, though, that detail in L’Engle’s memoir inspired me to try memorizing again.

So I tried to force-feed myself poetry, one small bite at a time. It was a crashing failure. Learning one small part at a time left things too disjointed. I couldn’t remember how it all worked together. So I gave up. Memorizing poetry was not for me. Not anymore. Face it: My brain just didn’t work that way these days.

But a funny thing happened this spring. I began to notice I was thinking poetry again. The words that were part of me were words that I welcomed.

I would walk in the woods and pass a beech tree. Its bark was smooth silver, its roots plunged into neon moss. And what came to mind was Wendell Berry’s Its roots passing lordly through the Earth.

Or, I would look out past the pond at my parents’ house, and the leaves of the early spring woods would be so thin that light behind them made them glow gold, and I would think sometimes of Frost’s Nature’s first green is gold / her hardest hue to hold (which of course came to me by way of The Outsiders) and sometimes of Berry’s The woods is shining this morning, delighted that he calls it simply the woods, like my siblings and I always called it, instead of the formidably poetic “Forest.”

Photo: Rebecca Tirrell Talbot

Or, I’d be cutting up a bony chicken, and what would come to mind but Dylan Thomas’s “And Death Shall Have No Dominion”?  Their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone, which I heard Thomas read aloud on the audio anthology Poetry on Record.

Or, when I’d wake up feeling tumultuous during a year of indecision, lines of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s desolate sonnets would rise: Call off thoughts awhile . . . leave comfort root-room . . .

Or, I’d hear mourning doves murmur bleakly and mockingbirds recite and think of lines of Psalms or the Sermon on the Mount that compassionate birds’ temporal nesting. Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself . . .

The thing is, I’d given up trying to memorize poetry, but I still read it. I taught a poetry unit last year and had students read Donne, Hopkins, Levertov, Milosz, Walcott, Berry, and two Herberts (George and Zbigniew) aloud. I had to read these poems over and over to offer any intelligent comment on them. And in just reading them over and over and again, their phrasing and patterns and rhythms did work the transformation that Holt, Gould, L’Engle, and Karr spoke of.

I won’t force-feed myself spoonfuls of poetry anymore. But I will keep reading poems and Scripture, over and over again ’til the mystery’s in my marrow.

Where Are We Now?

The image to the left it Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists”: that quintessentially Romantic image. In it, the solitary, heroic individual stands with his back to civilization, facing the Nature’s sublime and formless power. The color palate is earthy, mysterious, suggestive, and primitive. Vast distances stretch to the vanishing point directly behind the central human figure. This is the icon of the nineteenth-century Artist: the lonely Genius standing by himself before the infinite canvas of Nature’s might, untouched by squalid crowds, and bending Chaos to the shape of his Will.

Now, in your mind’s eye, change the picture. The man turns around, smiles, and beckons you forward with one hand, while his other gestures towards the scene, offering it for your interpretation. In place of jagged mountains, the skyscrapers of a cosmopolitan city rise through smog. Instead of swirling mists, the distances are crowded with working-class people, all cheerfully clamoring together as they pick up rocks, flowers, and rubbish for communal examination. Every ethnicity is represented in the throng, both genders, and all sorts of lifestyles.

This is the twenty-first-century arts scene: friendly, open, and diverse. The image of the Starving Artist in the garret has been supplanted by the Savvy Artist-Administrator in the office, on the stage, and on the iPhone.

A year ago, I began asking “Where are we now?” I was teaching at a homeschool program where each academic year corresponded to one historical time period. I had already taught literature and music from Medieval through Modern: the upcoming year would be “Postmodern” (1960-present). I realized that, while I had some idea of the prevailing ideas, themes, and techniques of the past (in Europe and North America), I could not characterize my own era with confidence.

So I set out to take the pulse of the moment. To do this, I began interview people in the arts.

For a year, I have posted these interviews on my blog. I have talked to poets, novelists, musicians, composers, actors, theatre directors, graphic designers, photographers, college arts students, arts educators, movie reviewers, a film art director, a sculptor, an editor, a publisher, an arts journalist, an arts theologian, and a former NEA chairman. I met them in New York City, Philly, the Berkshires, and my own Lehigh Valley; I talked to them on the phone; I interviewed them via email. I asked them the same questions over and over:

“What topics tend to recur in your work?”

“What specific techniques do you use?”

“What theories inform your work?”

“Do you think these are typical of those working in your genre?”

“Do you belong to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’?”

“Who are your favorite writers, composers, filmmakers?”

“How is the ‘sacred’ faring in contemporary North American arts?”

“How are the arts reacting to postmodernism, posthumanism, and globalization?”

“How do you think we got to the phase where we are now?”

“Where are we going?”

—and anything else that came up in conversation. We talked about the internet, Sherlock Holmes, mystical minimalism, Shakespeare’s view of time, recycling, the Parable of the Lost Chicken, adults with disabilities, Miley Cyrus, nude paintings, Pop Surrealism, quantum physics, Photoshop, Romeo & Juliet’s robot, dirty dancing, virginity, an inaudible instrument, missionary work, Greek and Buddhist chant, 3-D movies, El Sistema, vampires, and opera libretti. Mostly we talked about each individual artist’s work, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted to build up a picture of the current arts scene in North America by a series of snapshots.

Now I have a composite portrait, made up of glimpses into fifty-some-odd artistic lives, and what does that palimpsest reveal?

It reveals the death of Romanticism. Of course, we already knew that Romanticism is dead everywhere except, well, except for film scores, individualism, environmentalism, landscape painting, figurative sculpture, our idolatry of sexual romance… But we may have overlooked the fact that the Artist of the nineteenth century no longer works in the twenty-first.

The Solitary Genius has been replaced by the high-energy young artsy person who understands money, management, public relations, and education as well as she understands her craft. She believes art is an industry, not a monastery. This person, latte in one hand, SmartPhone in the other, opens up to the audience, inviting viewers to share in the creative process from idea through execution to interpretation. This suit-clad hard-working urbanite has one goal: engage the audience. It’s about collaboration, entertainment, openness, and diversity. It’s about real people, not inspired supermen. It’s about making connections across the arts.

A theatre company performs free Shakespeare plays in public. A pop singer stands around for hours, meeting her fans. An actor performs his life story, then holds a Q-&-A for audience members to drink beer and ask him about his religious journey. A symphony orchestra director and her visual artist husband recreate a Medieval altarpiece in conjunction with a musical performance. A violinist performs Pachelbel while a dancer dances and a painter paints—in church, during the worship service. A symphony orchestra invites college kids to sit amongst the musicians during a rehearsal. A theatre director invents a new genre of textual performance. A poet and a fiber artist collaborate on a chapbook, then the poet and a dancer perform a commentary on the Iraq war. An actress jumps into a freezing pond so a photographer can create composite images for a new style of graphic novel. A Broadway show tweets out to half a million followers. A painter sets up his easel in a Philadelphia park and talks to passers-by as he paints the Crucifixion.

Why? Why should artists care about reaching out to their audiences? Why should they take the time away from honing their peculiar craft?

Well, for one thing, because everybody’s broke, and nobody’s coming to the old-fashioned shows anymore. Every artist and arts organization continues to deal with the aging of its original, subscribing audience. Every artist and arts organization has to deal with technology. Audiences are asking: “Why should I pay all that money and go out in the cold when I can sit at home and watch it on YouTube?”

And for another, artists have to figure out what to do in a strange new environment of vapid freedom. As has happened over and over in the history of the arts, the old revolution became the new tyranny, then the new tyranny was overthrown, and the current rebels and their children stand in the colorless streets asking, “What do we do now?”

The revolution in poetry was the invention of free verse, around about the nineteen ’teens and ’20s. This led to a second wave of confessional verse. By the ’80s, the only way to be radical was to write formal poetry, and a poetry war began. All of the poets I interviewed pick and choose from the gamut of free and formal techniques without inhibition. Some of them have learned that the only way forward is back.

The big revolution in music was the invention of the 12-tone row, or dodecaphonic music, around about the 1940s. By the ’60s, this was the new establishment. Any composer who wanted to be taken seriously had to write 12-tone, or at least atonal, music. Minimalism was a re-reaction, but has become another familiar member of the ruling regime. Many of the composers I interviewed are trying to find a newly tonal voice of either simplicity or expansion.

The revolutions in the visual arts in the 20th century included cubism, photorealism, minimalism, pop surrealism, and street art. Some of these movements became so experimental that they threw the very nature of art into question. Some artists have reacted by retrograde motion. One painter I interviewed has returned to the meticulous, demanding, and dangerous techniques of Baroque glazing to create masterpieces on a scale and with an emotional impact like those of Velasquez, Goya, Caravaggio, and Vermeer. A sculptor I interviewed uses the 5000-year-old method of bronze casting, completing every stage of the work himself from the initial sculpture through making the molds, pouring the metal in his own foundry, and putting the patinas on the final sculpture.

So the old rebellion has become the new tradition, and the new rebellion is turning back to even older traditions. At this moment of transition, there is an openness to new ideas, new voices, new methods, and newcomers. The positive side of such openness is the rich variety it makes possible. The negative side is the proliferation of, quite simply, bad art. Also, art about badness. Lewd content is old hat. Moral certainty is rated as propaganda or, worse, hate speech. Nobody wants to admit to communicating a message through art.

And, unsurprisingly, hardly anybody wants to talk about theories, put themselves in categories, or offer a label for our times. One composer might consider herself a “Maximalist.” One poet might fit the term “Expansive Poetry.” One theatre director has developed “Panoramic Theatre.” One graphic designer advocates stewardship of the “Creative Economy.” There is a movement towards more Storytelling in literature, film, and radio. Form and Narrative are alive and well. While I am not prepared to label my era yet, either, all of these words suggest something large, welcoming, vital, and comprehensive.

Yet, oddly enough, while there are individual arts and artists worth getting excited over, American poetry is pretty boring right now, publishers are wondering if the Book is going extinct, the visual arts are a gallimaufry, and music is just struggling to pay the bills. Artists are searching for a sense of order in the universe. Contemporary art is trying to make meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a holistic cosmology or a rationalist epistemology. There is nothing to hold on to as towers fall, economies crash, and truth is always just out of reach.

Artists long to offer something for the sustenance of the inner life. They look to the past to find what the present is missing. They value mystery and intimation over virtuosity. The source of their inspiration is in their embodiment. Some of them are recovering their lost role as public voices: heralds of ceremony, satirists of government, and meaning-makers after tragedy. Beneath the varied techniques, artists offer what human beings have always needed: horror and hope, fear and faith, grief and glory. Dana Gioia told me, “I want my poems to have clear surfaces and troubling depths.” The art of the moment that has troubling surfaces and no depth will not last, no matter how accessible, engaging, entertaining, or inclusive. Works that are profound and well-crafted will last, as they have always done.

In Praise of the Book

This is the age of the Shuffle, the Snippet, the Selection, the Single Movement, and the Mashup. I’m not talking about dance styles — which might be exciting! — but about how we nibble at art in tidbits and soundbites. On our iPods, on the radio, and in our in-boxes, works of art are presented in shortened, abridged forms suitable for a bite-sized attention span. Today, iTunes Shuffle has served me single songs and movements from Bach, Byrd, U2, Enya, The Lord of the Rings, Chopin, Mozart, Verdi, “anonymous,” and others in random succession. On NPR last week, I heard a medley of favorite violin concerto tunes mashed together. An e-mail subscription to Davey’s excellent poem-a-day service has sent me, this week alone, short poems by C. S. Lewis, John Donne, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, and Dannie Abse. A gallimaufry indeed!

This selectivity into snippets, while it does allow sampling of many works and introduction to new artists, does not offer the spiritual and intellectual nourishment that comes with slow digestion of a work in its original entirety. Therefore, today I want to recommend The Whole Poetry Book. While the conventionally published Paper Poetry Book is a dying art, it is not dead yet. Primarily through book competitions rather than the traditional routes, poets still compile well-crafted volumes in which the arrangement is as much a work of art as each individual poem.

Reading a poetry book cover-to-cover is a vastly different experience from reading individual poems. It can be exhausting, as watching an entire opera can be exhausting. Yet like watching an entire opera or listening to an entire album of, say, mystical minimalism straight through, reading an entire volume of poetry provides nourishment to the heart, mind, and spirit. You get to know the poet intimately. You understand each individual poem better when you use the title, epigraph, and organization as commentaries. And you accompany the poet on a long, cathartic journey.

I have gotten to know several poets through their books of verse. While, of course, “the narrator is not the poet,” the composition of poetry is an act of personal exposure and the publication of poetry is an act of public intimacy. Through Line Dance, I learned what Barbara Crooker loves: impressionist paintings, the French language, homely birds and flowers, music, dance, cooking, and every person in her family. Clutched close, then let free. In Abacus and What the Living Do, Mary Karr and Marie Howe (respectively) howl out their family agony in primal pain. My heart howls along. A wolf under the moon. A child hiding from abusive parents. A grown-up hiding from love. In Tantalus in Love, Alan Shapiro records the inside and outside of a dying marriage with exquisite skill and filigreed detail: his wife’s beautiful body, poised in yoga each morning, just out of touch; his children, watching their parents dancing and laughing together for the last time. Autobiographical or not, volumes of poetry feather open the writer’s human heart and lay it, pinned and spread, on butterfly pages. Your tears will splash on the dusty wings.

I have come to understand individual poems better through their placement in the meta-poem of The Whole Poetry Book, especially by using the title, epigraph, or eponymous poem as commentary. The chapbook Something Must Happen by Ned Balbo opens with two quotations: one by W.H. Auden that begins “For poetry makes nothing happen,” and one by Kay Ryan, “But sometimes / something happens.” Each piece within the chapbook, then, argues that “something must happen” as a result of the making of verse. “Snow in Baghdad,” the opener, subtly claims that naming can define, disguise, or create realities. The penultimate poem, “Holy Wars for Us,” abruptly offers the opposite view: real violence can blow apart anything made by words.

Books often hinge on the title poem; The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert and Rising Venus by Kelly Cherry are two examples. On page 12, Jack Gilbert says, “Love is one of many great fires.” This bursts into manifold meanings throughout the book; marriage, grief, memory, loneliness, beauty, desire, the light on leaves and buildings in cities all over the world are some of the “great fires” that consume poet and reader. And Kelly Cherry takes the reader through three quarters of her book before the third section, a series of ekphrastic poems, reveals the core “where love, / a woman, by Jove, // survives, strong and free, / engendering her own destiny.” This works its way forwards and backwards through all the engagements with art, work, and men of Rising Venus.

Sometimes the title carries what C. S. Lewis called “The Kappa Element” — the unspoken, ubiquitous atmosphere or overall “feeling” of a book, which we usually remember in adjectives. Averno by Louise Glück begins with an explanation; Averno, or Avernus, was a little town near a small crater lake that the ancient Romans thought was the entrance to the underworld. Hades casts his gloomy fog — the gray, thoughtful, regretful atmosphere of a pre-Christian underworld — over every poem. A series of perspectives on Persephone, scattered throughout the book, reinforces this aged sadness, and takes the reader on a quieter journey than Dante’s, through a bleaker, monochrome vision of death and of life in the light of death.

This experience of an emotional or intellectual journey is probably the most valuable, and the most difficult, reward of reading entire volumes of verse. The binding threads are more likely to be ideas or perspectives than characters or conflicts. They are only one small degree removed from the science, logic, or philosophy book. Natural Theology by Kelly Cherry, for instance, took me long and deep. It ushered me into silence, music, empty space, crowded space, æons of time past and future, and a kind of mental concentration that was pleasantly refreshing. Two lines into Natural Theology, I was witnessing the instant of birth; one line later, gestation or conception; twenty-four lines in, I swam into the primordial soup; by the end of the poem, I was all the way back at the very start of life, the universe, and the possibility of love. Compelled by a restless inner seeking, the book went on to probe in all directions until it reached ultimate beginnings and endings.

Three other poets are also taking me on pensive journeys: Seamus Heaney in The Spirit Level, Heather Thomas in Blue Ruby (I’m still reading these two), and W. S. Merwin in The Shadow of Sirius. The content of each is profound (these three poets being people of expansive mind), but the road is actually an exploration of technique. If I were to read one poem by Heaney, the story would strike me first, or his insight into memory, or his accuracy at rendering a psychological moment, or his wide comprehension of history in particulars. But when I read page after page, what impresses me most is his method. He begins with keen observation and carefully-crafted description, then, using an ordinary object as a fulcrum, twists and leaps off into universals. Poem after poem after poem, book after book after book.

Heather Thomas pushes language. She stretches it to bear her spirit. Sometimes she pulls it into long lines, sometimes pours it through a narrow form, sometimes draws it out beyond punctuation. She makes the end of the line perform at the extremity of its ability; now making it take on a concluding role, now making it serve as a connection. Nothing is arbitrary. Nothing is for granted. In the clarity of her mind, language simultaneously serves her purpose and is the master whom she serves.

W. S. Merwin’s latest book is even more mentally exhausting, for one simple and surprising reason: it uses no punctuation whatsoever. Line after line, page after page, without one period, semicolon, or even comma! I was frustrated after about a dozen poems. How are they to be read? The ambiguity was driving me mad. But then I chanced to read one almost aloud, under my breath (on a train), and it sprang into life. It became a glorious piece of music, a lyric, a love song, riding on rhythms as pleasing as those of the train. I think the poem was “Far Along in the Story,” and it begins:

The boy walked on with a flock of cranes

following him calling as they came

from the horizon behind him

sometimes he thought he could recognize

a voice in all that calling but he

could not hear what they were calling

Try reading it silently first, without even the mental articulation of “reading aloud to yourself.” The frustration — and the joy — comes from phrases that can belong to either those before or those after them. For instance, line three could be punctuated thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came from the horizon behind him” or thus, “a flock of cranes following him, calling as they came. From the horizon behind him, sometimes he thought he could recognize a voice.” And so on. But then read the poem out loud, and it all springs into meaning(s) and into music. And then try reading the entire book this way!

Reading poetry like this — slowly, out loud, experimenting with inflection — is an act of dedication, even an act of devotion or meditation, because you must read each poem three, four, five, or more times so that you can try each line in relation to every other, tasting the ambiguities, reveling in the metrical pleasures. Reading poetry this way, through the length and breadth of an entire book, is exhausting. But it is far more rewarding than exhausting, and well worth the mental effort. So next time you read poetry, dedicate the time to reading an entire book.

photo by:

The Grafted Willow:
My Poetry Family Tree

Most poets can tell you who their poetic grandparents, cousins, brothers, and sisters are – maybe not every single poet who preceded them, but those whose work or style transformed or contributed significantly to their own voice as a poet, even if it was just with one poem. April is National Poetry Month in the United States, which makes it a fine time for me to consider my own poetic ancestors.

I realize my growth story as a poet isn’t uncommon. My mom diligently and passionately read to both my older brother, David, and me when we were children. She read The Swiss Family Robinson, the Bible, Sesame Street books, her own nursing books; you name it, and she either read it to us or encouraged us to read it ourselves.

The Psalms always stuck to my ribs. The Psalmists’ passion and range of emotion, not to mention their amazing imagery, comparisons, and figurative language, ignited me. I wanted the emotional freedom I saw available within those poems.

I started seriously writing poetry when I was fifteen, after an incident with my older brother. Later in high school, as I began reading more poetry on my own, I clung to poets such as Edgar Allen Poe, Langston Hughes, Anne Sexton, and Walt Whitman. Common enough figures in most high school English classes, they were also the poets to whom I returned, for various reasons. From Poe, I learned to cultivate an ear to hear the music which sprung from within words in a way I’d never encountered before. His Gothic subject matter was an added bonus for an already-somber kid.

Hughes, Sexton, and Whitman attracted me mostly for their subject matter: each of them wrote as a sort of outcast, or outside observer, who desperately admired the beauty they saw in the tragic world and within themselves. Hughes also played jazz with his simple diction and syntax, a musical style I hadn’t heard before. Sexton sang sad songs yearning for peace, God, and reconciliation with herself. I particularly dug her Transformations – fairy tales acknowledging the terror of being a wife and mother. And Whitman – he wanted it all, and I admit, he wooed me, too, with his lusty, inviting lines that spooled along forever.

But in high school, I also read a lot about the Vietnam War. I’d been molested by two different guys at two different times in my life, and so I shared some of the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Reading poetry from Vietnam Vets in the anthologies, Unaccustomed Mercy and Winning Hearts and Minds, and other factors, enabled me to deal with my own issues and inability, and yes, initial unwillingness, to express myself vocally. I was also struggling with reconciling my religious beliefs and my desires and feelings. So poetry was for me, as it is for so many others, a much-needed outlet. But thankfully, I didn’t stay in the expunging stage of writing.

A good family friend, Dr. Sarah Bell, first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to me in her office in Athens, Georgia. I’d graduated from high school and was planning on attending the University of Georgia. I’d passed over T.S. Eliot before, but wow, this was amazing-the sounds, the imagery, and the loneliness mixed in with sadness, wistfulness, and mystery; holy crap, how cool! I guess I got hit with Eliot at the right time, and maybe Sarah knew enough to see when the time was prime.

After Eliot, I started revising more – or rather, I had a slightly firmer grasp on the function and necessity, the power, of revision. And Sarah’s constructive criticism helped, too. I still kept at the Vietnam Veteran poets, and Sexton, Hughes, and King David. I continued writing consistently, too.

Fast forward to my last couple of undergrad years, now at the University of Southern Mississippi, studying under the guidance of Angela Ball and Dave Berry (one of the vet poets I’d idolized). Ball introduced me to James Wright and Frankie O (Frank O’Hara), while Berry encouraged his workshop students to laugh a little, to make jokey poems with serious punches. I had a lot of time to fail in my writing, to wriggle in various skins, most of them not my own. Wright taught me how to use a seemingly-simple image, and to whittle that image down through the process of the poem, to get to the heart of what I wanted to understand through images. Frankie O taught me to say it plainly, but that even saying it plainly can be complicated and fun. “It’s okay to be yourself,” he seemed to say. “If you like Cherry Coke, throw a Cherry Coke in there.”

At USM, in my own research, I also began focusing on contemporary haiku and senryu written in English. I admired the work of Gary Hotham, Stanford Forrester, and ai li, but I also looked back at older masters including Bashō and Issa, and the contemporary Yamaguchi Seishi. Haiku and senryu taught me the value of concision, of dynamite created when you pack words tightly.

Then, I moved away to the Ph.D. program at Texas Tech. I’d somehow gotten into this place poetically where I felt like I had to be smart because I had studied contemporary graduate school poems, and I included little of myself but my brain in the poems. One of my fellow poets, Aaron Rudolph, suggested that I put more of myself into my work, that I take those emotional risks which effective poems take.

So I did. My poems grew surprisingly more tasty, and less like sawdust. As an added bonus, an anthology of prose poetry, No Boundaries, fell into my lap. After researching the genre, I kept returning to Charles Baudelaire, Russell Edson, and Mary Koncel. I laughed at how Baudelaire’s flaneur treated people like crap and then, in the very next sentence, talked about how a beautiful cloud shone. The contrasting tones tripped me out. Meanwhile, Edson and Koncel challenged me to work in a magical realism with emotional significance, spiritual possibility, and interesting props.

Since Tech, I’ve incorporated prose poetry into my set of skills and have moved on. I’ve written, over the last five years, a book of poetic responses to others’ poems, in both verse and prose poetry.

I can’t say where I’m going poetically, and I’m not worried about it at all. I like where I am, but I don’t plan on staying here. Yet what does this mean for you? What do I want you to get out of my story?

I hope it inspires you to consider your own story, to think critically about how those who have worked in your own discipline before you have affected you, and what you’ve really learned from them. I hope to pass along these poets’ lives and works in the spirit of giving, with the chance that they might contribute to your own life and work. Finally, I hope this lights a flame of desire within you to create, to make the next poem, next song, next quilt, which future artists can warm their hearts and hands by.

Technology: good for poetry?

From the Telegraph: The Internet is causing a poetry boom.

Poetry reading groups – known as “series” – are becoming stronger thanks to the growth of online communities to back them up, he said.

“These reading series often have Facebook groups around them. The net is helping smaller networks get together across the country so there’s now more sense of solidarity between them.”

And rather than making poetry pamphlets “obsolete”, Mr Price said the internet had provided “a limitless shop window for a new generation of small presses and micro-publishers”.

Q & A with Elizabeth Alexander

From Newsweek: Inauguration poet Elizabeth Alexander – “The arts have a place in conversation”:

What message do you think Obama is sending by including a poet in the ceremony?
It’s that the arts have a place in conversation, that poetry, its distillation, its precision, its mindfulness, models for us a way that we might stop and think and choose our words with care, that we might offer our ideas and experiences to each other with precision and care, I think that’s what poetry shows us.

Letter to a Young Poet

So vast was my fanboy admiration of Billy Collins when I was in college, so unencumbered by facts my ambition, and so shameless my neophytic insolence, that I wrote the Poet Laureate of United States a poem. An overconfident challenge ineptly disguised as a fan letter. It said, I am ashamed now to paraphrase:

Dear Mr. Collins, Distinguished Professor of English at Lehman College of the City University of New York, respected peer of The New Yorker, deserving recipient of the National Endowment of the Arts fellowship, and all-around literary badass – you may in fact hold the highest appointed position of any American poet, but I’m a really really good English major, so, you know, make room.

I know.

And to make the audacity truly laughable, I wrote all this in the form of a poem. I will not here share that poem. Suffice to say that contrary to my undergraduate assertion, I was not really really good.

Points of Entry
• Billy Collins will be a speaker at the annual IAM Encounter, February 26-28, 2009 in New York City. (IAM is the publisher of The Curator.)
‚Ä¢ You can buy Billy Collins’ books on Amazon.com.

The poem, titled “Upon Reading Canada,” was an epistolary one-pager. No rhyme, meter, rhythm, or purposeful cadence worth mentioning – “free verse” would be what they aptly call it. It shared with Mr. Collins’s poetry only its general typographic shape. The rest was a haphazard cocksure motif of Billy Collins himself, cast as the heavy weight champion of the world. You see, boxing rings have lines in the form of boundary ropes, which you must grapple within. This is metaphorically similar to writing, which also incorporates lines-this time, of words.

You can see that the Muses had clearly favored me with a friend request.

As the poem swaggered on, I may have made unsubtle claims that a young challenger was on the way to the ring (this challenger was not, say, the talented Emanuel Xavier, but rather myself). You may have guessed that I wrote, printed, and mailed this poem in the span of thirty minutes, and you would be right.

Nonetheless, there is a shred of dignity I glom onto when remembering how poorly I presented myself to Mr. Collins. I was, after all, an infatuated 19-year-old. Armed suddenly with the tool of close reading, I had discovered my first Olympian. Rarely do you laugh out loud reading poetry. This is a disappointment I did not endure while devouring his books in my dorm hall. I was shushed by many a sleepy neighbor, but I would never let them mute the blaring advertisements that I was, right then, getting something terribly witty.

The truth is Mr. Collins is achingly clever. It is the first temptation in reading his poetry to assume you will only be entertained. His work is described as “gently and consistently startling,” (John Updike), “sometimes tender, often profound,” (NY Times), and “refreshingly devoid of tweed and pomp,” (some dude on Amazon).

I will not go into a close reading of Collins’s poetry. I can’t. I tried. A few hours ago I picked up Sailing Alone Around the Room to find a single poem I could dissect for you. After finishing it, I then picked up Picnic, Lightning. Then The Art of Drowning, my personal favorite. They were all delicious.

I will say his poems dazzled and sucker punched me that first time. Like all writers, my highest compliment could only be that I wished I had written each one. To credit my college self a tiny bit, this was the ending of the poem I sent him. It was upon reading his poem, “Canada,” that I thought I had discovered his first mistake. As I put it then, I felt almost relieved to see one poem, at least, that wasn’t perfect in my besotted gaze.

My reasoning for thinking ill of the poem is unclear. I think I pounced on a certain repetition of a phrase within as an error of redundancy. I’m not sure. Of course, by the time I had finished the poem, the purposefulness of each line had been made clear.

In the metaphor of the boxers, this is the unseen knockout blow. A wink from the champ preceded it, I was sure.

In a lot of ways, I suppose the redundancy is mine. This piece, too, seems like nothing but a fan letter. As for self-effacing, self-aggrandizing claptrap, well, there are more uses of the first person than the name Billy Collins. In terms of literary contests, I suppose I could lift more of his hardback editions than he could. Of mine, we could lift an equal weight, zero. Supposing we were both mysteriously turned into dancing bears, I think I’d have an easier go of it. Boxing kangaroos would be his, but never the dancing bears.

At the risk of an all-out flame war, comparable to the east coast/west coast rappers of the 90s, I will say that Mr. Collins is a fine poet, but possibly a pitiful air traffic controller. This in addition to his underwhelming performance as a dancing bear.

And lest anyone think I am overstepping with the Guggenheim Fellow, please know the kindly gentlemen has tooth enough to defend himself. Six weeks after I sent off my poem, I was standing in my dorm lobby, buttoning my coat before rushing into the autumn gale. The lady at the front desk said, “here,” to save herself the effort of sorting my mail. A letter addressed from the office of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, in the Poetry and Literature Center, The Library of Congress, United States of America. The watermark was a bald eagle. There was only the following in verbatim, in toto:

Dear Daniel,

Ready to put the gloves on with you anytime, punk. See you at the weigh-in.

Bring your friends,

Billy Collins.

photo by:

One of Authenticity’s Last Great Sanctuaries?


Photo: Sean Talbot

It didn’t surprise me when Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement and host of the Uptown Poetry slam, told me that ministers sometimes “lurk in the shadows” of the Green Mill Lounge, a prohibition-era Chicago speakeasy, during the Sunday night poetry slam. When I first moved to Chicago, I, too, lurked in the flickering light cast by tabletop candles. I entered the Green Mill as hungrily as church and found fragments of meaning that sparked and floated down like ashes from a campfire.

There are few public spaces in which it is safe to be real, and this is a large reason the Uptown Poetry Slam draws crowds.

Perhaps this dearth of safe public spaces is a remnant of Victorian codes of etiquette that chided us not to “introduce politics, religion, or weighty topics for conversation when making calls.”1 While our age bristles at Victorian morals, this etiquette has made it tactless to be curious about others and difficult to broach “weighty topics.” It sanctions our resistance to vulnerability, and so, growing up and growing respectable become processes of boarding up the delicate aspects of one’s identity. Becoming accustomed to city life, too, is a process of letting less and less of one’s private self show on a face that pushes through crowds.

And so it’s rare to find a public space, much less an urban space, offering a sanctuary where people can reveal the selves that so many of us quarantine-brittle with unanswered questions, restless because of broken relationships. Revelation is what poetry slammers do in the Uptown Poetry Slam Sunday after Sunday.

Marc Smith yells, “Hey, turn that jukebox off!” or cues the band to a lull, and launches into an interactive shtick (beginning, more or less, with, “I’m Marc Smith,” met with a resounding, “So what?!!”). After that, performance poets step onto the stage with jazz musicians who will improvise along with the poems if poets want them to.


Marc Smith, founder of the poetry slam movement.
Photo: Sean Talbot

The slammers dive right into pieces about rejected marriage proposals, questioned destinies, lost childhood and contemplated abortions. One poet read about the night he murdered his wife.2

It’s baffling. How can people stand in front of strangers and say things they could hardly stammer to a close friend?

“We all need public validation of who we are,” says Smith. “To speak in front of your fellow human beings is very important.” Performance poet Molly Meacham adds, “If you air a wound, it will heal.” In presenting poems that are personal, wounds are out in the open, and poets can say things the audience may feel but can’t yet put into words. Competing in the national slam, Meacham has experienced this. There is an instant communication, and an instant gratification as the poet sees his or her words grabbing the audience.

Meacham cautions against being too raw, however. “I was lucky enough to have a thick skin,” she says. Poets who don’t have a thick skin, or who gush emotion without crafting it, aren’t likely to survive the demands of frequent performance, where they are susceptible to critique.

“The stage is not therapy!” said slammer Robbie Q. one night after a sentimental performer left the stage one night. You have to purchase credibility, he told me. You have to get the audience to relate to you, with humor, for instance, “or by making fun of Marc.”

Points of Entry
• Finding a poetry slam near you may be as easy as visiting www.poetryslam.com.
• Read more about poetry slams at Wikipedia.

Poetry slams started in 1987 with honesty as a goal. Smith had found chemistry between poetry and acting. He decided poetry readings should no longer be what he calls “bogus affairs” controlled by the literary elite and leaving everyday people scratching their heads.

Early on, Chicago’s literati derided the slammers as “just a bunch of drunks in a tavern,” says Smith, but when he asked the audience their occupations around that time, he discovered a group of physicists sitting smack in the front row. At the time, turning poetry into a performance was taboo, but Smith wanted poetry to have the vibrancy that only acting could give it, and people from all walks of life came to crave it.

In the early days, he felt that slam was akin to folk art, where it’s not precision but honesty that defines art. “Slam is not about making stars,” Smith’s website affirms. “It’s about everybody all together in a room with their hair down and their feet up.”

It reminds me of sculptor Claes Oldenburg‘s credo that he is for an “art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top… an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary.” Slam embroils itself with the everyday crap, and it uses whatever means necessary.


Poet Emily Rose at the Green Mill
Photo: Sean Talbot

There is no telling what a night at the slam will be like. It is poetry meets Vaudeville meets Gong Show meets, well . . .

“Is this like the Rocky Horror Picture Show?” one newcomer asks Marc as he makes the rounds to talk with members of the audience.

“Yeah, it’s like that.”

The first portion of the show is open mic. Anyone-amateur or pro-can walk in, meet Marc, and add his or her name to the list of performers. If it’s their first time reading in public, they’re dubbed a “virgin virgin,” which is often the only razzing they get from Marc, who may encourage the neophyte to join the slam competition, the third and final portion of the show, where slammers compete for a whole ten dollars. The middle section features a performer or group of performers-anyone from a local singer/songwriter, to a man who performs It’s A Wonderful Life in ten minutes, to a professional slam poet.

On any night at the slam, the audience can catch at least a few fragments of meaning. Fragments like these:

From the poet Stella, whose name Smith yells like he’s Stanley Kowalksi: “There is a river flowing backwards from death to life.”


Photo: Sean Talbot

From poet Tennessee Mary: “Our best laid plans are there for God’s amusement.”

From Smith, performing George Cabot Lodge: “This is the song of the wave, that died in the fullness of life.”

From poet Derek Brown: “In death, I’ll resemble more a pilot light than a man.”

On a night when every aspect is “on” – which is in itself a strange alchemy, since so little is planned – the present seems more palpable and immediate than usual, crammed full of meaning. Moments brim full of other moments in life. Lines of poems spark with the audience’s unanswered and unanswerable questions, their satisfying and ecstatic moments of life, fears and fumbles, and frenetic quests for meaning. I’ve experienced a few such nights there.

The night, for instance, back in my days of faithful slam attendance, when Smith started off with Carl Sandburg’s “Skyscraper“: “By day the skyscraper looms in the smoke and sun and has a soul.” When Marc performs, he may walk through the audience, pat them on the back, whisper, shout, sing, bang out a few chords on the grand piano, raise his hands to the ceiling and gesture twinkling stars. The traditional podium of poetry readings must be side-stepped, the audience captivated with drama and interaction.

The night continued with professional slammer Derek Brown, who used phrases structured like a Hebrew psalm: “It was the dawn of weird, the morning of strange.” He told us he couldn’t explain “why I’m feeling God more in a pool hall than in a church.” Then in a crescendoing passage, he listed ordinary occurrences – a clumsy first kiss, a drunken night with friends – and after listing each, he took the tone of a priest offering benediction, saying, “holy” in rising momentum after each ordinary occurrence.

And so, the everyday people, the ministers, poets, actors, ex-cons, newsstand owners, teachers, physicists and hot dog vendors, gather in the candlelight, tapping along to the jazz beat, eyes reflecting the glow of the neon Green Mill sign on the stage, all looking for meaning, and on some nights, finding more than we can hold.


1 Hill, Thomas E., The Essential Handbook of Victorian Etiquette. San Francisco: Bluewood Books, 1994.

2 He tells us he spent many years in prison, where he met Chicago’s legendary “Killer Poet,” also once a Green Mill regular.

She Spoke to Silence


Photo: Houston Chronicle

For a little over a year, I’ve struggled with a variety of health issues. The particulars are boring (and odd), but I will say that most people bounce back from such ailments in 1-2 months. Obviously, I am not one of those people. I’m healing all right, but at a maddening snail’s pace. I strive for a martyr-like demeanor, yet I won’t acquire sainthood anytime soon. I’m not a good sufferer. I’ve grasped for comfort all the year long day, primarily by way of reading. Somewhere along my book trail, I discovered the poet Vassar Miller, a fellow Houstonian, afflicted with cerebral palsy since birth (1924). I was humbled by this lady who suffered with more severity, and more grace than I have. I was inspired by poem after poem, like spoonfuls of medicine when my words seemed to fall short.

I remain enchanted, wishing we had met in person. Vassar Miller was a poet of great courage and skill, a crusader for the disabled, a self-taught theologian, and a teacher of creative writing at The University of St. Thomas, near her museum-district home. She had a raucous, bold laugh, even if she fell from the motorized cart which whisked her to class and back home again. She would proclaim, “Don’t help me. I can do it myself.” Bach oratorios, chocolate ice cream, her dogs, friends, and Sundays were among her favorite things. If asked her life-mantra, she’d say, “To write. And to serve God.” Frances Sage described her as “a rather shy, friendly woman with intelligent eyes, warm, and interested in conversation.”

Though her speech halted and skipped, her brain was sharp and she did not avoid poetry readings. With her typical, healthy sense of humor she described this in “Introduction to a Poetry Reading”:

I was born with my mod dress sewn onto my body,
stitched to my flesh,
basted to my bones.
I could never, somehow, take it all off
to wash the radical dirt out.
I even carry my own rock
hard in my mouth,
grinding it out bit by bit,
So, bear me
as I bear you.
high, in the grace of greeting
.

She was who she was largely due to her parents. Her bookish Dad lugged home his typewriter from work for Vassar to play with, and criticized her early, trite poetry. Her stepmom encouraged her to read and write; both parents took on her education at home until she entered junior high. After receiving B.S. and M.A. degrees from UH, Miller accomplished more than most able-bodied people. She published nine volumes of poetry, edited a literary anthology (Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems), was included in numerous periodicals, selected as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (1961), named the poet laureate of Texas (1988; alternate in 1982), and inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame (1996).

She was admired by such peers as Donald Hall, Denise Levertov, Miller Williams, and most famously, Larry McMurtry. He hadn’t the greatest opinion of Texas writers (in 1981), but he singled out Vassar Miller as an exception, “That she is to this day little known, read, or praised in Texas is the most damning comment possible on our literary culture.” Even so, at age 74, she died virtually unknown (though there is a Vassar Miller Prize in Poetry). There might be a few clues to this mystery.

She had decided to live in Houston, outside the mainstream of poetry in New York. A woman of unflinching faith, she dipped her lame feet in two churches: St. Stephen’s Episcopal in the morning for the rituals of liturgy; Covenant Baptist in the afternoon for the music and diversified congregation. She often wrote in traditional forms, bucking against the popular poetry of her day – the Beats and Confessional poets – though her words were of common, American language. She unabashedly used themes that disturbed many – suffering, isolation, the silence of God, the naked self, the ineffable, and self-acceptance of her life’s constraints.

Regardless, Miller’s timeless, poetic voice upholds her reputation to this day. The core of her vision was that complex, unsentimental faith, with nods to the mystics, John Donne’s anguish, and George Herbert’s fervor. At times there’s a similarity to Flannery O’Connor as well. Both women were straight-shooters, right from the hip. They never apologized for their beliefs and often confounded their faithful brethren. Their respective afflictions were not the impetus to write, though I think it toughened them into sages. Whatever was in their mind’s eye is what you get. And as Levertov said, Miller did not care if her peers were listening. She rarely read her contemporaries. She believed that poets write to their deepest selves. Miller has also been deemed the Emily Dickinson of the 20th century, for her sources were personal and domestic, scenes of her solitude and feelings. Whether she recalls another writer to mind or not, she was in fact a living paradox: a successful, modern religious poet. “Without Ceremony” is just one poem of many that sums up her identity:

Except ourselves, we have no other prayer;
Our needs are sores upon our nakedness.
We do not have to name them; we are here.
And You who can make eyes can see no less.
We fall, not on our knees, but on our hearts,
A posture humbler far and more downcast;
While Father Pain instructs us in the arts
Of praying, hunger is the worthiest fast.
We find ourselves where tongues cannot wage war
On silence (farther, mystics never flew)
But on the common wings of what we are,
Borne on the wings of what we bear, toward You,
Oh Word, in whom our wordiness dissolves,
When we have not a prayer except ourselves
.

In my reading of Vassar Miller, a few critics felt she was a Texas poet, though not a poet of Texas; they could not find the geography in her work. As I’ve lived in Houston most of my 33 years, I must respectfully disagree. I’ve listened to the droning sing-songs of cicadas all summer, thinking of this elegant lady. Cicadas, hurricanes, endless summers of heavy heat, and drab, snowless Januaries appear in her poems quite often:

Unwinding the spool of the morning, / the cicada spins his green song,
(“Invocation” from Onions and Roses)

Hurricane, hurricane, / blow me away,
(“Invocation” from If I Had Wheels or Love)

. . . the cicadas’ antiphonal choirs / one memory’s and one desire’s . . .
caught in the yellow honey of the heat
.
(“High Noon”)

Even if a sense of place is not a prominent theme in Miller’s work, these glimpses of the Gulf Coast make me swell with Texan pride, proof-positive that her genius resided in my city. I’ve just about raised Vassar Miller to heroine status, among a select few: Mother Teresa, Flannery O’Connor, Billie, a local nursing home resident, my mom, my aunts, and my grandmothers. Each of these women looked head on in the face of suffering and survived. They not only survived, but extended their hands to anyone within reach. Intentionally or not, they impress on my frail heart how to persevere, smile, and even laugh when darkness settles in; they teach how to look beyond pain to service. My paternal grandmother did all of this and then some. When I was too young to philosophize, she taught me an invaluable lesson. As Parkinson’s Disease ravaged her nervous system, I witnessed that the disabled are not defined by handicap. As a child I didn’t know the term “Parkinson’s.” I knew “Memaw.” My grandmother and her soft, radiant smile whenever I walked in the room. In adulthood, this is how I vividly remember her.

Through her quiet, humble, successful life, Vassar Miller teaches us to see the physically handicapped in just this way. Not a twisted body, but a human being. To not gawk, stare, or point. Look into the eyes of every person – medical jargon is not their name. Do not fear or pity a bent spine, a shiver of tremors; be patient with a stuttering tongue. Love our neighbors with an artist’s eye, with imagination, for there is surely more than meets a healthy eye. Have courage; you might be surprised to find beauty within illness, perhaps more than you can bear. A broken body it may be, but a glimpse of restoration shimmers below; a reminder that the Fall is not forever.

In the introduction to Despite This Flesh, Miller speaks directly to the handicapped: your greatest crutch is to be ashamed in light of society’s erroneous opinion. Remember the Body from which you come. Whether they’ve learned so or not, our culture desperately needs each foot, hand, ear, eye, nose, body. One arm may be lame, but in another time, it will be whole. And to writers: you have a special eye – you see what some cannot. Poets: your eye is especially free from prejudice, or so it should be. Hold your mirror to what is truthful. The race does not always belong to the swift.

Obviously, Vassar Miller’s poetic sensibilities and her faith cannot be ignored. She stated them as her connecting vision of life, “Liturgy has always seemed to me the poetry of worship, humanity’s poor best for the infinite. Formal language and syntax have always been my personal struggle for order in what has often seemed my disorderly world.” In a very real sense, religion and poetry were, to some degree, her stay against shadows and madness, part of her trinitarian view of poetry: it is sanctifying, creative, and redemptive. Sanctifying in that poetry bestows order on erratic emotions and events. Creative in that it gives shape, makes a relic, where only a mass of thoughts and sensations were before. Redemptive in that a poem makes art from cast-off words, giving them value.

Vassar Miller was well-versed in theology, and she probably knew quite a lot about St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians wherein he stated, “we are His workmanship.” Miller’s life being immersed in words, I bet she knew that in the Greek, workmanship is “poiema.” Human beings are God’s poems. If I may further speculate, I’d say that’s why she championed the handicapped. Despite cerebral palsy, she knew that in her Maker’s eye, she was crafted well. Her body was out of order, but her soul held rhyme and reason.

Some of my best teachers are writers. And to my (selfish) benefit, they leave behind lessons I can turn to again and again. Vassar Miller teaches me to not cater to whim or sensation; write and live what is true and timeless to humanity; have tenacity in the face of suffering. Keep speaking toward the silence of God. And believe it or not, for all the beauty and groaning of sunshine, autumn leaves, sparrows, gardenias, or sheltering clouds, it is you and I – our bodies broken to some degree, our tongue a dangerous thing – who have memory, sin, suffering, and something to look forward to, even now:

The sun has no history.
Only I, bearing
my Adam and Eve on my back,
dragged under, dragged down, may leap
up to the saddle of hope
.
(from “The Sun Has No History”)


For Further Reading:

If I Had Wheels or Love: Collected Poems of Vassar Miller

Heart’s Invention: On the Poetry of Vassar Miller (Steven Ford Brown, ed.)

Despite This Flesh: the Disabled in Stories and Poems (Vassar Miller, ed.)

A Genius Obscured” (published in Sojourners)