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Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Number 330: Stephen Dobyns "Tomatoes"


A woman travels to Brazil for plastic
surgery and a face lift.  She is sixty
and has the usual desire to stay pretty.
Once she is healed, she takes her new face
out on the streets of Rio. A young man
with a gun wants her money. Bang, she's dead.
The body is shipped back to New York,
but in the morgue there is a mix-up. The son
is sent for. He is told that his mother
is one of these ten different women.
Each has been shot. Such is modern life.
He studies them all but can't find her.
With her new face, she has become a stranger.
Maybe it's this one, maybe it's that one.
He looks at their breasts. Which ones nursed him?
He presses their hands to his cheek.
Which one consoled him? He even tries
climbing into their laps to see which
feels most familiar but the coroner stops him.
Well, says the coroner, which is your mother?
They all are, says the young man, let me
take them as a package. The coroner hesitates,
then agrees. Actually, it solved a lot of problems.
The young man has the ten women shipped home,
then cremates them all together. You've seen
how some people have a little urn on the mantel?
This man has a huge silver garbage can.
In the spring, he drags the garbage can
out to the garden and begins working the teeth,
the ash, the bits of bone into the soil.
Then he plants tomatoes. His mother loved tomatoes.
They grow straight from seed, so fast and big
that the young man is amazed. He takes the first
ten into the kitchen. In their roundness,
he sees his mother's breasts. In their smoothness,
he finds the consoling touch of her hands.
Mother, mother, he cries, and he flings himself
on the tomatoes. Forget about the knife, the fork,
the pinch of salt. Try to imagine the filial
starvation. Think of his ravenous kisses.

– Stephen Dobyns

Hap Notes:
I often get my books used, mostly thanks to my sister-in-law who scours thrift stores and books stores finding me treasures. I devour them ravenously because poetry, not tomatoes, is my mother. But, I mostly bring this up because often the books' past users write little notes in the margins. Most of the time the notation is a question they were more than likely asked in a class: "How does this relate to the first verses?' or"What is meant by this?" or "What does this symbolize?"

But the book in which I got today's poem ( New American Poets of the 90s) the notations are somewhat amusing/curious. Next to "Bang, she's dead." the note is "ouch!". Next to "Let me/ take them as a package" the reader writes "This guy is sick!" And next to the two end lines the note is "Was he intamint [sic] with his mother?" Interesting question if the reader means intimate and is not referring to some breath-freshening candy of which I am unaware (almost impossible to believe if you know me.)

Well, I wish I was teaching a class to this reader because the poem ends up making an impact even if the word "filial" has it's roots in the Latin word (filius -son, filia-daughter) so, no, the narrator is not talking about sex. Although, the bond between a mother and a child has certain sexual attachments, I don't believe that is what is being said here. But I'm charmed by the reader needing to make a few comments on the poem– there are few poems in the book  that even rate an exclamation mark in the margin for the book's former owner. The poem caught something "intamint" for that reader.

There is so much to this poem which is alternately amusing and alarming– there's a wonderful strange shock factor to this story in addition to talking about a man who can no longer recognize his mom. He misses her. He loved her. Which one is she? And, more interestingly, aren't all those women his mother in some way?

I'll let you toy with this– there's a good deal in this poem. I'll just add that an attractive women, in slang terms, can be called a "tomato."

Stephen Dobyns (born 1941) is an accomplished and award-winning poet and novelist. His book, Best Words, Best Order, is a must-read for understanding and writing poetry. He got his MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop (University of Iowa) and has taught at various universities.

You can find more Dobyns here.

Here's a good Dobyns quote:
" If I'm writing a poem, I want it to be finished, I want it to work, and I want it to be liked. There are arguments and sound structures within the poem which I am attempting to pull off in some way, and when I do them, I can say to myself, This works. This is good. This is finished. Many times when I say that, however, I'm simply wrong. I've confused the poem that exists in my imagination with the poem that exists presently on the page."

The two-part interview the quote was taken from in The Cortland Review is a good one and  is well worth reading. You can find it here

Monday, November 4, 2013

Number 329: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow "The Rainy Day""

The Rainy Day

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,

But at every gust the dead leaves fall,

And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;

It rains, and the wind is never weary;

My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,

But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,

And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;

Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;

Thy fate is the common fate of all,

Into each life some rain must fall,

Some days must be dark and dreary.

– Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Hap Notes:
Yeah, Longfellow wrote some cheesy verses and often seems to replicate Tennyson or Byron and others (Edgar Allan Poe accused him of  plagiarism but it was sour grapes, really) but he did write some very thrilling stuff. Today's poem is succinct and perfectly expressed; rainy days do bring up the past, failures, etc. and it does often feel as though the weather is a metaphor for one's life.

See how he uses the leaves and the wall and the vines to stand for youth, and clinging and the past. And he's right, everybody has to go  through this and the sun will shine again. However, he's not trying to convince you of this (although he might have done that) he's telling himself. If this were directed to us, it would be a Hallmark card– like advice from some goof who says the hated phrase "I know just how you feel."  Instead we relate to his sorrow as feels it. He's talking to himself and as we listen in our thoughts drift to our own pasts, our own dreary days and we regard his advice to his own heart as words for us. This is very cleverly done. 

We've talked about Longfellow before here and here, too but allow me refresh your memory on a few key points. Longfellow knew seven languages, taught at Bowdoin and Harvard and was a superstar in 1800s era America. He translated Dante's Divine Comedy into English. His writing career didn't really take off until he was almost 40.

Oh, and the beard– he grew it to cover the scar tissue after he suffered severe burns on his face while trying to rescue his wife whose dress had caught fire when she was using some sealing wax. His hands were bandaged for months. She didn't make it. He had courted her for seven years, had six children with her and adored her. Her death sank him into a deep depression, just reliving that moment over and over again. What horror to watch anyone, let alone a loved one burn to death.

The reason I used this poem today was because of the weather and I remembered it and looked it up and lo and behold, there was the ghost of my dead mother. She always said, when things in my life were topsy turvy, that "into each life some rain must fall" I'd forgotten it was Longfellow because she owned that darn phrase for me. I'm sure she memorized it in school.

So, thanks, mom, for reaching out to remind me on this gloomy dreary day.  Be still, sad hearts!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Number 328: Douglas Gray "Space Aliens Found Performing In Carnival Freak Shows"

Space Aliens Found Performing In Carnival Freak Shows

In 1920, my great-aunt Jane
hopped a midnight freight
and ran away from home
to sing on a New York stage.
She was only sixteen.
The family took her photograph
off the grand piano
and never again spoke her name.
Later, they grew lonely for her voice.

At sixteen I shimmied down
the same drainpipe Jane had used
and took off to see the fair.
That's where I met
the light-bulb boy from Neptune,
the lizard-woman of the Moon,
the human razor blade from some galactic swirl
and other artists of the weird.
All of them had hopped
midnight rockets off their worlds.

All artists come from outer space.
Like my great-aunt Jane,
they're just looking for some place
where gravity won't hold them down.

So parents– let your children
have their voices. Let them
have their feathers and their flesh.
Let your daughters and your sons
have their pens, their paints,
their music and their hearts.

Let them tattoo jackals on their thighs
and dance with the lawn furniture.
Let them drum so loud that the sound
shatters watermelons in your garden.

Ask them to play on,
because these children come from Mars.
Tell them they're welcome here on earth.
Tell them it's good to be strange.
Tell them they don't need to hop that freight.

-- Douglas Gray

Hap Notes;
Anyone who has chosen to live the creative life knows the feeling of being an alien in the midst of their family and peers. The brave ones run away from home, the less brave just feel tortured and miserable. There is a school of thought that says these experiences fuel the artist. This seems to me to be a load of, uh, mendacity. Those with creative inclinations will still have them and will, in fact flourish in an accepting atmosphere. A place where they are allowed to be creative will save them years of therapy, self-doubt and depression. There will always be things in the world to be tortured about– it doesn't have to be your own life.

This poem is from Douglas Gray's remarkable prize-winning book of poems, Words on the Moon. He grew up in Mississippi, got degrees in English Literature and classical languages and now teaches in Columbus, Ohio. and leads a website matching writers with writing projects in the South Central Ohio area.

Most of us eventually come to realize that it is, indeed, good to be strange. However, a world that accepts strangeness is a world that could be filled with beauty, interesting music, extraordinary literature and revelatory films and less angst. If all a person has to give the world is angst, that's not art. It could be sensitivity, it could be fine appreciation but art is not solely bred from angst– it just looks that way from the way creatives get treated.

I don't think I know one musician or artist or writer who has not felt as though they were probably from another planet, if not literally, then surely figuratively. They are just looking for a place where gravity (think of the meanings of this word carefully) won't hold them down.

Do you think the poet feels like, this, too?

The masthead today is a detail of The Magic Circus by contemporary surrealist painter Mark Ryden. 

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Number 327: James Fenton "God, A Poem"

God, A Poem

A nasty surprise in a sandwich,

A drawing-pin caught in your sock,
The limpest of shakes from a hand which
You'd thought would be firm as a rock,

A serious mistake in a nightie,

A grave disappointment all round
Is all that you'll get from th'Almighty,
Is all that you'll get underground.

Oh he said: 'If you lay off the crumpet
I'll see you alright in the end.

Just hang on until the last trumpet.

Have faith in me, chum-I'm your friend.


But if you remind him, he'll tell you:

'I'm sorry, I must have been pissed-

Though your name rings a sort of a bell. You

Should have guessed that I do not exist.

'I didn't exist at Creation, 

I didn't exist at the Flood, 

And I won't be around for Salvation

To sort out the sheep from the cud-

'Or whatever the phrase is. The fact is

In soteriological terms
I'm a crude existential malpractice

And you are a diet of worms.

'You're a nasty surprise in a sandwich.

You're a drawing-pin caught in my sock.

You're the limpest of shakes from a hand which

I'd have thought would be firm as a rock, 

'You're a serious mistake in a nightie, 

You're a grave disappointment all round-
That's all you are,
' says th'Almighty, 
And that's all that you'll be underground.'

-James Fenton

Hap Notes:
James Fenton may be the richest poet in the world, which is neither here nor there, really– he's won bushels of awards and is one of the most highly regarded poets in the world, and certainly Great Britain. He was just very clever in taking, as payment,  1% of the overall box office gross of a musical for which he helped write the theatrical "book": Les Miz. The total, and counting, is in the hundreds of millions world wide. I don't think his aim was wealth. But there you have it.

He also may be the poet who has entertained the most exciting life in the world. In college (Oxford, of course) he was close pals with Christopher Hitchens and maintained the friendship until Hitchens death in  2011. He is a close friend of Martin Amis. As a political correspondent he was there when the U.S. pulled out of Viet Nam, wrote about Cambodia and reported on the political upheaval in the Philippines. He was so close to the action with the Aquino-Marcos upheaval he is quoted as saying “I could even tell you what perfume Imelda Marcos was wearing.”He still has a towel from Imelda's bathroom which he took as a, what? Memento. Let's say that.  He has written books about all this in addition to garnering the Queen's Gold Medal and the Whitbread Prize for poetry.  Good Lord.

Today's poem is amusing, a bit Noel Cowardesque (well, it is, isn't it?) and quite a conundrum. How can an entity who doesn't exist have a conversation? What is the poet saying with this little twist. Who is creating whom in this?

I suppose you know that "laying off the crumpet" is about sex, "crumpet" being a slang term for a woman, girl, or any cute human you might have your eye on. Soteriological, if you'd rather I looked it up than you, relates to salvation. A drawing pin is thumbtack and the like. Pissed is the British term for drunk.

The mention of the diet of worms is clever– sure, underground you are worm fodder but also the Diet of Worms was an assembly, the most famous of which was the one in 1521 accusing Martin Luther of heresy. Interestingly enough, what the Diet was unhappy with  (well, there was more that just this) was Luther's assertion that salvation comes from faith alone without reference to good works, alms, penance, or the church's sacraments. Just an interesting twist on the poem. And yes, I feel certain Fenton knew this- he's one of those big brain guys who comes by the title genius more accurately than most.

I say genius in spite of the fact that he has written of his love for the "Carry On" movies. If you've never seen one, they are kind of a Benny Hill like slapstick that is completely lost on me. But then, I' not crazy about the Three Stooges either and they have a few intelligent defenders, too.

I'm just enough of a Lutheran to have held on to this poem until after Reformation Day(Oct.31) and All Saint's Day (Nov. 1).

You can certainly see an amount of Fenton's Auden influence, and indeed, the apocalyptic nonsense poem (as Dana Gioia calls it)  is Auden-like.

There is a great Telegraph  interview with Fenton .here.

Dana Gioia has a well-written (as usual) overview of Fenton here.

You can find more Fenton here but don't expect it to be strictly light acerbic verse. His poetry ranges from devastatingly serious to touchingly romantic, too.

Here's a good Fenton quote:
'My feeling is that poetry will wither on the vine if you don't regularly come back to the simplest fundamentals of the poem: rhythm, rhyme, simple subjects – love, death, war."

And another
"Production of a collection of poems every three years or every five years, or whatever, looks good, on paper. But it might not be good; it might be writing on a kind of automatic pilot."

By the by, I got the picture of the "ratburger" at (no kidding) If you go there be prepared - it's all ratty fast food. And that night gown in the masthead looks just like the awful ones I used to get for Christmas (they were scratchy, too, with cheap lace and sizing. Nasty things, really).

Friday, November 1, 2013

Number 326: Thomas Lux "Refrigerator, 1957"

Refrigerator, 1957

More like a vault -- you pull the handle out
and on the shelves: not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
But, just to the right of the middle
of the middle door shelf, on fire, a lit-from-within red,
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. Maraschino cherries, maraschino,
the only foreign word I knew. Not once
did I see these cherries employed: not
in a drink, nor on top
of a glob of ice cream,
or just pop one in your mouth. Not once.
The same jar there through an entire
childhood of dull dinners -- bald meat,
pocked peas and, see above,
boiled potatoes. Maybe
they came over from the old country,
family heirlooms, or were status symbols
bought with a piece of the first paycheck
from a sweatshop,
which beat the pig farm in Bohemia,
handed down from my grandparents
to my parents
to be someday mine,
then my child's?
They were beautiful
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.

- Thomas Lux

Hap Notes:

Before we talk about the poem, let's just luxuriate in the wonderful descriptions of maraschino cherries: "full, fiery globes, like strippers/at a church social" and "on fire, a lit-from-within red, heart red, sexual red, wet neon red, shining red in their liquid, exotic." Delicious words.

The "vault" like refrigerator (one is pictured to the right of the poem) had many different handles but they all had to pulled toward you to open and sometimes the vacuum pressure was tight, when the door opened it almost hissed. You couldn't surreptitiously open it, it made a noise.

Lux is talking about a time when most families did not have many convenience foods in the fridge, everything edible had to made from scratch so leftovers were sparse "dispirited" things wrapped in foil or waxed paper. You could open the fridge and look at it but there wasn't much appealing to eat in there– it needed work. Contrast this with the maraschino cherries, gorgeous in their red liquid, almost too elegant to eat. I recall that almost everybody had a jar of them, as if they were some sort of badge of better times. They weren't to be eaten, just had. The "vault's" treasure, so to speak.

Lux was born and raised in Massachusetts on a dairy farm and one assumes that his childhood meals (he would have been 11 years old in 1957) were similar to my Midwestern ones which consisted mostly of meat, potatoes, a sad soggy vegetable and plenty of bread and butter on the table. It was brothy, filling, and more than a bit bland. Contrast this to the neon beauty of those cherries.

My dad was a burgeoning alcoholic when I was a kid and we always had maraschino cherries for his nightly Manhattans. When he was at work, I made a point of sneaking the cherries since mostly he just used the liquid in the jars for the drink, the cherries being too sweet for his taste. My dad never complained about this that I recall, just bought new ones. Their shiny gorgeous color was just too hard to resist. They stood for something in my mind just as they do for the poet. What do you think he is talking about?

"Maraschino" is the word used to describe cherries that are made to be somewhat like the original marasca cherries preserved in Croatia for Maraschino liqueur ( so they could have actually been an heirloom in the poem). Preserved in alcohol, they were thought to be a luxury. The ones we get in jars are not preserved in alcohol (at least, not during and after prohibition) and are made with a sugar syrup made with oil of almonds. (Geeky sidebar: which is why the original Jergen's lotion (made with almond oil) my mom used always somehow smelled like cherries to me- the smell tasted a little like cherries if that makes any sense at all.)

In today's poem, think on what those cherries meant to the poet- don't forget the sensual, sexual side of it. A meal can have a bit of meaning on sensual/sexual level, too. And the stored beauty of those cherries means something, too. In a "vault." I always have maraschino cherries in my fridge just to see them (although, I occasionally do eat them- much to horror of most everyone I know who say they are "too sweet",  an expression that has no meaning to me.)

Why do you think the poet would not eat the cherries? Why do they "rip his heart with joy"?

There is so much more in this poem, it is as wonderful as that jar of cherries.

Lux is another favorite poet and we've talked about him (with bio and etc.) twice before: Here and Here, too.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Number 325: Jim Hall "Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too"

 Maybe Dats Your Pwoblem Too

All my pwoblems
who knows, maybe evwybody's pwoblems
is due to da fact, due to da awful twuth
I know. I know. All da dumb jokes:
No flies on you, ha ha.
and da ones about what do I do wit all
doze extwa legs in bed.  Well, dat's funny yeah.
But you twy being
SPIDERMAN for a month or two, Go ahead.

You get doze cwazy calls fwom da
Gubbener askin you to twap some booglar who's
only twying to wip off color T.V. sets.
Now, what do I cawre about T.V. sets?
But I pull on da suit, da stinkin suit
wit da sucker cups on da fingers,
and get my wopes and wittle bundle of
equipment and den I go flying like cwazy
acwoss da town fwom woof top to woof top.

Till der he is. Some poor dumb color T.V. slob
and I fall on him and we westle a widdle
until I get him all woped. So big deal.

You tink when you SPIDERMAN
der's something big going to
happen to you.
Well, I tell you what. It
don't happen dat way.
Nuttin happens.
Gubbener calls, I go.

Bwing him to powice,
Gubbener calls again,
like dat over and over.

I tink I twy sometin diffunt
I tink I twy
sometin excitin like
wacing cawrs. Sometin to
make my heart beat at a difwent
But den you just can't
quit being sometin like
You SPIDERMAN for life.
Forever. I can't even
buin my suit. It won't
buin.  It's fwame resistant.
So maybe dats yowr
pwoblem, too. Who knows.
Maybe dats da whole
Pwoblem wit evwytin.
Nobody can buin der
suits, dey all fwame
Who knows?

- Jim Hall

Hap Notes:
First off, if you didn't try it, go back and read this poem aloud in your best Elmer Fudd voice. The speech impediment isn't only there for humor– there is something very touching in the tone and its human flaws. As "SPIDERMAN" speaks, we become aware that he is talking about our quondam condition: stuck in life with all our gifts and impediments.

Strictly speaking, if you are a Spiderman comic fan, you will have to ignore the flaws in this poem. Hall isn't one of those Steve Ditko vs Todd McFarlane vs John Byrne people who can argue about the comic artist or the arc of the original Stan Lee stories and its consequent development. Only comic geeks can tell you that stuff.  Comic geeks like me who can bore you with droning on about how Spiderman was the first superhero who had money troubles and had clumsy embarrassing moments that endeared him to readers. Although, this point is well served in the poem. And I'll stop the droning. And Hall is aware of the flaws– the governor rarely (if ever?) calls on Spiderman. And even Batman was usually called by the police commissioner, not the governor. Hall doesn't get the costuming right and... Oops, sorry. Superfluous geeking out.

Back to the poem. Even when you are not SPIDERMAN, you think, when you are young, that things are going to happen to you. Big things. Cool things. Different things. But one finds that while life does have its magic, there is a great deal of repetition to it. It's very hard to change lives.

Hall (born 1947) is a writer of crime novels and has taught creative writing at Florida International University for most of his career. He has published four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, a book of essays, and seventeen novels. He was a Fulbright professor in Spain and is the winner of both the Edgar Award and the Shamus. He has a website here. The website also features some of his poems. 

Here's a few things that Hall says about this poem:

"The speech impediment (which might be considered politically incorrect these days) simply started out as a technique to try to be funny, but it turned into more than that. As I wrote in that Elmer Fudd kind of voice, I found places in the poem where the words actually meant something different in the new speech (my heart beat at a different wate (weight) I was also thinking that even superheroesmust be flawed in some way. They LOOK like they have wonderful lives—just as writers do---but that's all from the outside. But when you get close and really inspect them, and hear how they talk, wow, they're just like the rest of us, pimples, warts and all."
"I can't remember why exactly I chose Spiderman. I guess I was thinking that as a kid I'd always dreamed of being a writer--and that I'd thought that being one would be like being a superhero of some kind. So I started to wonder if maybe even superheroes got bored with their routines, and their personalities just like normal people did. Voila, the poem began to take shape."
"Of course "buining" one's suit is the punchline of the poem. It's a hard thing to do--recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with that in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones. That's why people go to school, to church, to the shrink, and it's one of the reasons why we write. To reinvent ourselves.

But it's a very hard thing to do. Old habits die hard."

[By the by, I hope you get the joke with the Halloween costumes on the masthead. There's the obvious costume connection, and the Halloween thing (Happy Halloween!) but I was hoping you'd get that they are usually flame retardant. ]

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Number 324: Jackie Wills "Japonica"


Our house shuddered with bass lines
as my brother burst into his teens
like a skinhead emerging from a chrysalis.
Downstairs, watching tv, we'd feel the room vibrate–
dialogue drowned out as his filled with sound,
thick as the smoke from my father's non-stop cigarettes.
No-one dared knock on his locked door
we just turned the volume up
until it became a duel and when each record stopped
we'd rush for the set, ashamed to be caught out.
It could go on for hours until he went for a bath,
every towel left wet as a flannel on the floor.
When he came out, his face had been picked
into a mess of blotches and blood.

But he was the only one of us who knew the Latin names
of plants at ten, who'd asked for a patch of his own
in the garden, where he planted lettuce alongside daffodils
and night scented stock. He buried japonica apples
all along the fence one day because the pink flowers
were my mother's favourites. He took the dog
on a five mile walk across the common
the day it was put down and he knew why my father
had spent so many months at home
but never let on – just punched more holes
in each cheap plywood door.

- Jackie Wills

Hap Notes:

Jackie Wills (photo right of poem) is a Brit, which you probably figured out from the spelling of  "favourite".  I believe she lives in Brighton where she is a free-lance writer and teacher.  This is the opening salvo in her first published book of poetry "Powder Tower". She just launched her fifth book "Woman's Head as Jug" this month. She has won awards and critical plaudits and tries to make ends meet on the salary of a poet and poetry teacher, which means she economizes as a way of life. I could launch into my rant about how poets should make CEO money and vice-versa but I will restrain this preaching to the choir. You can thank me later.

How many of us can relate to this brother with his booming bass-cranked records shattering the quiet of the house and shaking the pictures on the walls? That angry, acne-plagued, hostile brother, mad at the world for a variety of reasons in addition to his "bursting" into the hormone-ridden teens. It's both amusing and frightening– that ferocious brother. I had one and his sensitivity and high intelligence made his anger even more frustrated. I don't think I know many people who had a brother who did NOT punch holes in the walls and doors. (Actually, I punched a hole in a door once (I used a rock), in my late teens but that's another story for another day, and I add it only so my brothers, who read this blog, will not mention it to me in a frustrated/sarcastic facebook missive. And it was a "cheap plywood door", too, anyway.)

I love the family rushing to turn down the TV, ashamed of their sound-jousting with the brother's music. One does feel shameful after being so childish. I used to blast Fudge Tunnel's "Tweezer" to get back at my very noisy neighbors and one does feel foolish and ashamed after doing it.

I suppose you know that a flannel is the British way of saying wash cloth. I remember hearing the term in Squeeze's "Tempted"– remember ? " I bought a toothbrush, some toothpaste A flannel for my face/Pajamas, a hairbrush new shoes  and a case /I said to my reflection /Let's get out of this place..." Whenever I managed to think of it, I asked everyone what a "flannel" was in the song– this was before Google, of course.

Back to the poem. Of course the top half of this poem illustrates the teen-aged brother and the last half shows you the boy underneath. A sweet lad who planted flowers for his mother (japonica flowers are in the masthead today) and gave a doomed family pet one last jaunt. It always makes me tear up to read this part.

But there's more. Why do you think the father spent so many months at home? Unemployment? Illness? The father was most certainly a nervous smoker, yes? What is the significance of a locked door on her brother's room– what is being locked out and locked in? One could ask similar questions with all locked doors but we get a brief glimpse, in the second part of the poem of what is behind that door.

This is "confessional" style poetry at its best– it tells part of a story, leaves us with
mystery, tells us something about the author and her upbringing and yet, somehow, seems to be about us.

And, let's not forget that the title of this poem is "Japonica"– why do you think that is?

Jackie Wills has a lovely blog here which is well worth a read and includes a selection of her poetry. I highly recommend it.

Here's a good Wills quotation:

"For years I've been aware of the different way my mind works when I'm handwriting and typing, particularly on a computer keyboard (rather than a manual typewriter).
There's a different connection between my hand and brain, when I'm holding something. Well, that's what I thought it was about. As if the rounder, more organic action of writing, the different pressure I put the pen under, the way it feels on the page, even its taste and texture, the smell of ink, might have something to do with this. So I tell anyone who'll listen - use paper, a pen or pencil when you want to come up with ideas. A keyboard's brilliant for transferring them, for editing, but the best ideas come in lead or ink."

And another which illustrates the "training" one goes into to writer:

"Over Easter I've been reading Rumer Godden's autobiographies - A Time to Dance, No Time to Weep and A House With Four Rooms. Godden, famous for her novels Black Narcissus and Greengage Summer as well as her work with Jean Renoir on The River was an utterly focused writer. She sent her children to boarding school so she could write. But one of the points she makes that has been in my mind too, is to live on less to allow more time to write. She was single minded.
And it is too easy to be distracted - not by tidying and sorting which are part of the process, or the allotment and dog walking which are sanity channels. But I mean clothes, gadgets, socialising, anything that involves spending money, or phone calls from friends.
So the answerphone's on. I will not answer emails, texts, bbms or go on Facebook.
I'm in training for a summer of writing."

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Number 323: Kay Ryan "Bad Day"

Bad Day

Not every day
is a good day
for the elfin tailor.
Some days
the stolen cloth
reveals what it
was made for:
a handsome weskit
or the jerkin
of an elfin sailor.
Other days
the tailor
sees a jacket
in his mind
and sets about
to find the fabric.
But some days
neither the idea
nor the material
presents itself;
and these are
the hard days
for the tailor elf.

- Kay Ryan

Hap Notes:
Kay Ryan is one of my favorite contemporary poets. Her style is witty and deep. Her rhymes are clever (did you even notice that it rhymes?). But most of all, her poems are somewhat like mysterious telegrams that you just happened to find laying around. Little wisps of wisdom float through her (sometimes) dark whimsy and if you think there is much, much more to the poem than meets the eye, you are a good reader. Like all good poems, hers seem to be telling you something very personal and exclusive about her and you.

A weskit is a sort of vest (the picture to the right of the masthead- the brown vest) is a weskit. It's another form, as you may suspect, of the word waistcoat. Recently I mentioned to a friend that the word fortnight was fourteen days and fourteen nights shortened to one word. He was terribly disappointed by this practical truncation and was hoping it meant something more magical. So if it disappoints you to know weskit is a shortened form of waistcoat, let me brighten your day by saying that the word jerkin (a sort of vest worn over a coat, usually, and pictured at the right of the masthead in black and white), has no discernible origin. So, I suppose it could be magical.

The point with the weskit and the jerkin is that they are older terms that mean, essentially the same thing. It's just a matter of function and era. Think of this while contemplating the poem.

I hate to do too much interpreting of a poem, don't want to spoil the enchantment of it, but certainly this poem has something to do with the act of creating; art, music, a poem, a good cake. And more. But notice that the creators, like the elfin tailor, are searching for material. Sometimes there is a clear vision of a weskit or a jerkin ( and the differences therein known to the creator) sometimes it isn't there.

Stolen cloth? Well, isn't everything we say or do or write or paint or make derived from something else? Something born of your experiences, your feelings, but certainly influenced by everything you have heard or seen or read? We are all using stolen material in some sense.

The bad days are when you can make nothing from it.

There's more in this small poem than just these few ramblings. Ryan uses every word with efficiency so there are many patterns in this material.

We have already talked about Ryan here.

The background of the masthead today also features "elf coats"-coats made of recycled sweaters that I find delightful They are so colorful and swirly. You can find her (Unique Design) etsy shop here. I don't know this artist at all but I like to credit when I find something so fun.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Number 322 : John Whitworth "The Examiners"

The Examiners

Where the house is cold and empty and the garden’s overgrown,
They are there.
Where the letters lie unopened by a disconnected phone,
They are there.
Where your footsteps echo strangely on each moonlit cobblestone,
Where a shadow streams behind you but the shadow’s not your own,
You may think the world’s your oyster but it’s bone, bone, bone:
They are there, they are there, they are there.

They can parse a Latin sentence; they’re as learned as Plotinus,
They are there.
They’re as sharp as Ockham’s razor, they’re as subtle as Aquinas,
They are there.
They define us and refine us with their beta-query-minus,
They’re the wall-constructing Emperors of undiscovered Chinas,
They confine us, then malign us, in the end they undermine us,
They are there, they are there, they are there.

They assume it as an impost or they take it as a toll,
They are there.
The contractors grant them all that they incontinently stole
They are there.
They will shrivel your ambition with their quality control,
They will desiccate your passion, then eviscerate your soul,
Wring your life out like a sponge and stuff your body down a hole,
They are there, they are there, they are there.

In the desert of your dreaming they are humped behind the dunes,
They are there.
On the undiscovered planet with its seven circling moons,
They are there.
They are ticking all the boxes, making sure you eat your prunes,
They are sending secret messages by helium balloons,
They are humming Bach cantatas, they are playing looney tunes,
They are there, they are there, they are there

They are there, they are there like a whisper on the air,
They are there.
They are slippery and soapy with our hope and our despair,
They are there.
So it’s idle if we bridle or pretend we never care,
If the questions are superfluous and the marking isn’t fair,
For we know they’re going to get us, we just don’t know when or where,
They are there, they are there, they are there.

--John Whitworth

Hap Notes: John Whitworth (born 1945) is a British poet who excels in winning poetry prizes.  In his  book Being The Bad Guy (2007) fourteen of the poems won prizes. Today's poem won second place in a the London Times Literary Supplement's Foyles poetry competition. Poetry prizes in GB often have hefty sums and impressive judges (I believe Wendy Cope, whom we've mentioned before here, was a judge for this competition.) He is vocal in his defense of rhyming "formalist" poetry which is both refreshing and necessary.

In today's poem Whitworth is having fun with our paranoia (or is he?) and at the same time says some very grave things. His work is often the epitome of Shakespeare's comment in King Lear that "Jesters do oft prove prophets" and that the gravest things are said in jest.  

I'll let you decide who "they" are (you've probably already thought of "them") and give you a bit of info on some of the details of the poem. 

Plotinus was a Greek philosopher (205-270 A.D.) classified as a Neoplatonist and he had some interesting ideas that were influential to many religions but, really, Whitworth is mostly using the name as a marker for some kind of ancient, high-falutin', obscure philosopher.  Ockham's razor is statement by philosopher William of Ockham which states that simpler explanations are, other things being equal, generally better than more complex ones. Aquinas is the highly influential Dominican friar and philospher Thomas Aquinas.

The beta-query-minus is a grading system employed by traditional British universities using Greek letters (Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta for the American equivalent of A,B,C, D and the plus or minus accorded to indicate incremental differences). A Beta-query-minus is, I think, technically a B + (no kidding) but that isn't the point in the poem– it's about the act of grading itself.

The poem is both amusing and sinister, a very rare combination. Whitworth pulls people, objects and places that are at once random and calculated. In fact, it is this very calculated randomness that is deeply chilling; "they" are everywhere, in everything.

Whitworth is adamant about rhyming in an age when there are few poets (that are any good) doing it outside of rappers and Hip-Hop artists. The cadence and sound of rhyming is what often makes a poem remarkable and certainly makes it memorable. I daresay you could memorize this poem a lot faster than you could memorize something famous that did not rhyme, say for instance, the Gettysburg Address.

Whitworth argues (and I agree) that a poetically phrased statement is a wonderful thing but not necessarily a poem. Poems have cadence, rhyme, and form: try writing something decent in one of the forms of poetry, a villanelle or a sonnet, and see just how hard it is to make a point, turn a phrase, make an analogy without descending into forced Hallmark card cheesy sentimental territory. Just writing a poetic statement in a spiny, segmented way, is not writing poetry- it's cheating the form.

As far as unrhymed poems containing more "sincere" feelings, Whitworth argues that no poem is particularly "sincere",  the act of writing it is somewhat dissembling. I'd also argue that beautiful prose is something for which we all could strive in this day of text messages and tweets and blogs. But it's not necessarily poetry. Or rather, the world is full of poetry but this is not necessarily a poem.

Some poets have a gift for unrhymed free verse, no denying it. But in general, a good rhymed poem packs a much bigger punch. Don't you think this poem, The Examiners, explodes because of the form and the rhyme?

You can find more Whitworth here.

Here's a good quotation by Whitworth:
"I think a poet who never, or rarely, rhymes, isn’t much of a poet, just as I think that a painter who never draws figures, who very possibly can’t draw figures, isn’t much of a painter. And the same goes for a composer who never writes a tune. But then I am a reactionary old elitist. And probably not serious."

And another talking about today's poem:
"In the second stanza the rhymes lined themselves up: Aquinas, Plotinus, beta minus, which is an old Oxford and Cambridge method of marking using Greek letters with plusses and minuses. It produced wonderful marks like beta query minus, to be distinguished from beta minus query. How? God alone knows. So I've got these rhymes and I'm looking for others. That's how the Great Wall of China gets itself in. And last of all, the wall suggests an undermining of the wall. You see, it's not having a meaning and then looking for rhymes. It's the other way round. It was good enough for Poet Laureate John Dryden who admitted the rhyme had often 'helped him to the sense'. It's really a method of allowing your unconscious mind to work, or your Muse, to use an older terminology. It's the same thing. It's analogous to a method my daughter, who is a painter, uses. She sometimes lets the paint find its own way, and this suggests things to her. The rhymes and the rhythms are my wet paint."