Today I’d like to feature writing by nine contemporary American poets whom I like. I’ve known most of them for a while, although I’ve made the acquaintance of some recently through their work.
I asked each of them to send me one piece of new writing from a work-in-progress, recently published collection, or forthcoming book. All are wonderful poets, so naturally, most sent poems. One sent an excerpt from his new (poetic) novel. All are persons whom I esteem for their thoughtfulness and resolve, in addition to their incisive insight and verbal verve. All are poets who give generously to other poets and to their communities inside and outside of writing.
I feel lucky to know them and their work.
The first poem is by poet and translator Rosa Alcalá from her forthcoming collection M(y)OtherTongue (Futurepoem, 2016), her third poetry collection. Rosa’s book Spit Temple: The Selected Performances of Cecilia Vicuña (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2013) was short-listed for the PEN Translation Award.
As if the memory of burning hairs from hooves or soaking tripe in vinegar might an enclosure make, traction from the present leads us back and not to the other side of the curtain where a woman wails to pry open a lid. We casually break off pieces of crackers and wipe on cheap napkins oil and anisette, until the middle child crosses the threshold, unafraid. We have failed in the most basic rule, to never turn from offal in favor of quiet or self-care or need, as if the ugliness and flavor of it would make unpronounceable our names. When we knew the secrets of transformation, of the long simmer, the cure, the careful pluck. Still, we fail every moment we turn our slippery grammars against us and let our children be adopted into perfect homes. We stood there, my brothers and I, ladling the honeycombed stomach into your dish, the last holders of something funny, yet never told again, as a cowlick fixed moments before the bulb flashes. We laughed that we knew the joke and were the joke, but would fail the test of translation. For which our children groan, and push away a dish, and throw open the curtains, their sunshine so big and so original. What do you call it, when in a mind and in a language the sun goes down? When you float from floor to floor or let your sister braid your hair an afternoon before the war? “I leave and they don’t know. To find a bed that is my own.”
David Groff is a poet, writer, independent book editor, literary scout, and teacher. His most recent poetry collection, Clay, was chosen by Michael Waters as winner of the Louise Bogan Award for Artistic Merit and Excellence (Trio House, 2013). The following poem is from his collection Bloodwood, a work-in-progress.
A Boy’s Own Jesus
The older brother I never had,
the one who knew the way
to the bathroom in the dark.
Okay with rushed prayers
He who witnessed the fists
gut me to breathlessness.
Able to sleep during storms.
Trustworthy, though with
like a father after a few drinks.
Never a father.
from his own hard father.
Suffering little children
who suffered, yet suffering
when I lay my weight on him
and made his thighs tingle.
Shaking his head at my penis
pronging, this pollution,
Looking good in a loincloth,
his pained man muscles
turning me truant.
Desire and dying,
made one body.
In my fevers
rising with robe-wings
over my wild boat,
feeling fevered too,
keen to each degree.
Making me his special boy.
His arms held and wrestled me.
A cradle or a cage,
devil or deliverer.
Rachel Levitsky’s poem is from her work-in-progress invoking the couplet, Warren Beatty films, and other relevant forces. Her most recent collection is the verse novel The Story of My Accident Is Ours (Futurepoem, 2013).
hedging bets. against loving a mother
sexy mom horrified she had a fat ass
resist telling this ongoing mother ruth’s chest
now dead dad herb speaks. he and i tussle
whether i can write or not. not ‘hemingway’ or a genius.
can't find out later how he did that.
abandon the stories of the past. not something special.
the refugee is me / not me. [peter: jew / not jew]
a memoir because my life is interesting enough to me to remember the bits and
pieces and to tell. i liked this beginning. this manner of just telling.
nothing overly fancy and overreaching like those sentences in the last book.
sentences just the same…in this weird couplet form…holding to the position of
poet more than poem. my problem holding on, believing in the effects of accretion. i
think i need to tell my lover wait i need the ongoing story wait i need
our conversation to accrue i will lose a sense of myself i will forget what i have
written i have been trying to collect this life over and over again no one ever
stays the witness. no. i won’t make you. let slow cactus grow. menopausal
and continuously wet. corita’s painting of nin.
going in to come out.
Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo’s poem is from her debut collection Built with Safe Spaces, forthcoming from Sundress Publications. Xochitl-Julisa notes this about her collection:
“Built with Safe Spaces is a collection of poetry inspired by Los Angeles, my grandmother, and the Arizona-Mexico border where I volunteered as a desert aid worker in the summers of 2011 and 2013. By traveling from the green hills of Los Angeles to the jagged canyons of the Sonoran desert, it is my hope these poems illustrate a speaker driven to activism by a need to honor her family's journey as Mexican immigrants.”
Our Lady of the Water Gallon
Un mensaje a mis compañer@s
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
on plastic water gallons: one arc,
Ichthys in the sand at travelers’ feet;
one post carving, hobo’s mark
on the road. The Virgen speaks to faceless
shadows traveling when the land is dark.
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
on plastic water gallons. One arc
is the bridge between L.A. and Arivaca,
liquor store murals and water drawings,
dogs on lawns and dogs trained to attack a
man and woman darting up Hippie Mountain.
They’ve hiked this far from Guatemala
on one plastic water gallon, one arc.
Ichthys in the sand at traveler’s feet
is the tale of a man left shirtless and shoeless
beside thorny mesquite. Como un pez sin agua,
he is fished off the road limp and nearly witless.
In the arms of compañeros he asks,
“¿Es esto sentir la muerte?” Barely conscious
he is Ichthys in the sand at traveler’s feet.
One post carving, hobo’s mark,
would mark our “angel food” with a cross,
but cross signs feel wrong to fingers
wanting a symbol with less power, more loss,
like desert flower blooms, or a growing belly
beneath blue robes of water and gloss.
I need one post carving, hobo’s mark.
On the road, the Virgen speaks to faceless
suffering. A woman seven months pregnant
hikes with garlic-lashed calves (snake safe-guard).
Bleeding and cramping, body bent
to ground, she makes mud salves and prayers
to Our Mother: keep my unborn daughter radiant.
On the road, the Virgen speaks. To faceless
shadows traveling when the land is dark
I say, I see the fresh footprint in the riverbed,
the torn blanket ditched on the hillside.
At a rest stop shaded by oak, I tread
slow, count empty gallons, read what remains.
I promise you are not invisible, nor discarded,
people traveling when the land is dark.
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes
to cloak rocky paths in stars
and hope one will guide you home.
When muscles spasm and farm lights appear too far,
know that I built this poem with safe spaces.
But because no words can erase your scars,
I etch black line Sharpie Virgenes.
Our fiction exception is from David Micah Greenberg’s recently completed novel Concourse, the first in his five-volume cycle of novels about New York City. Also the author of the poetry collection Planned Solstice (University of Iowa Press, 2003), David notes:
“Concourse is a novel set in the Bronx, in which the lives of an emergency room physician and a public servant become entangled during a corruption investigation. The book weaves together narrative, verse and essay, as in this excerpt about the history of food in the experimental novel."
The history of the novel is food, crowds, and charity.
The history of nations is different from a history of human nature, because with nations time must be spent, but with human nature it must be observed. Nations are as an eleemosynary repast against which human nature rebels, to reveal that which is worth telling. In the 18th century charitable action becomes a subject of the novel; Tom Jones, is taken up by Squire Allworthy. The squab was served with a charred bread pudding, glazed in a truck of smoke.
Balanced against the feast are characters who mingle unconstrained by station, though limited by context — as the infinite variety of typesetting, and its narrow combinatory rules. The martini was blended with scotch so as to smoke the concoction. Charity intrudes to make the better man not attend; it is the ability to choose this attendance which sets the novel apart, and provides neither duty nor relief.
And crowds come and grow, bringing with them famine and Thomas Malthus, the patron saint of the novel. Why is it that with increased communication — moveable type, the internet — art becomes more hermetic? Is it a rivalry between charity and nature? The terrine had a glaze that smelled like sex from a certain angle. A calm superiority buffets it. Because the conscious author rests over the crowds like a simile over a hawk, or a hawk over unsuspecting crowds, the reader maintains the predator’s view. The beef carpaccio had seaweed and sliced hazelnuts with a lemon vinaigrette, but there was also mutton.
The one-sidedness of simile is a joy and lament on human nature. It is a charity that does not crucify distinction upon a cross of ever-proliferating, voice. An enormous caesar salad was made from kale and hazelnuts, with the egg white thickly drizzled. It does not expect patronage; it does not believe it should live without work, but strives to entertain. Do the ravenous masses enjoy hunger? The nature of hunger is to warn, to circumvent, to sort in the pleasured brain — guests who disappear before pain sets. The fruits were forward and the wine was a mess.
And if our lives and opinions matter then these thoughts driven into the body already decay, like a hull on its side in the Irish Sea. The pork belly, smoky and crisp, lay in a smoked tomato reduction with stringy scallions. The wine’s metallic and floral notes were almost salty, against the seared and puckered fluke in yuzu. The moment is indelibly orphaned. Madness is real and will always cling to us; it has a better ability to describe and predict, even the tide against shoals. From the birth of chance, a sidelong glance. The unseen sands have become us.
The following poem is from fellow Philadelphian Jason Zuzga’s forthcoming first poetry collection Heat Wake, which will be published by Saturnalia Books next March. Saturnalia’s catalogue describes the book thus:
“Heat Wake the phrase could designate the heat of the just-deceased animal, the warmed seat, the legacy of the anthropocene, the Fata Morgana that swirls and ripples sightlines. Heat Wake the book swirls with tactility, biology, evolution, and desire: hands reach, grab, feel, and are held as the poems percolate with quick sonic link and variation. The poems unfold amid the presence of stubborn rocks, ocean, suburban New Jersey, all approached at a queer angle . . . .”
A long sugar stick—translucence
molecular ribbon—held dark inside
this mouth against this tongue.
Scissor this word from printed fiber.
Let this persuasive stain dissolve
under tongue like a pink snowball
held by mammal hand inside
an aluminum house or
standing in this sunlit creek.
Burn this on a pyre of
research-jangled and car-blown.
Delete “this” with a clap
from air, from the file of words;
scratch this from the sand
with pointed stick.
This through-line will connect
you—to me, whether you be of tar,
of electric, of pheromone
spat through tube.
Amy Uyematsu is the author of four esteemed poetry collections including The Yellow Door (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Stone Bow Prayer (Copper Canyon, 2005). This poem is from her new collection Basic Vocabulary.
A Handful of Knowing
Even as a child she prefers their company. Each day the girl goes to Stone
Mountain and chooses one of the ten thousand stones which lie at its base.
Sometimes she picks a jagged rock, studies it from different angles to see
it brighten and darken in the shifting light. Or she might spread a handful of
pebbles on her outstretched palms and marvel that no two are exactly the same
size or shape. If she finds a boulder big enough for her to recline on her back, she
can take in the sky. Before long the girl is able to touch each granite gem with
the deft fingers of a sculptor, delighted when a once grainy surface turns glassy
and smooth. Sitting among the rocks and pebbles, she listens with them to a world
that stirs, grateful when something new flurries in and glad when mountain quiet
returns. As time passes, the girl grows so intimate with the stones that no one
notices she's become old and weathered and silent like them. Song birds and lizards
rest on her. Small fingers trace the lines on her face.
(after watching a video on Michael Grab, a Boulder artist who stacks boulders)
Pay close attention to the feel of each rock.
Remember that balance requires a minimum of three contact points.
Let fingers go light.
Notice even the smallest clicks, some smaller than millimeters.
Continue to meditate.
Use the tiny to large indentations as a tripod so the stone can stand upright.
Connect with the rock's vibrations.
Wait for it to become nearly weightless.
Listen to it become still.Expect the impossible.
Arrange one rock so it barely touches the next rock then one more.
Splash some water on the slowly rising sculpture.
Welcome the wind rushing through.
Believe in the steadiness of these stones.
Be as patient.
Know that simple gravity and devotion form a limitless glue.
Count on the zero point of silence within.
Michael Snediker is the author of the poetry collection The Apartment of Tragic Appliances (Punctum Books, 2013). His poem is from a recently completed collection New York Editions, which he describes as:
“A ‘translation’ of Henry James’s fiction into poems, and an experiment in ‘close reading’ brought so close it sometimes blurs. Both poem and manuscript are interested in how something like desire (or hope or lonesomeness) is and isn’t translatable across genre and time, between persons and characters: the relation between feeling and form as they both wear down and into each other, and carry each other along.”
Time isn’t the solution
our alchemy happens in,
time is the alchemy,
lost art of the hasp
of a Roman fibula
made sharp in the sea
Like the tomb of Hector
where the boy hides,
the air in the wings
of our throats is
doomed to repeat
the spell of a soul
lifting out of the body
the body’s threshing.
That you know it
doesn’t mean it
incurable, each morning,
your fall into the marble
baths of Diocletian
which you haunt
like something you died
I wish I’d known you
when the silver
of your beard
the alarming ease
with which the outside,
And our last poem for the evening is from Joanna Klink’s luminous new collection Excerpts from a Secret Prophecy (Penguin, 2015), her fourth collection.
If there is a world, let me be in it.
Let fires arise and pass. The sky fill with evening air
then sink across the woodlots and porches,
the streams thinning to creeks.
In winter there will be creatures half-locked in ice,
storms blown through iron grates, a drug of whitest ardor.
Let the old hopes be made new.
Let stacks of clouds blacken if they have to
but never let the people in this town go hungry.
Never let them fear cold. If there is a world,
let it not be temporary, like these vague stars.
Let us die when we must. And spinelessness
not overtake us, and privation,
let rain bead across tangled lavender plants.
If there is a world where we feel very little,
let it not be our world. Let worth be worth
and energy action—let blood fly up to the surface skin.
If you are fierce, if you are cynical, halfhearted, pained—
I would sit with you awhile, or walk next to you,
and when we take leave of each other after so many years,
the oaks will toss their branches in wheels of wind
above us—as if it had mattered, all of it,
every second. If there is a world.