In June, 2016, Terrance Hayes visited Florida to read and teach in the University of Tampa low-residency M.F.A. program. In the course of his presentation, he made a comment about syntax and sound that struck me as important, and worth exploring. Despite our both being distracted by the seventh game of the N.B.A. Finals later that evening—a game to ruin any Davidson College professor’s mood—we agreed to correspond via email, and this conversation ensued.
Terrance Hayes is the author of five collections of poetry, including How To Be Drawn in 2015. His honors include a 2010 National Book Award, a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship and a 2016 NAACP Image Award for Poetry. His website is terrancehayes.com.
AMP: Welcome to the non-place of email. Let's dive in, over our heads.... If I understood correctly, sometime in your artisitic development, you began to associate the extension of syntax with the production of a different kind of music within the poem. Is that an identifiable moment? Would you care to elaborate?
TH: I was drawn to syntax early in my reading life. It was the feeling something beyond words was being communicated in the bones of poems. Certainly that was my experience of Keats’ “To Autumn”— specially that first stanza. When I first read it in college, I didn’t associate its power (mellow, carnal oozing power) with the fact it was a single over brimming sentence:
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.
The same feeling came in certain passages of prose. I remember a college professor beginning to sob as he read Molly Bloom’s soliloquy of yes in Ulysses. It’s one of the longest sentences in the English language (4391 words according to Wikipedia). I must have associated the sentence’s breathless charge with his emotional reaction. There were no periods—he couldn’t take a breath to collect himself. I’m still trying to create that sense of charge and “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in my work.
AMP: I love your description of the “o’er-brimm’d”: that’s a great ambition. In that passage, Keats also holds it together contrapuntally, via end-rhyme and those almost-parallel caesuras in lines 7-9, which lead us to read backwards into memory as we move forward in the sentence. Is that something you do too? Or, rather, what’s your way of managing the length and breath of such a charged sentence?
TH: I see “contrapuntal” and “caesuras” and get a tad nervous. Especially when thinking about my early drafts of a poem. I mostly follow something closer to what Frost called “the sound of sense”:
“Now it is possible to have sense without the sound of sense (as in much prose that is supposed to pass muster but makes very dull reading) and the sound of sense without sense (as in Alice in Wonderland which makes anything but dull reading). The best place to get the abstract sound of sense is from voices behind a door that cuts off the words.”
I am trying to find the sense in a sentence: its sense of rhythm, its sense of verbs and nouns, its sense of thought and sound. I work in units of sentences as often as I work in units of line and image.
AMP: Cool, those connections that you draw between a sentence’s musical properties and its meanings....
“Rhythm” is a term that I tend to fudge when I’m discussing sound and sense; it’s such a difficult concept. Maybe I can ask you to consider an example from Frost, and talk a little more about rhythm.
In “West-Running Brook,” Frost observes of the water:
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
I think that one way to read these lines is as a discussion of rhythm, the riffles in the water “contraries,” as Frost calls them elsewhere in the poem. Would such a metaphor be consistent with your use of “rhythm”? Or are you thinking of the rhythm of a sentence in another way? Could you elaborate upon your use of the term?
TH: The word “rhythm" is fluid. Sometimes I’m thinking about varying the length and speed of a sentence. As in the first poem in my collection Wind In A Box. (Is it self-important to refer to one my own poems?) That’s sort of an exercise in staccato sentences. And in the ways punctuation impact a sentence. A series of periods, some slashes, a dash:
WIND IN A BOX
This ink. This name. This blood. This blunder.
This blood. This loss. This lonesome wind. This canyon.
This / twin / swiftly / paddling / shadow blooming
an inch above the carpet—. This cry. This mud.
But most times I’m thinking of rhythm as a kind of pattern. As in the ways subordinate clauses and repetition can expand a sentence. Especially the way lists can expand a sentence. The catalogues of Whitman and his Beat progeny, for example. Ginsberg spins wildly creating a fog of image that first long, elastic sentence of “Howl.” That first sentence is one of the most technically dazzling dimensions of “Howl.” I don’t know if that answers your question. I agree rhythm is a difficult concept. Because it is such a personal/intuitive concept.
AMP: Now that we’re talking about sentences in your work expressly, I’d love to hear you comment upon one or more of the poems in your latest book, How To Be Drawn. In light of this conversation, I’m especially interested in the formal play in “Who Are The Tribes," the “Portrait of Etheridge Knight…," and “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh”—all of which use words inside boxes and/or charts. Care to dig in a bit?
TH: The notion of “formal play” is on the mark. What it suggests is I’m just playing—or trying to play outside my given tendencies. Since sentences are my default inclination, the poems you mentioned are instances of trying something different. Of trying to shift my focus. They are genuine, intimate experiments. Meaning I don’t see them as natural extensions of the sentence. Though you’ll find maybe some syntactical play, the attention is given to form. Not that I’m Jordan—I’m no Jordan, but it’s akin to asking Jordan the relationship between his dunks and his work on his jumper or his defense. He was, when he developed his jumper and defensive prowess, only trying to broaden his skills…
AMP: So what’s next, in terms of formal play? Is there a kind of poem you’re working on, that you haven’t been able to write?
TH: Great question. I’m mostly/usually concerned with the last poem and the next poem. The last poem was accompanied with drawings. The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape. The poems of late have been pretty long. The poem before the last poem was over 1200 words. So I’ve been trying to work my way back to compression via sonnets lately. But I don’t know. I don’t mind not knowing.
AMP: I’m going to highlight a phrase from your latest excellent response, and take the conversation in a slightly different direction.
You write, “The next poem is presently several scraps waiting to find a shape.” Do you think this is true—that phrases, or scraps, or oddments, are “waiting to find a shape”? Maybe the shape is yours, and you have certain shapes internalized that wait for the scraps you collect by writing? Or… maybe there are shapes waiting to find scraps… in the culture? Care to comment?
TH: Yes, I mean scraps waiting to find a shape. As in what I suspect happens in quilt making. I’m just gathering bright bits of thoughts and conversations, imagery in my notebook. Waiting to stitch/thread something compelling together. Usually the brightest bit becomes the poem’s heart, its engine.
AMP: You mention your notebook. Could you talk a bit about how your process might elucidate the quest for “o’er-brimm’d-ness” in the syntax? How do you handle, literally, the writing, so as to facilitate in the composition process the ambitions you identified earlier?
TH: I have to talk about basketball again here. I can’t say I’m handling the writing so much as continuously practicing with it. I am trying to broaden my facility with it. I am practicing form, of course, but I am also practicing thinking and feeling. It’s all practice. That’s what Thelonius Monk says. For me, poetry is all practice. Occasionally practice pauses for a game—which is to say, some of my poems get published— but my habit is practice. I’m practicing to sustain my strengths while strengthening my weaknesses. I like a long sentence, for example. So I have to push myself towards new challenges with long sentences. One of my challenges/experiments in How to Be Drawn was to push myself into longer poems. These days I’m trying to work my way back to the sonnet. It all takes practice. One can fail in practice. One can experiment and scrimmage. There is intimacy and measure. Practice is a laboratory, a workhouse, a habit. For me, poetry is the practice of language. —June-September, 2016
The comics of novelist and cartoonist Lydia Conklin bristle with wondrous unfillable silences, à la Samuel Beckett, and wacky pointedness worthy of Roz Chast. Conklin’s especially terrific at the stare-down. But it’s her timing most of all that I love, how funny she is... wait for it... and funnier yet.
Here is a comic from her Lesbian Cattle Dogs series, expressly commissioned for this blog.
Lydia Conklin is the 2015-2017 Creative Writing Fellow in fiction at Emory University. She has received a Pushcart Prize, work-study scholarships from Bread Loaf, and fellowships from MacDowell, Yaddo, the James Merrill House, the Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Millay, Jentel, Lighthouse Works, Brush Creek, the Santa Fe Art Institute, Caldera, the Sitka Center, and Harvard University, among others, and grants and awards from the Astraea Foundation, the Puffin Foundation, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Alliance of Artists Communities, and the Council for Wisconsin Writers. Her fiction has appeared in The Southern Review, Narrative Magazine, New Letters, The New Orleans Review, The Gettysburg Review, and elsewhere. She has drawn graphic fiction for Gulf Coast, Drunken Boat, The Florida Review, and the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She holds an MFA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Tags: cartoon, comic, comics, dogs, drawing, drawn, gesture, humor, ink, lesbian, personification, poem, poets, romantic, unsaid, wry
When offered a guest appearance on the Best American Poetry blog, I decided not only to write a couple of articles that I’ve been mulling over, but also to celebrate new books of poems coming out this fall. I put out a call via Facebook and Twitter, and had such a strong response I was made to choose among submissions. I did so: I read the galleys and selected eleven poets to interview. (And I apologize to those this feature could not accommodate.) So, on July 2, eleven poets received the following charge:
Please answer five of the questions below. Elaborate upon your replies—that is, please explain your thinking, and explore the examples you’re citing—and nonetheless limit each answer to a paragraph or two. Concise, substantive responses would be preferred.
One sad note: as many of you know, the poet Max Ritvo died this summer at the age of twenty-five. We are fortunate to have his poems, and also fortunate that even in his decline he was able to contribute sparkling responses to the interview questions. My condolences to his family and friends.
And in case you’re wondering, Eleven Questions for Eleven Poets took 143 emails.
Now the poets and their answers, a sampling of some of the brilliance we find in poetry today: Elizabeth Colen, Carolina Ebeid, Dana Levin, Max Ritvo, David Rivard, Chris Santiago, Lee Sharkey, Clint Smith, Megan Snyder-Camp, Tony Trigilio, Monica Youn.
Elizabeth J. Colen is most recently the author of What Weaponry, a novel in prose poems. Other books include poetry collections Money for Sunsets (Lambda Literary Award finalist in 2011) and Waiting Up for the End of the World: Conspiracies, flash fiction collection Dear Mother Monster, Dear Daughter Mistake, long poem / lyric essay hybrid The Green Condition, and fiction collaboration Your Sick. She teaches at Western Washington University.
Carolina Ebeid is a the author of You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior (Noemi Press, Fall 2016). She is a student in the Ph.D. program in creative writing at the University of Denver, and holds an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers. She has won fellowships and prizes from CantoMundo, Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, the Stadler Center for Poetry, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work appears widely in journals such as The Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, Colorado Review, and more recent work appears in Linebreak, Bennington Review, jubilat, and in the inaugural Ruth Stone House Reader.
Dana Levin's new book of poetry is Banana Palace, out this October from Copper Canyon Press. A grateful recipient of fellowships and awards from the Guggenheim, Whiting, and Rona Jaffe Foundations, Levin serves each fall as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Maryville University in St. Louis. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. [Photo by Anne Staveley]
Max Ritvo (1990–2016) wrote Four Reincarnations in New York and Los Angeles over the course of a long battle with cancer. He was also the author of the chapbook AEONS, chosen by Jean Valentine to receive the Poetry Society of America Chapbook Fellowship in 2014. Ritvo’s poetry has appeared in the New Yorker, Poetry, and the Boston Review, and as a Poem-a-Day for Poets.org. His prose and interviews have appeared in publications such as Lit Hub, Divedapper, Huffington Post, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
David Rivard’s most recent book, Standoff, was published by Graywolf in August. He is the author of five other books: Otherwise Elsewhere, Sugartown, Bewitched Playground, Wise Poison, winner of the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award, and Torque, winner of the Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize. Among Rivard’s awards are fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, Civitella Ranieri, and the NEA, as well as two Shestack Prizes from American Poetry Review and the O.B. Hardison Poetry Prize from the Folger Shakespeare Library, in recognition of both his writing and teaching. He teaches in the MFA in Writing program at the University of New Hampshire, and lives in Cambridge. News & reviews of Standoff can be found at his website: www.davidrivard.net.
Chris Santiago is the author of TULA, winner of the 2016 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry, selected by A. Van Jordan. His poems, fiction, and criticism have appeared in FIELD, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, and the Asian American Literary Review. He holds degrees in creative writing and music from Oberlin College and received his PhD in English from the University of Southern California. The recipient of fellowships from Kundiman and the Mellon Foundation/American Council of Learned Societies, Santiago is also a percussionist and amateur jazz pianist. He teaches literature, sound culture, and creative writing at the University of St. Thomas. He lives in Minnesota.
Lee Sharkey’s Walking Backwards will appear momentarily from Tupelo Press. Her earlier collections comprise Calendars of Fire (Tupelo, 2013), A Darker, Sweeter String (Off the Grid, 2008), and eight other full-length poetry books and chapbooks. Her work has been published in Massachusetts Review, Crazyhorse, FIELD, Kenyon Review, Nimrod, Pleiades, Seattle Review, and other journals. She is the recipient of the Abraham Sutzkever Centennial Translation Prize, the Maine Arts Commission’s Fellowship in Literary Arts, the RHINO Editor’s Prize, the Shadowgraph Poetry Prize, and Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry. A lifelong writer, editor, and teacher, she leads a creative writing workshop for adults recovering from mental illness and serves as Senior Editor of the Beloit Poetry Journal. [Photo by Al Bersbach]
Clint Smith is a writer and doctoral candidate at Harvard University and has received fellowships from Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, and the National Science Foundation. He is a 2014 National Poetry Slam champion and was a speaker at the 2015 TED Conference. His writing has been published or is forthcoming in The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The Guardian, Boston Review, Harvard Educational Review and elsewhere. He is the author of Counting Descent (2016) and was born and raised in New Orleans. More of his work can be found at www.clintsmithiii.com. Counting Descent is available for purchase here.
Tony Trigilio’s most recent collection of poetry is Inside the Walls of My Own House: The Complete Dark Shadows (of My Childhood), Book 2 (BlazeVOX [books], 2016). He is the editor of the chapbook Dispatches from the Body Politic: Interviews with Jan Beatty, Meg Day, and Douglas Kearney (Essay Press, 2016), a collection of interviews from his poetry podcast Radio Free Albion. His other books include, most recently, White Noise (Apostrophe Books, 2013), and, as editor, Elise Cowen: Poems and Fragments (Ahsahta, 2014). He plays in the band Pet Theories and teaches poetry at Columbia College Chicago, where he is Interim Chair of the Creative Writing Department. [Photo by Kevin Nance]
Monica Youn is the author of Blackacre (Graywolf Press 2016), which is currently on the longlist for the 2016 National Book Award, Ignatz (Four Way Books 2010), which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and Barter (Graywolf Press 2003). Her poems have been published in Poetry, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Lana Turner, The Paris Review, and The Best American Poetry. She currently teaches at Princeton University and in the Warren Wilson and Sarah Lawrence MFA programs. A former lawyer, she lives in New York.
Part I: Questions 1-5
Question 1: Which of these poems predicts your future?
Carolina Ebeid: The closing poem of the book “M, Marina” predicts a kind of future. In fact, the poem was supposed to be part of the next work. I decided to include it in You Ask Me to Talk About the Interior precisely because it didn't fit perfectly, to my mind. Therefore the book itself doesn’t actually feel shut. Rather, the poem acts as a leading to the next book. In formal ways, “M, Marina” also describes my present. It is written in serial form, made up of short, variegated pieces. While the poem centers around Marina Tsvetaeva, the serial poem is a form open enough to allow many observations into its orbit. Both this poem and “Veronicas of a Matador” function in the same way formally; much of the work I am writing presently relies on the same methods of seriality.
Dana Levin: “At the End of My Hours,” of course!
But seriously: I don’t think I’d ever survive civilization’s collapse. I’m over fifty, not in apocalypse-withstanding shape, and trained to teach poetry. My only hope would be to convince a rag-tag band of survivors that they needed a shaman bard crone woman.
Max Ritvo: All the ones that predict my imminent death due to Ewing's Sarcoma. I'm pretty sure they're hitting the nail on the head. And by "the head" I mean my head.
Lee Sharkey: Allow me to subvert the question to talk about a dream that led me on a journey. In the early summer of 2011 I woke in the middle of the night hearing the words “Tonight I am walking backwards”; I scribbled them in my journal before falling back to sleep. The sentence had the peculiar quality of utterance that has led me over the years to germinal poems, yet I had no idea what it might refer to. In a month I was to fly to Vilnius for an SLS seminar, an opportunity for me to explore the Jewish history and culture of a city that had witnessed both their heights and their depths, but I made no conscious connection between the trip and the image of walking backwards.
In Vilnius, I lived in the garret of an old building on one of the seven streets that had constituted the Jewish ghetto during the Nazi occupation. Between 1941 and 1943, over 35,000 people were confined there; almost all would die at the hands of their captors, the majority by execution in the nearby killing fields of Ponar. I literally walked in their footsteps as I traveled the cobbled streets and as I climbed four flights of crumbling stairs to a room some number of them had crowded into and tried to sleep. By chance or fate I found myself “walking backwards” into the vexed history I claim as my inheritance. Night by night in that haunted room, in the company of the poetry of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever, I listened to the silence as the poem of walking backwards grew into “In the capital of a small republic.”
Clint Smith: It’s difficult to say which poem predicts my future, but I know which poem speaks to the future I hope to live in: No More Elegies Today. The book, as a whole, is exploring the marathon of cognitive dissonance with regard to coming of age as a young black man in America. How does one reconcile ever-present tension between belonging to a community and family that celebrates them, and a larger world that dehumanizes them? What I want, for all of us, is a world in which that tension no longer exists. A world where the violence dissipates and black children grow up with the humanity left uncompromised, a childhood not shaped by its relationship to violence. As a writer, I think, I have a responsibility to both reflect the world as it is and then imagine the world as it can be. The role of the art is to operate in that imaginative space, to push beyond the boundaries of what we see. The violence black people experience is a part of our reality, but it is not our only reality. We are and always have been more than that which kills us.
Question 2: What two moments in the volume, or two images from the poems, would you like your reader to remember?
On a visit to Shelter Island last summer, I discovered Black Cat Books, a treasure-trove of used books and a great place to get out of the midday sun. I’m looking forward to having to get out of the midday sun again! Browsing the shop, I found a Georgia O’Keefe catalogue from a show called Circling Around Abstraction. So satisfying: all those circles. But the real prize for me was the humbly bound 20 Poems by Tomas Tranströmer. Robert Bly translated the poems for The Seventies Press. The cover is rough brown paper, and I particularly love the only image, a man holding a lantern as he stands on a reindeer’s back. The blackness of the reindeer, the light of the lantern, and the human figure divided between light and dark seem perfect. It is Tranströmer’s first book published in English.
At times my life suddenly opens its eyes in the dark.
A feeling of masses of people pushing blindly
through the streets, excitedly, towards some miracle,
while I remain here and no one sees me.
It is like the child who falls asleep in terror
listening to the heavy thumps of his heart.
For a long, long time till morning puts its light
in the locks
and the doors of darkness open.
I am also taken with Bly’s commentary on the flyleaf. Bly writes, “It’s clear that in the head at any moment all sorts of consciousness are struggling to get to the head of the line, and so to the lips…Tranströmer in his poems always arranges things so that the spiritual consciousness slips through the gate the moment it is opened, and so gets in the poem first.” In “Kyrie” the description of a child’s night-fright is simple and vivid and circles back to the adult's existential fright in the first stanza.
In her book For Opening the Mouth of the Dead to be published by Lone Goose Press this year, Catherine Woodard often writes in the voice of a child studying Egypt in school and resorting to her fascination with the Book of the Dead to cope with her mummy-like father. The speaker finds a spirit guide in Ba, a winged creature with a child’s head that stays with an individual from birth on into the afterlife. She refers to Ba as Soul-Bird. Soul-Bird is sometimes a vehicle for reaching the speaker’s father.
SOUL WITH FACE AND FEATHERS
I stay in at recess
To take notes from
The Dead Book
With the same hairdos
And in dresses, men
And women look alike.
Stiff – hands out
As if to catch a ball
Or bat it away.
But not the little bird
With big wings
And a child’s head called
The mummy, Soul-Bird
Spreads a kite of feathers.
If Soul-Bird stands still,
In a royal cape.
In my second favorite
Picture, Soul-Bird hovers
Over the mummy
On a bed with lion feet,
A lion head and a lion tail.
Soul-Bird’s feet clutch
An eternity ring. A wing
Fans the mummy
To get its attention.
In my favorite, Soul-Bird
Slopes its wings to hug
The sleeping mummy.
Gently stands between
The mummy’s tummy
And the mummy’s heart.
Soul-Bird’s head wants
To slide down the slope, rest
Under the mummy’s chin.
In an excerpt of another Soul-Bird poem, we see the child speaker become a writer with Soul-Bird as muse, turning fears into written wishes:
SOUL-BIRD FLOATS SECRETS IN WATER AND AIR
Walking home, I stop on the metal bridge
Over the canal to look down at the weeds,
Pretend they are reeds and I am a scribe.
While she grades papers after school, Mrs. Long
Lets me play with the hieroglyph stamp set.
Soul-Bird helps me decide what to say.
The poem ends with the wishes released.
One-by-one, I uncrumple secrets
From the pocket of my navy sweater.
I rest the hieroglyphs on my open palm
For Soul-Bird to glide and guide them,
As my wishes lift into the pine trees or
Float downstream in the muddy water.
I sometimes have my students write about poems that pull us into nature’s web and/or reflect on our outsider status, using the section on nature in Czeslaw Milosz’s anthology, A Book of Luminous Things. Milosz suggests that this sense of the push-pull of consciousness is particularly American, although I’m not sure the poems he includes bear this out. Turning from the mythological world to the natural, Anna Catone’s poems often reflect the balancing act between belonging and not. Below is a poem about being in nature by Anna Catone, Poetry Editor of The Cortland Review that includes a blip of alienation and a release:
THE GREEN DRAKE HATCH
Slap of water, the ghost of a tail in the air.
Swish and pull. Our boat on the pond like a silent owl.
Night lays down the rounded mountains, the complete pines;
wraps the path back in its blackest pitch.
For a minute, I think all the fish in this pond
might lift our boat up and dump us in the feeding deep.
But you lift the slippery Brook Trout off my line—
a flash of its rose-lit spots in the moon
before it slides out of your hands, and the water rolls over.
What have I feared all this time?
The Green Drake nymphs surface. They molt, mate,
fall back into the pond—spent spinners. Their eggs sink to the bottom.
Bats sail over a rise, another rise.
The night is alive, and we are inside it.
A Hermit Thrush in the trees.
The steadfast thump of the frogs from the lilies.
Catone's poem "Fear of the Possible" in Boston Review is an incantation against letting the blip of fear take over.
I would like to thank Stacey Harwood-Lehman and The Best American Poetry blog for inviting me to be a guest blogger for the past five days. This blog became the winter vacation I wanted this year!
I took the title “Burden of Dreams” from Les Blank’s film about the astounding lengths Werner Herzog and his crew went to in the filming of “Fitzcarraldo.” In order to make his documentary, Blank had to go to similar lengths. No surprise that the story that inspired Herzog’s odyssey, as in many Herzog films, is about a tragicomic attempt to fund a dream, in this case by dragging a boat over a mountain to reach a remote Amazon rubber plantation. The dream: to build a baroque opera house on the Peruvian coast to attract Enrico Caruso.
This was the second of Herzog’s films shot in the Amazon basin. In the first, “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” one of the most memorable, among many wild, hallucinatory scenes, is a horse being thrown off a raft into a raging river. The scene is so cruel that one of my friends remembers it as many horses thrown into the river. It was one horse, and the horse managed to swim to shore and survive. Still, the scene always reminds me of the terrorized horse at the center of Picasso’s Guernica.
No matter what laws we pass on the humane treatment of animals, our treatment of them continues to reflect our hubris and our treatment of other human beings. When I began teaching writing to college freshmen, I used to assign a very short Langston Hughes essay from 1945, “The Animals Must Wonder.” The essay begins with a scene from a marriage: "Once I saw a man and woman, who loved each other, quarrel. There were bitter words and the threat of blows. Bursts of anger punctuated minutes of silent defiance. It was sad for an outsider to see. But equally sad to observe was the hurt fright of their dog, his wonder, dumb fear, and terror at the strange, loud violence of the two human beings he loved."
Hughes moves from the domestic scene that so frightened the family dog to World War II, imagining “the lost and homeless dogs wandering cold and hungry through wrecked villages” and the farm animals terrorized by tanks, planes, and explosions. Our recent wars have continued to inspire reports on the suffering of animals. We sometimes find it easier to empathize with the dumb suffering of other creatures than with the suffering of displaced people no more responsible for their condition than the animals. We see complicity in the capacity of human beings to comprehend what is happening to them.
The suffering of animals caught up in human dreams is often silent. Emily Fragos’s spare, heart-breaking poem “Ponies at the South Pole,” inspired by photos from the failed Scott expedition of 1912, is an instance. Fragos writes of her process in an e-mail: "I had originally written a very long poem with all kinds of historical facts based on the tragic expedition… I began to cross everything out in an attempt to get to the grief. I wanted to honor those poor animals. I wanted to say something, without preaching, about the mistakes that powerful men make and the innocent victims of those terrible mistakes. I ended up with the spare, minimal, "Ponies at the South Pole" :
Ponies at the South Pole
after a photograph, Scott Expedition, 1912
They are quieter than quiet. They are colder than cold
can be imagined. They may very well be blind.
Their ears receive the last sensation, a tiny crumble
of nothing. Their oblong heads tilt toward each other.
... the end cannot be far writes the bungling,
stubborn man in his battered white tent,
writes suffering, bungling man.
The patient suffering of the ponies is stunningly evoked in the ears that receive that “last sensation, a tiny crumble/of nothing” and the juxtaposition of the different order of suffering of the man writing his final journal.
Thanks to the efforts of air force colonel Ronald Smith, there are now a number places en route to the pole named for the ponies and dogs that gave their lives in the Scott and Amundsen expeditions: Bones, Nobby, Helge, and Uroa, among them.
You can find more pictures of the ponies at the Scott Polar Research institute site.
A hearty thanks to Emily Fragos for permission to include “Ponies at the South Pole,” which appeared in The New Republic on November 7, 2014. Her most recent book is Hostage: New and Selected Poems, published by The Sheep Meadow Press, 2011.
"The Animals Must Wonder" is collected in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture, 1942-62.
Perhaps because I am a Sagittarius, the word “horsewoman” has always appealed to me. It embodies the unity between rider and horse when all is going well and sometimes even when the rider loses control, as in Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel.” I remember feeling exhilaration as well as fear, clinging to the neck of my favorite horse when she ran away with me during a spur-of-the-moment race through a meadow. My daughter was also an avid horsewoman from an early age. The world of the stable already seemed a natural part of life to my six-year-old. So I was surprised when one of her friends who had come to watch a lesson, asked in wonder as Kate swung herself into the saddle, “Doesn’t the horse mind?”
I’m sure it had never occurred to me, to my daughter, or to any of our riding friends that the horse might mind, except when a fearful rider was hauling on the bit, “ruining the horse’s mouth.” Does the horse mind when we seem to be working in harmony? I don’t know. But I have known horses that balked at unfamiliar or unskilled riders, which suggests to me that the sense of oneness can be mutual. In her poem “Appaloosa,” Jo Sarzotti captures the mythic aspects of riding. Anticipation and danger are signaled by a series of dark images as the rider approaches the barn for a night ride on the beach. The glow of the spotted roan the rider has chosen is the image of desire. The edge of danger in the roan’s excitement carries us into a controlled but violent tumult of light and dark images, white surf breaking, the sickle moon as weapon, the cathedral of the night sky, and the transit between worlds:
The dark drift of horses in stall, black
Windows on the still blacker shapes,
The Barn is quiet and heavy —
I stop at the spotted roan’s pale glow.
He’s the one I take out to ride,
Ears pointed like an Egyptian guard dog,
Excited tear towards the beach, white surf
Tattered by wind, sickle moon a gash
In the sky god’s thigh, pinpricks of starlight,
The crab nebula, rare gift of August,
Stained glass from a cosmic cathedral
Exploded—the horse shies sideways, neighing.
For the Nez Perce, the spotted horse was
Totem & transport to the next home,
Battle, world—I stick to these sweaty sides
Lashed by leather and mane, an exhalation
Of time on an eastern shore, racing.
The gorgeous, romantic imagery in “Appaloosa” includes acknowledgement of the many uses we put horses to and the sheer will it takes to stay with a creature that cooperates but is not subdued.
The record of our fascination with horses is ancient. In the Chauvet caves, documented in Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” the first image in the entryway, after a distinctive red polka dotted handprint, is a group of running horses, mouths open, depicted by a single artist. As Herzog observes, not only do the drawings articulate motion enhanced by torchlight and the contours of the rock, but the sound of the horses neighing is evoked too. Edward Muybridge captured the mechanics of a running horse on film. The cave drawings enact both the understanding of the dynamics of motion and the spirit of that motion. “Fluidity and permeability” between humans and animals inform this world. It is hard to imagine the horses depicted in the Chauvet, Lascaux, and Altamira caves as anything but wild creatures, unharnessed and un-ridden. Riding a horse is about power, but it is also about entering into a mythical, shaman-like freedom that we have been separated from by centuries of domestication.
I am grateful to Jo Sarzotti for permission to include “Appaloosa” from her book of poems Mother Desert, Graywolf Press 2012.
Emily Dickinson’s beloved Newfoundland Carlo does not appear often in her poems, but it is Carlo Dickinson refers to most often as her great companion in her letters from 1861-1864. The Carlo letters are clustered during the Civil War years, stressful, passionate years that include the horror of war, the Master Letters, and the intense activity of copying and sewing the fascicles. As has been well-documented, Carlo appears in the letters as companion, as surrogate, as Dickinson’s heart, and as a necessary chaperone in a Master Letter from 1861, when Dickinson proposes a reckless rendezvous, made safe by Carlo’s presence: “Could’nt [sic] Carlo, and you and I walk in the meadows an hour – and nobody care but the Bobolink — and his — a silver scruple?” The bird as witness and the silver of its scruple make me think of # 861:
Split the Lark — and you’ll find the Music
Bulb after Bulb, in Silver rolled —
Scantily dealt to the Summer Morning
Saved for your Ear when Lutes be old.
Loose the Flood — you shall find it patent —
Gush after Gush, reserved for you —
Scarlet Experiment! Sceptic Thomas!
Now, do you doubt that your Bird was true?
The poem, copied by Dickinson into an 1864 fascicle, has a triumphal tone that almost seems a precursor to her more famous #1072 that begins, “Title Divine—is mine!/ The Wife—without the Sign” copied into an 1862 fascicle.
The fascicles are dated by changes in Dickinson’s handwriting, and Dickinson copied the poems into the fascicles, seemingly not in the order in which she wrote them. What does any of this have to do with Carlo? Mainly that Carlo figures large as a steadying force through the “White Heat” of these years.
Carlo isn’t listed in the subject index of Thomas H. Johnson’s The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Under “dog,” there is only a late poem beginning, “A Little Dog that wags its tail/And knows no other joy,” not a poem about Carlo.
Aside from an early valentine, written when Carlo was just a puppy, Richard B. Sewall identifies Carlo only with #186 that begins,
What shall I do—it whimpers so —
This little Hound within the Heart
All day and night with bark and start —
Though Carlo might stand in for Dickinson’s heart, the Hound is little, and Carlo appears at the end of the poem as a staunch messenger:
Tell Carlo —
He’ll tell me!
I don’t think Carlo is ever little or ever a hound in Dickinson’s poems. To my mind, the poem where Carlo is stated as himself most truly in his role as companion is #520, in an 1862 fascicle. It begins:
I started Early — took my Dog —
And visited the Sea —
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me —
After the first line of the poem, the dog doesn’t appear again, and Carlo is not named. Much has been written about the dog’s absence from the poem when the sea becomes threatening. Still, I see this as the poem where Emily Dickinson defines Carlo’s indispensible role in her life. Without Carlo, Dickinson could not face the sea that represents both terrors and pleasures: the sea she set out on when she couldn’t claim election, the sea that divided her geographically and otherwise from beloved friends, the sea that hid curious creatures and the terrifying gaze of the other, and the sea of sexual longing that threatened to obliterate all boundaries. The sea had to be confronted. The only possible companion for Dickinson on such a visit is the knowing and mute Carlo. Her rambles with Carlo in the hills around Amherst gave Dickinson the freedom of an elsewhere, unburdened by language and the human “Beings” she compares unfavorably to Carlo. His companionship is a portal into the space between words and worlds that allows poems to come. From 1850, the earliest date given any poem in the fascicles, until he died in 1866, Carlo was Dickinson’s familiar, opening doors. In Dickinson’s famous, heart-stricken letter to Thomas Wentworth Higginson after Carlo died, she wrote only:
Would you instruct me now?
Since it is mid-January, pouring rain, and I find myself writing about dogs as familiars and about their inevitable loss, I begin with a refrain from “Dog Dreams,” a sardonic song by Jonatha Brooke for her album Grace in Gravity with the Story. I tend not to command, scold, or restrain my dogs, but my dogs have been generally well-behaved, if sometimes a pain. The refrain:
Dog Dreams, Dog Dreams
Please don’t wake us up!
No bad dog, No stay,
No basement, No way,
No choke chain, No dry food,
No fetch game, No, No, No
No bad dog, No stay,
No basement, No way,
No choke chain, No dry food,
No sit, lie down, roll over, SHAME
As we headed towards the solstice this year, the days were especially dark. It was hard to find peace of mind, and I wanted more than usual just to get away. The just-finished semester of teaching had left me feeling word-bled. What I wanted most was to be absorbed into unmediated experience, the way I am on a long walk with a dog. Our family dog is now eighteen years old and so sustained by our daily rituals that I am uneasy leaving her.
The smallish white terrier I am caring for is lighthearted, the only dog I’ve ever seen noticing stars, calculating the unbridgeable distance, accepting that they cannot be caught or cornered. It seems incongruous that Tally has grown old, can no longer run with me, can no longer even see the stars.
For those of us who engage with our pets as familiars, our connection loosens the bindings that words impose on perception. Our familiars are spirit guides and seem sent intentionally to us. Poet/painter Desiree Alvarez’s enormous, exotic rescue was such a dog. Soon after Bingo died, Desiree, Catherine Woodard, and I took a dog-less hike to a rocky plateau on Hook Mountain that Catherine had christened the Bingo Bowl, since we could pour water for the dogs into a stone hollow there, and read Desiree’s poem “Familiar” as a farewell.
All day digging the hole,
then later lowering your body, still
warm with sun and heart,
wanting to join you down
deep in the earth’s brown pelt.
I dug you the most beautiful hole
filled with forsythia.
When grandpa’s old wood shovel broke
I got down to scoop the field dirt,
rocks, tear out the roots
while you watched. You, the long
walk up the slate mountain,
the swim across the high March river.
We lived large, every day of sautéed
butter and salt. You ran away
so many times in your wildness.
Always I got you back. I swear
that was you I saw when I drove
back to the city, coyote shimmering
by the roadside staring straight at me.
It rained as I made a ring of stones
on top of your grave, and the wind
blew a hole right through me
in the shape of a dog running
on my first night without you.
I admire the unsentimental truth of “Familiar.” The dog provides companionship as her mistress digs the grave, understanding only that it is a profound endeavor. The speaker’s carefully described process of digging contains her grief and frustration. The dog is alive in the exhilarating activities of long, shared experience. The coyote by the roadside is both real and a messenger between worlds. Finally, the loss is realized in the compelling image of the hole blown through the speaker “in the shape of a dog running.” There is nothing here that is not true and necessary.
Familiars free us by giving access to what isn’t already bound up and marked off in words. Small wonder that the New England Puritans, so protective of boundaries, accused witches of projecting themselves into forbidden territory in the guise of familiars. This excerpt from W.S. Merwin’s “The Paw” from The Carriers of Ladders (2003) captures this merging and freeing of spirits in a poem about a favorite dog returning in a dream:
from THE PAW
I return to my limbs with the first
and here is the gray paw under my hand
the she-wolf Perdita
has come back
to sleep beside me
her spine pressed knuckle to knuckle
down my front
her ears lying against my ribs
on the left side where the heart beats […]
we are coursing the black sierra once more
in the starlight […]
The ellipsis is mine. The poem ends with the speaker waking, the final line, “but we are gone.” We.
I am grateful to Desiree Alvarez, winner of the 2015 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize, for her permission to include “Familiar,” which will appear in Devil’s Paintbrush forthcoming from Bauhan Publishing during Poetry Month, April 2016.
“Dog Dreams” was written and arranged by Jonatha Brooke (Dog Dream Music/ASCAP) for the Story’s 1991 album Grace in Gravity. Here is a link: Dog Dreams
I excerpted W.S. Merwin’s “The Paw” from Doggerel: Poems about Dogs, edited by Carmela Ciuraru for Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets
“Though I am long dead as you read this, explorer, I offer to you a valediction. Contemplate the marvel that is existence, and rejoice that you are able to do so. I feel I have the right to tell you this because, as I am inscribing these words, I am doing the same.”
The above quotation is from Ted Chiang’s meditative and melancholic science fiction short story “Exhalation” in which an argon-breathing person made of aluminum and gold narrates the tale of its planet’s demise and how it examined (literally) the workings of its own mind. A beautiful story, and one that I recently taught in my science fiction writing class at Ursinus College, where I’m the Visiting Creative Writer.
This course has been a thorough pleasure to teach because of my delightful students and because of the readings, which are almost always surprisingly trans- and progressive. Imagining alternate realities and near or far futures can be good for the soul as well as the mind.
And although I’ve worked mostly in poetry for the last decade and more, in the last couple years I’ve returned to writing fiction. (I started as a prose writer, then embraced poetry and fiction in graduate school with the intention of returning to prose and found I couldn’t stop writing the poems.) I’ve written both hybrid-genre and more straightforward stuff, but almost always with a fantastical emphasis. I also regularly teach a course on retelling myth and fairy tale, another genre I love and work in.
I say all this in order to bring you the following writing exercise, which I think works just as well for poetry as it does for short fiction.
I asked my students, who have drafted two sf short stories by now and read many others from H.G. Wells to Octavia Butler to Robert Heinlein to Ursula LeGuin to Samuel Delany to Eileen Gunn, to draft some possible first sentences to sf short stories. The lines might indicate something about the novums of the invented world—or not.
They didn’t have much time, only a few minutes that day (Tuesday), and I had them write the sentences on small pieces of paper (cut up from last year’s The Onion desk calendar). By now they know the drill: if I have them write on these little papers, I will collect them and then redistribute them randomly to the class. The experiment harnesses chance as a collaborator in the creative process, a la the Surrealists and the Oulipians and others. Anticipating the social component of the exercise, the students also will amuse and goad each other.
Their task was to draft a first paragraph to a sf short story using the sentence they received.
Here are the sentences they came up with:
Three bleeding suns split open the cold night. (Dorinda Ma)
“We specialize in the wholly impossible,” said the fading billboard. (Henry Willshire)
Once upon a time, there was an elephant with a bionic left tusk. (Collin Takita)
She woke up in a hospital bed having no memory of how she got there. But how could she? Her brain was in a jar floating next to her bed. (Irina Lessne)
Max the Mallard stood at the front of the courtroom and adjusted his tie before beginning to speak. “Quack.” (Kevin Moore)
We are gathered here today to join the dearly departed in holy matrimony. (Giselle Horrell)
I always thought that the city looked odd at night. (Albert Hahn)
The experiment had gone horribly wrong. (Megan Keenan)
The year was 2054, and two-thirds of the human population was dead. (Kristen Costello)
“Broken is modulator feedback machine time the,” said Morgan gasping.—(Blaise Laramee)
Close your eyes, hold your breath, count to 10. That was what they felt. (Linden Hicks)
Black was the primary color. (Rachel Juras)
The blood-soaked sky . . . (Brian Cox)
The sun, bright and full, rose over the city. (Althea Unertl)
[World ending] . . . (Darrah Hewlett)
I encourage you to write either a poem or a story beginning with one of these provocative sentences. Or, if you prefer to aim for a writing destination, try writing toward one of the following last sentences to an sf short story that the students devised today. Many of them also love poetry and are already astonishingly good poets.
Xylia scrambled to reach her phone. “Hey. Did I leave my self-matter stabilizer at your place?” (Albert Hahn)
They sealed the metal door from the inside. (Dorinda Ma)
A subsonic reverberation, then silence. (Brian Cox)
“I guess you can say, ‘That’s a wrap!’” the deli-man said as he took off his bionic shades and rolled off into the sunset on his hover bike. (Kevin Moore)
And just like that, all hope was lost and the world had yet to be found. (Irina Lessne)
And we held tightly onto each other as we slowly disappeared into the machine. (Giselle Horrell)
And then there was darkness. (Kristen Costello)
The lights went out, but the car continued. Right into a wall, just like before. (Henry Willshire)
She turned off the light, and for the first time in his life he could see. (Blaise Laramee)
And time, finally, began to go backwards again. (Althea Unertl)
And with that, they fall off the edge of Venus into a smoldering, dim rebirth. (Darrah Hewlett)
And, with his thorax now removed, the ant subsisted with just his head and ass. (Collin Takita)
And life continues without reason, without meaning. But they make a point of making it for themselves. (Linden Hicks)
They shot off in different directions, waiting for the next time their paths would cross. (Rachel Juras)
“Foneddigion a Boneddigesau! Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd!” The Welsh is slow and halting, pried off the page, the performance knowing and with flair. If I do say so myself.
I am saying it myself.
It’s me. On stage. Stomp, 2012, Vale of Glamorgan, Cymru (Welsh for “Wales”).
The Stomp (Y Stomp, in Welsh), is the National Poetry Slam of Wales. It is part of the annual Eisteddfod, the national cultural festival of all things Welsh. As I say in “Language Matters,” “It’s a lot like the state fairs in the US, except that instead of prizes for pies or pigs, the prizes are for poetry.”
The first Eisteddfod was in 1176, when Lord Rhys invited poets and musicians from all over the country to compete for a seat at his table. You could sing for your supper, and then get fed. Winning was an entree into the house of the Lords, and a golden meal ticket for the winning poet. The chair you pulled up to the table was a special Bard’s Chair, and to this day, the prize for the winning poet in the Formal Category is a Chair. Hand-carved by an artisan, the winner gets to take the Chair home, sit in it, and write more poems. In Welsh.
For me, as usual, the whole thing started at the Bowery Poetry Club, when we hosted readings by Welsh poets as part of the Peoples Poetry Gatherings, 2002-03. That’s where I began to feel the intensity around this ancient Celtic language. Whenever I bring up Welsh in New York, the response is invariably, “Well, what about Irish?” While the Irish fought and gained political independence, they did so in English. The Irish language is now much more endangered than Welsh. The Welsh never fought for independence, but rather cultural parity, and today Welsh is considered the only endangered language to have come off the endangered language list. It’s a success story by any metric, which is why it got its place in “Language Matters.”
One of the poets I met at the Club is Grahame Davies, who writes in both Welsh and English, and whose work and being was crucial in my decision to study Welsh. Grahame lives the fire and rigor needed to keep this ancient language alive. The fire is contagious, and to prepare for the film, I flew to Wales and began my own formal and informal study of the language.
Grahame picked me up at the Caerdydd (Cardiff) Airport, and we headed for breakfast with Elinor Robson of the Welsh Language Society. I confessed my dream to them, and we all laughed over a full Welsh. What? I, who didn’t even know enough to fly to Manchion (Manchester) to get to Gog Gymru (North Wales), who couldn’t say Blaenau Ffestiniog (the slate-mining town where I live in Wales), let alone spell it, who hadn’t even met Dewi Prysor! was proposing that I participate in next year’s Stomp! I, who didn’t know from “hwyl” (aloha), was going to write and perform a poem in Welsh -- all for this documentary I was making for PBS.
And as you now can see on the front page of the live-stream at PBS.org, the fantasy came real, all duded up in lucky Tibetan cap and Mexican guayabera, taking on all comers at Stomp 2012. “Ladies and Gentlemen! My first line of cynghanedd!” I am saying, to translate the first words of this post. And it really was the first cynghanedd I ever wrote.
In the film, the line is followed by a raucous audience response, Stomp cards held high—unlike the U.S. Slam, at the Stomp the audience is the judge, and they judge by holding up different colored cards to indicate their favorite poet. Watch as I collect a brotherly hug from Dewi, my mentor, friend and Stomp opponent, also an award-winning novelist and Stomp-winning poet, whose current job is translating episodes of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” into Welsh.
The cynghanedd is what separates formal Welsh poetry from free verse; in fact, it is what separates Welsh poetry from any other poetry in the world. There are six different forms of cynghanedd, and to win the Chair, you must write a poem that includes sections written in each. Each form has its own rules, here’s a general description the poetic device Marerid Hopwood, in her handbook Singing in Chains: Listening to Welsh Verse, describes as “consonant chime :” to create a cynghanedd , a line is divided into three sections, a double caesura. The middle section is thrown out. The two sections left, must have all their consonants (except the last) match up. In other words, the vowels, and of course in Welsh, Y and W are always vowels, are immaterial. The sounds we use to make rhymes don’t count.
Now from here things get a little complex. Sometimes there is internal rhyme, sometimes rhyme line-to-line, sometimes both—but let’s just leave it at that. The extraordinary thing is that a Welsh audience can hear the cynghanedd, applauding an especially good one, and be quite aware of a poet trying to slide something by. As an American poet writing in Welsh, even in the Stomp, to come up with a cynghanedd was quite a feat.
(Hopwood’s title is of course a line from “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The irony is that while we think of Thomas as the Welsh poet, in Wales he’s often not even considered to be in the top tier. Why? Because he didn’t write in Welsh. In fact, many people think that a lot of Thomas’s power comes from his having heard and digested the sounds and rhythms of Welsh poetry as a youth, and then using these Welsh cynghanedd forms in English. For your further elucidation, another poet who used Welsh forms and sounds was that old Jesuit and inventor of sprung rhythm, Gerard Manley Hopkins)
Quick cut back to breakfast—Grahame and Elinor waving goodbye, I’m training/bussing it to Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh Cultural Center, where I will begin my formal study of Welsh. Flashback to Stanza Poetry Festival in St. Andrews, Scotland, six months before, where another Welsh poet, Sian Melangell Dafydd, replies to my comment that I want to learn Welsh by saying “there’s this magical place in Llyn…” Flash forward to Grahame Davies’ brillant Everything Must Change, a novel that is a mash-up of the Welsh language protests of the 60s with the bio of Simone Weill. Flash further forward to my two weeks’ immersion at Nant where my Welsh teacher Llinos Griffin is prodding the Cymraeg (Welsh language) out of me, saying “You, know, you really should meet Dewi Prysor…”
…And what was your first line of cynghanedd, Bob? you’ve probably been wondering. “Yn ysgwd yn fy esgyrn.” Which, as you can see in “Language Matters,” I learn how to pronounce as I drive our van (my full title: host/driver) through scenic Wales, and which the show’s storyteller/line producer, Sian Taifi, also tries to instill in me by having me sing the words.
Besides Sian, Dewi and Grahame, the film also shows me learning with David Crystal, Europe’s most famous linguist, and Ivor ap Glyn, poet and TV host/producer. The line translates, “I am shaking my bones,” and as you can tell by my rendering, I really was.
The Stomp is a variant of the US Poety Slams, and I’ve done enough Slams to know that grabbing attention at the top is crucial. So I asked Dewi to teach me something that would bust through in case anyone at the Stomp should heckle my mispronunciation or lack of mutations, (Mutations! The bete noir of the Welsh language. Did you notice back a-ways how cynghanedd mutated to gynghanedd? Not a typo! In English and French we often elide one word into another by dropping the last letter: singing to singin’, eg. In Welsh, you “mutate” the first letter of the incoming word, so that, for example, if you are going to Bangor, you would say im Mangor, the B of Bangor mutating to an M. Which of course makes driving in Wales even more fun.) So the title I came up with for my Stomp masterpiece is: Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg! which, lovingly translates to “Fuck Off! I’m a Fuckin’ Welsh Fuckin’ Learner!”
Not only would I be trying to turn my lack of Welsh into an advantage by begging for the sympathy vote, but I’d also be paying homage to the colorful language the Stomp is known for, especially as used so expressively by my mate Prysor and the training camp he established in Blaenau (The Queen), with occasional side trips to Llan (Y Pengwyrn) and Tanygrisiau (Y Tap) -- three major pubs in three parts of town. It’s also worth noting that there are no indigenous curse words in Welsh; like Ffwcin, they’re all borrowings from bully English.
Playing between orality and literacy is one of my favorite areas of poetic exploration. In fact, it was how I got involved with Endangered Languages in the first place. Of the 6000 languages in the world (I just love saying that!), only 700 are written down. The Welsh oral traditions, from the Celitc storytellers and Druid poemmakers all he way to today’s Stomp, has been crucial to the language’s survival. And it was through my investigations into the roots of hiphop poetry (hiphop IS poetry!), that I first came across the Language Crisis.
Having established myself as an appropriately iconoclastic bardd Cymreig in the poem’s title, I felt it was important that the first line of the poem reverse field and show my respect for Welsh culture: “Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr,” imparts to me a mythic status, as I identify with the deepest image of Welsh mythology: “I feel like the Red Dragon entering into battle.” You may have noticed that Wales is the only country with a Red Dragon on its flag: the symbol of Wales, sleeping underground next to the White Dragon (England), waiting only for the Apocalypse to disinter, and then emerge victorious in the ensuing battle royale. Wow.
I straighten out this lie in the next line: “Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp.” “Actually, I’m just a stupid American poet trying to hold me own in the Stomp.” Another secret of Slam success: flip the script! Set up a high image, and then undercut it with your own vulnerability.
The next lines reference my aforementioned debt to hiphop. Hiphop is part of my lineage, too—for a while there in the 80s my tag was the Plain White Rapper. To write this section took painstaking work at the Blaenau llyfrgell (library) with a correlating a rhyming dictionary and a Welsh-English dictionary—why oh why is there no rhyming Welsh-English Dictionary?
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
My address? The definition of randomness
The contradiction of definition!
This also gives a nod to the course I’ve developed at Columbia, “Exploding Text: Poetry Performance,” using extra-literary means to add even more meanings to a poem via collaborations with film, dance, theater, et al.
After this jangly, dirty, provocative opening, I felt it was time for some “real” poetry, and being a “real” poet myself I knew just what lines to use: steal them, from a couple of great poets.
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
I was truly hoping someone in the audience would out me here (I should have had a plant!), so that my next barrage, taking personal blame not only for my plagerism but also for every crime ever committed during the horrific triumph of Capitalism known as US Imperialism would have more resonance:
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH Parry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
This is followed by the lines from “Language Matters.”
Cynghanedd, defended from the orality of the skalds, has been an integral part of Welsh has survived. Hopwood confesses at one point that she believes you can only truly write cynghanedd in the language that evolved in tandem with the poetic form: Cymraeg (Welsh). In essence, her whole lovely how-to is actually nothing but a piece of propaganda for the perpetuation of Welsh.
Cymru, the Welsh word for Wales, means Us, The People. “Wales” is a Saxon word, what the Saxons, the first conquering invaders of Wales, called the Celts there—“The others,” “Those guys over there.” Isn’t it time for the world’s nations to be known by the name that their people call themselves?
And now, the Grand Finale:
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
in My Big Head of Dreams
It’s true that my relationship with Welsh is a lot like having a lover—you have to give everything and there’s always more and thank goodness it’s never enough. But my head of dreams – in English I wanted this to be my big head, big enough to hold all these languages and the idea that somehow or other that this piece of theater, sacrificing myself on the pyre that is the Stomp, would show my love and respect for Welsh, that I would go to his extreme in order to bring my own personal touch to a documentary that is all about the essence of humanity, which I believe language is, but which can also be talked about in theories and data where it’s possible human contact may be lost.
Of the 12 poets who made it to the National Poetry Slam, Dewi and I were the first two names out of the hat. We went up against each other, splitting our supporters’ votes, and giving the first round to some brilliant whippersnapper poet who had somehow made cynghanedd a mode of conversation—brilliant! As if Byron were crossed with Frank O’Hara, say.
Because we were knocked out in the first round, the crew was able to shoot a wrap-up, right then and there, full of loss that meant nothing, and surrounded by a language that had taught me important truths that would infuse the whole film. And my life.
After the wrap, the crew really wanted to hit the road. I felt bad—for the poet to leave a reading early is bad form, in any language. But it was already late, and our flight back to the States was at 8:00 the next morning, and we had to drive to Llundain, and the Welsh sky was already ablaze. And my big head was full of big dreams but no way sleeping.
The poem and translation below are published in my most recent collection,Sing This One Back to Me (2013, Coffee House).
Ffwciwch Oma! Dwin Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg!
Rwy'n teimlo fel y ddraig goch yng nghanol y frwydr
Bardd Americanaidd tumffat yng nghanol y Stomp
Eisiau ymddiheuriad? dim posibiliad...
Eisiau nghyfeiriad? Dyna ddiffiniad o wrthddywediad
A distrywio’r diffiniad!
A dach chi’n gwybod pam?
Mi dduda’i thach chi pam!
Achos -- mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!!!
Hen Gychwr Afon Angau, // mae o’n gwbod
Beth ydwyt ti a minnau, frawd
Ond swp o esgyrn mewn gwisg o gnawd
Dygwyd y llinellau uchod ar eich cyfer oddi ar
R Williams Parry a TH Parry Williams yn enw
Foneddigion a Boneddigesau!
Fy llinell gyntaf o gynghanedd:
“Yn ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”
Mae’n wir wyddoch chi –
Dwi YN “ysgwyd yn fy esgyrn”!
A dach chi’n gwbod pam?
Achos fy mod i'n Ffwcin Dysgwr Ffwcin Gymraeg,
Dyna ffwcin pam!!!
Baby baby yr unig ffordd o atal y gerdd hon – yw cusanu
Lle mae pob cusan yn dod yn air Cymraeg
Yn fy mhen a’i lond o freuddwydion
Fuck Off, I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner!
(That’s the Title)
I feel like The Red Dragon In the Middle of Battle
stupid American poet in the middle of the Stomp
Want an apology? No possibility!
My address? The definition of randomness (The contradiction of definition)
And you know why?
I'll tell you why!
Cause I’m a Fuckin Welsh Fuckin Learner, that's why
Old River Boatman Death (Rwilliams Parry), he knows it
What art thou and I, brother
But in a uniform batch of bones of flesh
The lines above stolen on your behalf from R Williams Parry & TH arry Williams in the name of American Imperialism!
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!
My first line of cynghanedd!
“Shaking in my bones”
It’s true you know
I AM “shaking in my bones”!
And do you know why?
Because I’m a fuckin Welsh fuckin learner that’s fuckinwhy!
Baby baby the only way to stop this poem is to kiss kiss
Where each kiss becomes a word in Welsh
In My Big Head of Dreams
Early morning drive near where I live up Mount Greylock, tallest mountain in Massachusetts, on a windy astounding Civilian Conservation Core road – thank you Mister Roosevelt – thinking how moments come and go and words can’t capture each one. On the way up the mountain, the early light lit up the yellow-leaved autumn trees, then driving down, the unlit trees were a totally different sight. Changing light is the least of it! Words – you ingrates. Words – you measly things - put on your gloves and let’s have a fair fight.
The confluence of all and each thing all at once each moment – light, sound, people, history, fact, weather - the list has no end – it’s barely possible to say anything thoroughly true.
Thank god for sound – it can do better than words. Thank you, Otis Redding, you’ve been dead so long, but not your sound.
While sitting outside in my backyard a couple of months ago, I heard a sad song - more opera than song – a dramatic story, the arias sung by two birds.
First I heard scratching, inside the end of the covered gutter that runs along the roof of my house.
A grown bird, I didn't register what kind, flew into the end of the gutter, disappeared inside. More scratching -- had baby birds hatched in an ill-positioned nest? The grown bird began to fly in and out of the gutter’s end. In and out, in and out. Sounds of distress began, then intensified.
A second grown bird arrived and landed on the green roof of the outbuilding. The two birds began singing, if you can call it that, to each other. One bird on the peak of the green roof and the other on top of the gutter alternated making screeching sounds to one another. Their duet turned hysterical. This went on for seemed like a long time. Then the scratching inside the gutter quieted down and stopped.
Finally both birds flew off. Silence. A bit of time elapsed. Soon one of them returned, flew close by the gutter, circled and landed on it. All quiet now. The bird flew away.
Fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa
fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa.
In his poem “Now You’re An Animal,” Mark Doty asks, “What is lyric?” This question remains worthy of asking again and again (—which might be why what follows here is extremely underdeveloped…!). Lyric poetry shifts seemingly at the rate that our communication methods shift. And I don’t just mean from horse-and-messenger to postal snail mail to e-mail to text message. I mean the way we also speak to each other’s faces, the words we choose in order to express ourselves (personally or digitally), the rhetoric of the self. Traditionally, the lyric takes up personal human emotion. (But not always in a direct way.) It values sound, rhythm, the image, the line, and not necessarily chronological logic or sentence structure. (But not all these things, and not all the time.) The lyric poem has a musical cadence. (But not always.)
So what is it, really? There’s a lot to be said about it, to the point at which the lyric becomes undefinable. The easiest answer to the question “What is lyric?” is simply “Not narrative.”
I struggle when having this conversation with my Introduction to Creative Writing students. I can provide a multitude of examples showing what might be considered “lyric poetry” (“Remember when we read James Tate? Yeah, not that.”). It seems though that presenting many examples only confuses them, causes them to wonder why this category exists if there are so many different forms/methods/sub-genres that fit it. It isn’t until we read Doty’s poem in tandem with some in-class writing that they really start to get it, and I start to see some of the most exciting and substantive poems produced from those undergrads that I’d seen all semester.
First, I write this on the board:
I thought, This is the relation between narrative
and lyric: one minute you're on 23rd Street
trying to find an address, and the next
you're naked under a wet crown of horns.
Then, I read the poem to them aloud (after they’ve read it on their own as homework):
Now You're An Animal [by Mark Doty]
I'd expected to sit for my portrait
in the photographer's studio—
chilly morning, fierce April wind on Sixth
slicing through my jacket and sweater,
new blur of the trees overhead—
but at the loft, a huge roll of white paper
hung from the ceiling, blocking a wall of windows;
he handed me a bucket of black paint
and brushes and said, Now, how would you
like to represent yourself? I wasn't ready
for that. It wasn't noon, I'd hurried across
the city, and didn't feel awake to the task
of metaphor. Then we were talking, easy, about
what others had done—he photographed painters,
actors, whoever he liked in the arts—
and how dancers often leapt before the white field
he'd offered them. And I said,
I've always wanted antlers, and began to paint
high on the big page black reindeer horns,
in thick strokes, the paint dripping nicely,
and when I finished I could stand
beneath them and the serious, branching
architecture seemed to spring from my head.
He stood at the other end of the room,
framing me upside down in his lens. He said,
That's wonderful, what do you want to wear?
I didn't know. He said, Take off your shirt,
and I did, and he said, Now you're an animal!
I ripped open the buttons of my jeans
so as to be a lustful beast, and he cried,
Yes, that's it! And though it was a joke
still I was seized by a sort of heat;
I took deep breaths, tilted my head up,
stood in the center of my own authority
while he lifted sheets of film and pushed
others in again, and clicked the lens.
He said, That's good, what else? I don't know
how else to do it unless you're naked.
And I said, I'm okay with that, and without
even my watch or ring, only the arching
crown tangling high into the air above me,
I felt the up-pushing pulse of some originating flame.
I thought, This is the relation between narrative
and lyric: one minute you're on 23rd Street
trying to find an address, and the next
you're naked under a wet crown of horns.
That's how fast we slip into the underlife.
Later, out in the daylight, I thought,
What if my students see this picture?
or the Dean of Liberal Arts?—but only
after I'd walked back out into
the elevator and the lobby, onto the sidewalk
with an odd warmth banked inside me,
creaturely: the undertime, beneath
the new haze of trees overhead,
bud time, the sharp spring wind
equal parts ice and green. What is lyric?
I wanted the animal seen
that I might know him. Even
waiting at the blustery intersections,
I was warmed by the incipient leaves,
and I held the antlers high in the wind,
their heart radiating down into my face,
and on the street a few men knew what I wished:
that my plain clothes hid hooves and haunches.
Then, I underline in different colors on the board: narrative and on 23rd Street trying to find an address; lyric and naked under a wet crown of horns. Then, together we generate lists of characteristics of “narrative” and “lyric” based on what they read/heard from the poem, as well as the specifics underlined in the passage. As with most large group discussions based around list-making, after a couple suggestions are written, students shout out more and more amazing additions more and more rapidly. They become confident in their understanding. They take chances, which start mini-discussions along the way.
Once the lists seem exhaustive, it’s their turn to write. First, I ask them to write some lyric lines—“If you were given a blank canvas and a bucket of paint, how would you represent yourself with it?” Next, some narrative lines—“Recall a time in which you were trying to find an address. Tell us about it.” Then, I ask them to rewrite both sets of lines intertwined together – first lyric line, first narrative line, second lyric line, second narrative line, and so on – with attention to revision into a cohesive piece (i.e. changing bits of grammar and syntax so that the lines are fluid from one to the next). Then, they pass their completed piece to the left. Their classmates read the completed piece with a pencil handy. They’re on the lookout for striking moments and surprising bits of language that they’ll then share with the class.
What results is truly extraordinary – the kind of language that balls the fists in delight, asking for more. Through this exercise, my students gather that lyric and narrative do not have to be so disparate. It’s a relation, not a difference. The most exciting moments in poetry happen when lyric and narrative intersect, plain clothes hiding hooves and haunches.
Doty says, “I wanted the animal seen that I might know him.” Lyric is how we reveal ourselves to ourselves. Narrative is the attempt to find the animal’s address.
When I was little, I liked to make lists of things: sports I liked to play, bands/singers I liked to listen to, R.L. Stein books I’ve read and have yet to read. It was all usually things I liked, things that sort of defined me at the time. Today, I was similarly moved to make such a list, but this time, of TV shows I like, ones that warrant binge-watching entire seasons at a time. I don’t quite know why I’m compelled in this way. Why is the act of making a list a pleasurable thing? Is it the thinking process, the discerning? The result, the seeing them all together? Once I’ve exhausted the obvious ones, I’m forced to think of ones I might have forgotten about otherwise, thereby perhaps reinvigorating the idea? Homage? Inclusion? (Exclusion?) Is it like creating a club and I’m the leader who gets to approve membership (like picking teams in grade school kickball)? Am I attempting to keep myself organized? If I write down every city I’ve ever been to, will I then know myself more fully? Am I better able to hold myself together after listing every film that has ever made me cry?
And following this list of questions, another— Why the list poem? Similar to my list-creating desire’s elementary origins, the list poem is a technique often introduced to the young writer as a handy image-compiling tool. Some primary school teachers ask their students to create list poems to introduce themselves to their classmates, or when poetry is brand new. It’s easy. It’s fun. It’s productive, straight-forward self-reflection. And all of these are assets to someone in her late 20s (or, anyone older than primary school age) too. The list poem enacts this youthful ease of compartmentalization, while engaging with the more mature task of exploring a thing from all its angles.
Catherine Bowman makes lists in “Sylvia’s Photo Album,” “Things To Eat, Paris, 1953” and her series of “Things To Do” poems, all from The Plath Cabinet. Susan Firer’s list poems include “Small Milwaukee Museums,” “Where Song Comes From,” and “The Wave Docent.” Paul Guest gives us “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge,” “To-Do List,” and “Things We Agreed Not to Shout,” which is reproduced here:
Things We Agreed Not to Shout [by Paul Guest]
Mom is dead. Dad melted. Again.
Bitter recriminations. Bitter infidelities. Bitter.
Streisand is on. Finnish curses on the firstborn
of everyone who held us back. My credit rating.
Your many catalogs of shame. Scrapbook time.
Do you remember where we sank the kindergarteners?
Infectious constipation. In our spare time,
we enjoy perfecting methods of evisceration.
Bingo. Also, fire. Let’s make a baby.
Not anymore. You feel kind of weird inside.
My brother’s indiscretions. My indiscretion
with your brother. That lost weekend in Vegas.
Landslide of therapy. Moving to another state. Again.
We are running out of America. Faster.
Right there. Good girl. Judas Priest lyrics.
Freebird. Woo. Random latitudes.
Imagined injuries. Getting tired of your meniscus.
Seriously. Routing numbers
and decade by decade
delineations of your bra sizes. Beginning with the seventies.
You promised. I thought you were
asleep. I thought you wouldn’t mind it.
The list poem inherently invites the reader into its space. It asks for suggestions. What’s left out here? What could be added to this list? What kinds of things have you agreed not to shout? (To Guest’s list, I’d add, “Curse words at seagulls in the morning.”)
But there’s also a clear reason why the reader’s additions are not a part of the list already (so clear that it probably doesn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it anyway): This is not my list. This list is a representation of the speaker at a particular moment in time. It’s possible that he might agree next week not to shout curse words at seagulls in the morning. But at the time of the poem, it wasn’t a defining piece of his character. Maybe it’s a piece of mine though… So maybe I’ll create my own list… And oh, another reason the list poem is so spectacular! The encouragement of new poems. And then, years after you write your own “things I’ve agreed not to shout” poem, you might write another one because maybe you’ve decided to start shouting at seagulls since then. It’s a wonderful process, really.
So I’m going to go make a list of all my favorite TV shows. Who really knows why. But when I’m done, the list will exist, and I will have it to look at and consider its implications, what it says about me as a TV watcher, an entertainment seeker, an American, a human being. And maybe I’ll never look at it again. Or I’ll make another list in 15 years because this list doesn’t define me anymore. Or maybe I’ll make a poem of it, like John Ashbery’s “They Knew What They Wanted,” a list poem comprised of film titles. And then he’ll write a poem in response to mine comprised of only TV show titles. And then… well, the list goes on, doesn’t it?
In Mojave, the words we use to describe our emotions are literally dragged through our hearts before we speak them—they begin with the prefix wa-, a shortened form of iiwa, our word for heart and chest. So we will never lightly ask, How are you? Instead, we ask very directly about your heart. We have one way to say that our hearts are good, and as you might imagine if you’ve ever read a history book or lived in this world, we have many ways to say our hearts are hurting.
The government came to us first in the form of the Cavalry, then the military fort (which is why we are called Fort Mojave), and finally the boarding school. The government didn’t simply “teach” us English in those boarding schools—they systematically and methodically took our Mojave language. They took all the words we had. They even took our names. Especially, they took our words for the ways we love—in silencing us, they silenced the ways we told each other about our hearts.
One result of this: generations of English-speaking natives have never heard I love you from their parents, which in their eyes, meant their parents didn’t love them. However, those parents never said, I love you, because it didn’t mean anything to them—it was an English word for English people. There is no equivalent to it in the Mojave language—the words we have to express our feelings, to show the things berserking in our chests for one another are much too strong to be contained by the English word love.
But after boarding schools and work programs sent them to the cities for work, our children stopped speaking Mojave—they were beaten if they were caught talking or singing in their language. Maybe when they came home their parents spoke to them all about their hearts, but if they did, the children didn’t understand anymore.
It is true, the Mojave language does not say, I love you—and it is equally true that the government was hoping we would quit expressing this toward one another, that we would never again give each other tenderness. While we don’t say, I love you, we say so much more. We have ways to say that our heart is blooming, bursting, exploding, flashing, words to say that we will hold a person and never let them go, that we will be stingy with them, that we will never share them, that they are our actual heart. And even these are mere translations, as close as I can get in English.
Despite Cavalries and boarding schools, our language is still beautiful and passionate—it carries in it the ways we love and touch each other. In Mojave, to say, Kiss me, is to say fall into my mouth. If I say, They are kissing, I am also saying, They have fallen into each other’s mouths.
The word for hummingbird is nyen nyen, and it doesn’t mean bird—it is a description of what a hummingbird does, moving into and out of and into the flower. This is also our word for sex. Mat ‘anyenm translated to English means the body as a hummingbird, or to make a hummingbird of the body. On a very basic level we have a word that means body sex hummingbird all at once.
I think of the many lame things people say when they want to have sex with someone--imagine how much more luck they would have if they came to you with that lightning look in their eyes and that glisten in their mouths and said just one word: hummingbird. And you would think: bloom, sweet, wings that rotate, heart beating at 1,260 beats per minute, flower, largest proportioned brain in the bird kingdom, syrup,iridescent, nectar, tongue shaped like a “w”—which means something close to yes.
Recently, an adult learner who is teaching her children the language in her home asked our Elders if they could teach her to tell her son that she loves him. They told her that we have no word for that. But, the learner insisted, I need to know because I never heard my parents say that to me, and I will not let my son grow up without hearing me tell him that I love him. The Elders asked her, What is it you really want to tell him? The learner was emotional at this point, her words had caught in her throat. Instead of speaking, she made a gesture with her arms of pulling someone closer to her, and then she closed her eyes and hugged her arms against her chest. Ohhh, one of the Elders exclaimed, Now, we have a word for that—wakavar.
Maybe there is no great lesson to be learned here, but when I sit down to write a poem, I carry all of this language with me onto the page--I try to figure out what I really mean, what the words really mean to me. I don’t ever want to say, love, if what I mean is wakavar, if what I mean is hummingbird, if what I mean is fall into my mouth.
Things You Should Know About Ravens
1. They are found virtually all over the world.
2. They look like crows, but are much bigger.
3. They are extremely intelligent. They use tools, learn from each other, and engage in play.
4. They are great imitators.
5. According to the Animal Spirits Guide, Raven medicine includes rebirth and renewal, the ability to find light in darkness, introspection, and eloquence. Poets, take heed. If you see a Raven, say hello and thank you. He may answer back.
We all make mistakes. This can include killing baby rabbits. For those attuned to this sad sort of thing, there is a macabre sub-genre of contemporary poetry about mistakenly killing small creatures with power mowers.
Philip Larkin famously killed a hedgehog while cutting the grass (“The Mower”), and Richard Wilbur clipped off the leg of an unlucky toad (“The Death of a Toad”). In Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest,” a father and daughter contemplate a cluster of baby birds who narrowly escaped—who knows how—the cutting blade of a mower that was pulled over their hidden nest in a field. In a less-well-known poem by James Wright called “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” the speaker observes how speeding cars obliterate the frogs as they try to reach “the green stalk of the field / On the other side of the road.”
Some poems are variations on this theme. Richard Eberhardt, for instance, in “The Groundhog,” considers the decaying body of a groundhog in a field. Granted he didn't kill it himself, but he ruminates existentially over the bloated corpse. Then we have William Stafford’s anthology piece, “Travelling Through the Dark.” A driver comes upon the body of a deer hit by a car. It’s by the side of the road at a tricky turn above a canyon. The speaker of the poem stops his own car, gets out, and sees it was a pregnant doe. Realizing the danger to other drivers, he roles the warm, gravid body down a ravine into the river below.
We mustn’t forget “Snake,” by D. H. Lawrence. The violence here is no accident, though the speaker in this case doesn’t kill the snake. He hurls a log at it, sending it panic-stricken into its dark hole. To his credit, the speaker immediately regrets what he did and realizes that he missed his “chance with one of the lords of life.”
Why do we write these poems? It’s a symptom, I think, of modernity and our guilt over pulling ever further away in our mechanized lives from the natural world. I’m riveted by these poems, particularly Larkin’s and Wilbur’s, because I had the misfortune in my early twenties of mistakenly going over a baby rabbit with a massive power mower in a horse pasture. I still think about it, and it fills me with dread. The worst thing was, when I found the rabbit, it wasn’t dead yet. I’ve written a poem about this called “Killing Things.” It’s due to come out later this year in American Arts Quarterly, thanks to the poetry editor there, the sculptor and poet Meredith Bergmann. (To respect editorial policy, I won’t include the poem here.)
I’d like to end with a supposition. It seems clear to me that Larkin and Wilbur, with their power mowers, are reaching back to a very ancient image from the Latin poets: the wild flower at the edge of a meadow inadvertently "touched" by the plow. The image comes from Catullus XI (To Furius and Aurelius). I'm grateful to the translator and poet Chris Childers for helping me re-find this passage. In Catullus, the destroyed flower and the plow are not at the center of the poem. They are invoked at the end by a disabused lover to show how he has been hurt by Lesbia, a carless paramour with industrial-grade appetites. Here is Chris Childers’ excellent take:
her call me a lover or a friend;
it's her fault that my love is fallen now
like a shy flower touched at the meadow’s end
by a passing plow.
If we disregard the context and rhetoric of this poem (Chris warned me to be careful here) and look only at the image in the last two lines, it’s not too different from Larkin and Wilbur. As Chris rightly pointed out to me, Catullus XI is a love poem, whereas those by Larkin and Wilbur are mortality poems, and Larkin’s mower is more Horatian. Still, in each case, a fragile, living thing, be it a wildflower (Catullus), a hedgehog (Larkin), or a toad (Wilbur), is killed with a tool by mistake and rather thoughtlessly. My claim is that Larkin and Wilbur, with their power mowers, are pointing back to the ancient plow. Of course, the image of things getting cut down by a gardener with a scythe is a commonplace emblem of Death at work, but in that case, there is intent to destroy. Not so, here. These three deaths are caused unintentionally, which makes the perishing more poignant. Did Larkin and Wilbur have Catullus in mind? I would like to think so, but it requires a better scholar than I to answer this.
I miss the cicadas. Is anybody with me here? I miss the last, most beautiful, garish, carnagey stage of them the most. I miss the mullioned wings, with the orange edges, that lay on the sidewalk squares as I walked the kids to school a few mornings this week. Every two or three sidewalk squares, we'd see a couple, shining like found coins. of What explained that, we wondered.
Then I saw the answer in action, a sparrow, pulling a cicada wing from wing, bit by bit. The wings were the first to go. Most everything else seemed to get eaten, though some parts took longer than others. There was a sparrow midden at the side of our patio, eight wings in a foot-square patch of lawn, four bugs that are no longer with us, but weren’t going to be with us for long anyway.
My favorite image of cicadas is the wing on the ground, with the condensation on its underside, upside down dew rising on to a wing, with the droplets all self-contained and globular and iridescent and perfect, like raindrops on a lady’s mantle leaf.
What is getting fat off cicadas this year, I wondered? Are the sparrows having more chicks, the way squirrel broods increase when the acorn mast surges? Is the lawn going to be greener from having the wings fertilize it? From what I've read, wild turkeys are having a protein-filled year this year, while voles had a good year last year, when the larvae were plumpest, almost ready to emerge.
And how do the larvae know when 17 winters have passed? Do they grow 1/17th of a pupae each year? Is there some way a bug learned to count to 17? Why don’t separate teams of cicadas arrive every 17 years, so we’d have a 17-year hatch every year, just staggered a bit? What is evolutionarily adaptive about living underground, in pupae form, for almost two decades?
There was a cicada wing in the shower this morning. It may have been tossed in there by my nine-year-old son, trying to gross me out – he could’ve carried it in after dunking his head in the barrel we were using for the water gun fight. I hope it sticks around for a few more days.
We only get about five such outbreaks of these UFO-imitating, chorusing bugs. I was 33 the last time they came out, and living in the northwest, missing the show. I was 16 before that, oblivious and in New Jersey. I will be 67 next time, then, with any luck, 84 and maybe even 101. Bless the red-eyed, buzzing creatures for puzzling us, and for making us check our inner watches, and pay attention.
(photo by Kristine Paulus)
Huffy Henry blogged the day (Berryman)
I used to write a blog, five years ago, called Fallout. After a year or so, we fell out.
Comes over one an absolute necessity to blog (D.H. Lawrence)
I have a new blog called Mo’ Worse Blues but so far has only one entry announcing that more entries will follow soon. That’s been up for about a month. I will attend to it soon, I will.
For a long time I used to blog early (Proust)
But it will have to wait till after my vacation here; my week away in a blog cabin.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own blog, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these entries must show. (Dickens)
Thinking of cabins and woods, while I neglect my own blog and set up here I feel a little like a cuckoo – albeit a (so far) welcome and cordially invited cuckoo – typing its way out of the shell.
Soul, wilt though blog again? (Dickinson)
I’m already perched quite high (here’s a photo of yesterday’s sunset, looking over The City)
but the view from the eyrie can seem dismal at times. Nations disintegrate; those who ‘do not wish to get embroiled in the conflict’ deliberately embroil themselves in the conflict; our party of power, which I detest, is compelled to ape a smaller, similarly detestable party in an effort to cling to its pseudo-mandate; buildings are collapsing around our desire for cheap produce; the British 1970s and 80s are under arrest for unspeakable acts; and poachers have picked Mozambique clean of its glorious rhinos.
But fretting in public like this makes me feel faintly absurd, like Proust’s Madame de Guermantes:
“I supposed that, since she was always dabbling in politics, she intended to show that she was afraid of war, as one day when she had appeared at the dinner table so pensive, barely replying in monosyllables, upon somebody's inquiring timidly what was the cause of her anxiety, she had answered with a grave air: ‘I am anxious about China.’” (The Fugitive)
So instead I will focus on cuckooness for now. First, a cuckoo that speaks with the voice of Ted Hughes (with perhaps a touch of Al Pacino doing Shakespeare):
Dizzying Milkymaids with innuendo...
O Orphan of orphans! O moon-witted
Cavorting on pylons, you and your witch moll!
(From A Primer of Birds, 1981)
And one of Scottish poet Richard Price’s many wonderful birds, this one flying in a prose poem pattern:
It’s an uplifting call and when you hear it spring is coming, sure enough, resurrection, promise kept. But I’m not comfortable. That’s no life for her and it’s no life for anyone else mixed up in the whole business. The parents think the chick is just like them, and it’s a hero when it gets bigger. Then it’s all me me me, eating its brothers out of home and house, breaking its foster-mother’s heart as sure as. I can’t speak to her about it, and she won’t get help. She says: every one of my children is like a little Jesus, and that makes me…God.
(From Lucky Day, Carcanet 2005)
For the rest of the week I’ll be flitting in and out of the nest and will bring back some juicy scraps from the London poetry scene, among other things. But now it’s time to roost.
The recent “neuro-revolution” in poetics has tended to replicate the privilege granted to cognition over affect in other areas of neuroscience. What is most important, from this perspective, is the prefrontal cortex and its attendant brain systems: those most linked to tertiary processes, the “higher” forms of reasoning that are unique to the human brain, the kind of meta-critical capacity that distinguishes us from our dogs and dolphins, elephants and apes.Research in neuroscience has been guilty of the same biases until recently. The term cognitive neuroscience was often taken to describe all brain processes, as if all brain processes were cognitive, primarily because of the assumption that emotion is regulated by cognition and that cognitive processes occur first, structuring the emotion in fundamental ways. “Cognitive gating mechanisms” were seen to inhibit emotion and determine its expression, thus representing emotion as raw material that is only given its form through cognitive processing—emotions are viewed in cognitive terms.
This is called a “top down” model of information processing. However, the most recent advances in neuroscience tell a different story, one that makes a convincing argument for a “bottoms up” model, and one that has wide implications for poetics and the value we have granted to the cognitive over the affective. Any such attempt to purge affect and narrative is doomed to failure, since it ignores the indissociable relation between affect and cognition, emotion and reason, biology and culture, the brain and the mind. As current neuroscience has spelled out in some detail in its theories of “functional connectivity,” the one is not possible without the other.[i]
Instead, “brain-behavior processes” are the products of interaction effects between each, neural circuits that include the control functions of the primary process emotional states themselves. In fact, recent advances in affective neuroscience argue for “more realistic models that incorporate dynamic properties and bidirectional interactive multi-way communications.”[ii] Instead of occurring through a top-down hierarchy in which cognition occurs first and is the controlling mechanism, neural activity has recently been shown to occur bidirectionally in multiple regions. Furthermore, as the phylogentically oldest part of our brains, the affective systems are most linked to fundamental survival mechanisms that “provide a necessary foundation for higher functions to operate” (Cromwell and Panksepp 2032).
Crucially, these are the systems shared across all mammalian brains, and point to an affective experiential universality across all mammalian species, including humans. From a neuroevolutionary perspective, the affective remains fundamental. It is not a matter of cognition always generating a behavioral response, for instance, such as reader response. In fact, quite often, it is the more fundamental processes that inform behavior, those “from the gut” responses linked to the embodied, “so powerful it gives me the chills” effect in aesthetic response—a response in the autonomic nervous system triggered by adrenaline.
With this new information, it’s time to examine the interaction effects, the feedback loops between affect and cognition in poetics. An affective neuropoetics would, like Jaak Panksepp’s affective neuroscience, proceed from the bottom up, locating the roots of our motivations and aesthetic response in the primary affective processes.
A wonderful example of what I am talking about is Maria Mazziotti Gillan’s poem “Watching the Pelican Die,” first published in Prairie Schooner and forthcoming in The Silence in the Empty House (NYQ Books. 2013). The embodiment of what I have posited here as a site of the interactions between the affective and the cognitive, the poem enacts what, in her own aesthetic theory, Gillan has termed the dialogue between “the cave” and “the crow,” which are the metaphorical representations of affect and cognition.[iii] For Gillan, the privilege historically granted “the crow”—the social discourses and systems of valuation associated with scientific rationalism, tertiary process cognition, and the masculine—has served to devalue the embodied, the feminine, and the emotional that represents “the cave”—precisely those primary process affects that Panksepp has empirically situated as the very basis of and possibility for the cognitive. The “cave” in Gillan is the equivalent to affective brain processes in Panksepp, and is similarly fundamental:
Watching the Pelican Die
On TV, I watch the pelican with its mouth wide open,
its wings and body coated with oil. Is it screaming? I do not hear
the sound and since this is a photograph, I don’t know if it was caught
in that mouth-stretched howl when it died or if it’s howling
in recognition that it cannot survive the thick coat
of oil that bears it down.
The ladies who take care of you when I’m gone tell me you
are having trouble. “His hands,” they say, “his hands.” When I
come home, I see that your hands have turned black
at the tips and I see that the ends of your fingers
have been eaten away. I watch the dead bird in the Gulf
floating on top of the water, its legs stiff and straight in the air,
its body drained of all motion, all light.
The next day I take you to the doctor; he tells us he will have
to operate to remove the gangrenous flesh.
The announcer on CNN says BP didn’t want the photographer
to take pictures of the dying birds covered as they are
with the black slick of oil. “They were hoping,” he says,
“that the birds would sink and the evidence
would be swallowed by the ocean.”
In the late afternoon, I hear my daughter cry out. I rush to see
what has happened, and you are stretched out on the bed,
your body so thin you look like a boy. You do not move.
I call 911 and the ambulance takes you to the hospital.
BP is trying to put a cap on the spewing oil rig; the CEO
keeps saying, it’s no problem. Clumps of oil wash ashore
and float on the surface of the water. The beach is littered
with dead fish and birds.
At the hospital, they want to know whether we want
extraordinary measures. “No,” I say. “He has a living will.”
We hover around while they admit you. You have forgotten
how to speak. Mostly you lie in bed, staring into a space
above our heads.
In my mind I see that screaming bird, its mouth wide open,
a picture of torment and despair.
I reach out to hold your hand, stroke your forehead. “Dennis,”
I call out, “Dennis.” You do not hear me. The doctor comes in
to see you. “Well,” he says, “he should have been dead five years
ago. What did you expect? You shouldn’t have taken such
good care of him.”
“We did everything we could,” the BP president says, looking
directly at the camera. “It’s not such a calamity,” says
the governor of Louisiana. “We don’t need to stop
deep water drilling. Our economy will collapse if we do.”
We stand around your hospital bed. My brother comes in
and says he’ll try a stronger antibiotic. “It’s bad,” he says,
but he waits until we are in the hall to tell me.
The social worker says, “You should put him in a nursing
home.” My brother says, “You kept him home all this time.
If he gets a little stronger, I’ll let him go home and he’ll be
around the things he knows.”
The doctor comes in and says, “He’s not going to make it.”
The social worker admonishes us with her bag
of common sense. She does not love you. We take you home.
I sit next to you and hold your hand.
The MSNBC reporter stands on the beach in a hurricane
and picks up a huge glob of oil with a stick. “Look,” she says,
“look,” and drips the oil on the white sand. She is shaking
with fury at such destruction. Dead birds float behind her.
“I’m in so much pain,” you say, though you have not complained
before. Althea feeds you a jar of baby applesauce. You open
your mouth and accept the food. When I see the pelican
on TV with its mouth wide open in horror, I remember you
as you lay dying. On the Gulf, the earth and the sea
are being destroyed, just as you were by the disease that finally
defeated you after you struggled against it for all those years.
Some things are bigger than all of us. We cannot defeat
them. If there is enough carelessness and greed in the world
even the ocean can be destroyed, and you, who fought
against this illness with such courage, even you
cannot survive, the blackened tips of your fingers, the oil
heavy on the birds feathers, the birds dead and floating on
the surface that gradually sink and disappear.
Astonishing in the depth of its representation of the levels of brain processing, “Watching the Pelican Die” moves from affect to emotion to memory to cognition and back down the chain, establishing the affective basis for human behavior and relations and showing how cognition, when detached from the other levels of processing, can be responsible for destroying the very things it relies upon most—the basic attachment mechanisms of relationships (Panksepp’s “CARE” system), on the one hand, and the biology of ecology, and the relationship between the basic levels of the ecosystem, on the other. The movement in the poem between the grief the narrator experiences (the basic affective system that Panksepp terms Panic/Grief) and the ways that grief resonates throughout the larger cultural landscape of destruction and loss is a quintessential example of a narrative poetics that embodies and demonstrates the principles of affective neuroscience. In Gillan’s poem we have one of the most bidirectional representations of the relationship between affect and cognition, the cave and the crow, that I’ve seen in contemporary poetry. As Gillan puts it, “poems hide in a place deep inside you that I call the cave . . . In the cave are all your memories . . . Every person you’ve ever known or loved or hated everything you are afraid of in the world and in yourself. In the cave is your rage and your fury and your passion” (Writing Poetry to Save Your Life, 13). In neuroscientific terms, Gillan’s “cave” is affect, the primary process affective brain systems that underlie secondary processes like memory and cultural learning. Affect is the bedrock poets draw upon, and it is informed by the reactions in the ANS & CNS that neuroscientist Stephen Porges, in his "Polyvagal Theory," calls “neuroception.”
Tomorrow I will discuss the seven basic affective systems in further detail, especially as they are instantiated in the work of the poet Joe Weil. Later posts will explore Polyvagal Theory, its concept of “neuroception” and the vagal ventral complex that links the heart, face, and brain. Using this work from affective neuroscience, I will discuss the movement from neurophysiology to affect to aesthetics by way of Panksepp’s seven affective systems in conjunction with the Polyvagal Theory and its implications for memory and how creative writers use it via the work of poets Gary Soto, Bruce Snider, Jack Bedell, Vivian Shipley, and James Reese. The work of all these poets and the affective neuroscience that helps explain their aesthetic projects will be linked to the need for narrative poetics, and narrative as one of our most interactive, bidirectional brain processes.
I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark
from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman
THE RULE OF THUMB
Ringfinger was nervous
when they learned
that Hand might succumb
to the rule of Thumb.