Preservation: What We Keep
“This place could be beautiful, right? You could make this place beautiful.”- Maggie Smith
My parents are in the process of moving into an assisted-living residence, down-sizing from a home of fifty years, a home with “good bones.” My mother, always the hostess, is insisting on packing and bringing her ten-piece place setting, even though she won’t have a kitchen. Admittedly, I was annoyed at first, but realized that her need for keeping them was not to host a dinner party but to hold on to memories of loved ones gathering around her table.
The term “good bones” is most commonly used in reference to a building with a strong foundation. Maggie Smith extends this metaphor to address the world. It’s a world that can be difficult to live in but one the speaker, a mother, in “Good Bones” believes, albeit questioningly, that despite what it may look like on the surface, can be made beautiful because it is decent at its core. This belief is worth preserving. And could be essential to our survival as Julian Randall’s “Chicago” alludes to. After the confession, “I can only sleep on buses/in shoes I can run away in,” the speaker describes passing by a “road so green/it might convince you/the world is not dying.”
We know the world is not dying when we can taste the “out-of-reach pulp” in Steven Riel’s “Blackberrying.” The lushness of the soft ”u” sounds abound in this poem, begging the reader to quench the thirst of desire, get “drunk” on all that is delicious. Keeping such “plump clusters” of blackberries becomes a must.
And we know the world is not dying when we read of ‘bumblebees guzzling dry/the white blossoms” of spring as David Miller witnesses and writes of in “An Empty Cup, A Flight of Uncarpeted Stairs.” This poem keeps a burgeoning joy as it balances upon the still point of beauty’s “fulcrum moment” relishing in that motionless hovering, that quietude of being neither this or that, here or there, before becoming “frantic for shade.”
For all that is gorgeous about the natural world, what does it mean when we preserve its death? The bee in Martha McCollough’s “Natural History” is a “lone glass bee/thirsty among so many flowers” and the “frayed fawn curled in its case…in its pale twist of grass” showcases our fascination with the dead. Taxidermied animals in a museum, even sorry-looking ones, educate us of a world full of wonder. What we keep reminds us of what we are.
If I had to choose one thing to keep for our world it would be the kindness that Bruce Hawkins speaks of, “kept/ in its cast iron cage” that which “warms the small house, allows/me to undress…”
Akhil Katyal, a poet based in Delhi, reminds us however not to discard grief, because the world is as sad as it is beautiful, because “there will be nights/when you will see even steel/ dissolve under your touch.” “The Father Speaking Through My Son” by Taylor Mali considers this “magic” of grief. Though a loved one may be gone, it’s possible we can hear them.
What greater preservation is there than self-preservation? Camille-Yvette Welsch describes the traumatic days after giving birth, of feeling “blown apart” and the process of mending, putting pieces back together as if a sculpture, using ‘clay to seal the cracks.” Venus of Willendorf and Semele appear as the speaker “recreates” herself, “this time as mother, watcher.” Though more “fragile than before” with an “echo and omega” of a pitched cry, she marvels at the “holding seam.”
“How does your mother remember her birth?” asks Carolee Bennett’s “Hold On.” Its title urges us to keep our footing in this ‘slippery” world, to picture “tentacles” instead of “ventricles”, to hear the words “prayers” and “mileage” as we travel the winding roads complete with missed garbage pick-ups and raised cable rates. “The situation is fluid” says the chief investigator. Keep our mind’s eye says this poem, so we may “pray to the imagined octopus for a moment of grace.”
What we keep is more than objects in a magpie’s nest. We keep sadness and hope, fear and love, and as Bennett poignantly writes, “All I need to know about anything is how it feels/when I hold it. And the word for that is tend.”
“But who can divide the world, the word (mundo y palabra) from any child?”
-from “Bilingual/Bilingüe” by Rhina Espaillat
As a new year ushers in, many of us think of resolutions. We may think of how we can be kinder in a country that still rings of political discord and bipartisanship. In this quarter’s featured interview, P2G contributor Rhina Espaillat responds to a question regarding her poem “Bilingual/Bilingüe” and its reflection of her immigrant father trying to maintain and honor their native Spanish while living in a new country. I ask her what she would say to the new generation of Hispanic poets amidst such challenges.
“I tell them that those of us with two languages, two nationalities, two cultures and two identities are not divided but multiplied, and lucky to inhabit more than one “home” to which we are loyal and attempt to be useful.”
Her answer resonated with me as to how rich a timbre of sound we’d hear if our country’s leadership embraced its diversity and understood the importance of feeling “multiplied” rather than divided. This left me with a sense of fullness, not depletion.
After almost eight decades of living within poetry’s landscape, Rhina says, “It still feels like music that I want to dance to, but now what’s under it is often nothing to dance about.”
Except that despite ourselves, poetry continues to give us something to listen for, to hope with, and yes, to dance to.
Sarah and I have been honored to present these interviews that have given us opportunities to learn more about the spirited, driven, and humble nature of poets such as Rhina.
With many blessings for a “mulitplied” year of kindness, gratitude, and dancing.
an introduction by Sarah Kirstine Lain
It begins with a word as small as the cry of Athena’s owl. / An ache in the cage of breath, as when we say ‘can hardly breathe.’ –Carolyn Forché, from “Harmolypi”
As we close out this year of the woman, our 2018 P2G Winter Quarterly is dedicated entirely to femme poetry. Here’s to the world-womb, the well-aimed skillset and game face; here’s to elegance and precision. C’est bon, said the lady smacking her nude lipstick, without any ado whatsoever.
We begin with Rhina P. Espaillat’s “Triptych,” a three-part Shakespearean sonnet centered on a woman. As a triptych comprises three images in three folds, so these sonnets paint a woman in three phases of a journey: Departures, Suppose, and Road Map. How compelling that triptych derives from the Greek, τρίπτυχον, meaning three-in-one: and isn’t multiplicity associated with both the godhead and poetry? In Departures, a newlywed woman grips a ticket, eager to leave with her new husband, wary in a space divided by the glass of her names and families, of shifting life. In Suppose, a woman, perhaps the same woman, is also boarding; this time she is solo, marriage left, with nothing but a blank notebook and a pen. The word suppose is aloof and lacks certainty; it hopes, assumes, and argues. As I read this sonnet, I think of how my various departures suppose me into new phases of my own femininity. Supposing I, woman, board where I choose. Suppose the narrative is as soft as my frame and as daring as warmth, if I write it thus (I will). Suppose I own my name, and a woman’s name is a theme in the triptych. In Road Map, it folds upon itself; it opens again: how the road loops round to fold / back into what will have her / learns to learn / her name again.
In “Artist’s Delight,” CM Burroughs writes with such music: baskets at my side fill with: this // is a passionflower; this is a black-eyed / susan; this is a tired iris; this is a bloom of / cotton bright…” The repetition of this is, this is, this is demands acknowledgement of both the beauty and hurt in these lines; and the enjambment foreshadows a sort of ominous turn. As the artist paints his subject, the poet introduces the reader to a less-than-harmonious landscape: When he is unhappy with / so many things, he stabs the forests. This kind of jolting opposition is also present in Emily Jungmin Yoon’s “American Dream,” where initially the speaker writes to a lover, The alcove of your arm / has become my favorite room. As the poem twists, this same lover laid calm last night while a Korean man broke into your room / and raped me. Yoon confronts race and masculinity in this poem as the speaker’s “platinum” white lover is guilty of an indirect violence—of inaction in the presence of direct violence. The role of the mother in Yoon’s poem speaks to the survivor’s “managing up” so often required in trauma narratives: the lineage of facing it, and of putting on a face: I comfort my mother, the poem concludes.
Carolyn Forché writes of “Harmolypi” – a song of joyful grief that begins with a word as small as the cry of Athena’s owl (i.e., the owl of Minerva, a symbol of knowledge). It was Hegel who wrote that the owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering. Here, the reader experiences the joy-grief of awakening, finally, as history’s canon wheels over itself like Carl Sandburg’s “Grass”: What place is this? / Where are we now? When Forché speaks of the owl’s night forage, I picture its wings brushing the walls, waking the human doze with ferocity. But what walls–of a lifespan or silence? ‘Not now’ is what it sounds like. Or two other words. The diction of confinement isn’t the point, is it? There is only the need to testify to the wall, to touch it. It exists. Yet in much the same tone as “Harmolypi,” Forché welcomes the reader to Begin again among the poorest in “Prayer.” This poem resides in an ambitious discomfort: to see human suffering, and having been altered by sight, to manifest the answer to one’s prayer with an imagination toward creative and actionable empathy. Forché writes: Language will rise then like language from the mouth of a still river. No / one’s mouth. It is a poet’s work to find a new (disruptive) language with which to testify to the silent fog that Eliot wrote about in “The Dry Salvages,” and to the polished stillness from a locked church that Forché writes about here in “Prayer.”
“Wrapped in Red” by Cynthia Bargar speaks to historical narratives on the physiological connections to madness. It addresses domestic in/sanity, boredom, and simplicity: The floor strewn with rolling balls of yarn / you pick one up put it down / brew a cup of tea. / Fortified you cast on. In “Trespassing,” Erica Wright addresses poverty and victim shaming. The speaker draws the image of a copperhead that has targeted her because she shouldn’t have been there in that field, / too big to ever belong to a rag of a thing like you. As if rags could define a girl. As if the bite is her fault, this girl with the audacity to step into a freedom that the copperhead does not believe she can wield. This being-space, this green open. As if a copperhead has any idea of what a girl can wield. To drive home this spirit, Natalie E. Illum writes so poignantly about the corporeal experience of a disabled girl in “Adage,” disrupting the familiar dictum with:
My mother says, ‘remember what doesn’t kill us, makes us.’
And having been made thus, we hope you find solace and understanding here in the language-womb and fortitude of the feminine.
Hegel, Georg William Friedrich. 1991. Elements of the philosophy of right. Translated by H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Orig. pub. 1820.)
Read Sarah Kirstine Lain’s chock-full interview with P2g’s contributor poet Jan Verberkmoes. Here you’ll learn how the current Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University came to poetry, how she found the music and rhythm of poetry to be a language of its own, and how she crafts this language with white space and run-on lines to create “a reading experience that conveys the uncertain and polymorphous structuring of memory and interpretation.”
Jan Verberkmoes’ conversation with Sarah is an enlightenment of poetry’s construct and its ongoing pursuit to express what we are continuously striving to understand.
We’re thankful for Jan’s time and thoughtful engagement with us.
“We’re all going to die—and poems can help us live with that.” –Stephen Burt from his TED talk on Why People Need Poetry.
With the help of a grant from The Billerica Arts Council, p2g continues to expand its poetry arm distributing eight thousand copies of poems2go for our Fall Quarterly.
The Billerica Public Library is now hosting p2g, and so is Papercuts in Jamaica Plain, on the “other side of the river” thanks to our Fall Quarterly contributor Rebecca Connors
“Poetry is a way of expressing one’s true self without fear. It turns fear into beauty.”
— Konner Jebb
Once again, a theme evolved organically during the curation of this quarterly’s collection. Befitting of the season it involves death and dying, grief and hope toward the future. Thank you to all those who submitted and to those who said yes when we solicited. At poems2go, we’re happy to republish poems because more important than finding the next best poem, we wish to give great poems many lives to live. We don’t want to see them “dying before winter gifts/the next second chance.” as Konner Jebb writes in his autumnal poem “October.” This poem meditates on change, understands that with change comes reflection “on all the synonyms” of oneself. “Am I still a lover of Autumn?” it asks. Good question.
Summer’s passing is often melancholic for me, signaling the nearing end of our unscheduled, open-aired time. Routine returns, and busyness wedges its way back in. It’s okay. It’s life, and life’s not bound to granting us endless ocean days. In fact, it guarantees we’ll be churned upside down and inside out at times. Sometimes its wave holds us under or sends us down a “scoured valley” as in Suzanne Edison’s “Fire in the Ice,” which references the deathly California fires, also the “cancer spreading like a glacier” in her sister’s body, urging her “lips toward the sweat-sweet intent of kissing each blistered pain…”
How can we protect ourselves from such pain, from such monstrous moments of injustice, fear, idiocy, tragedy, dying and death? Fact is, we can’t, but Michael Mercurio’s “Monster” says “Kid, you’ve got to keep asking.” Though he admits in the next line “What I don’t know may kill us both.” From a young age we can feel the world colliding, and Melissa Stein’s “Figure, ground” deftly portrays the tantrum: “Then all’s a pinwheel, I’m/ the pin. The girl/ on her back…on the drugstore floor…”
We’ve lost some extraordinary poets this year; Lucie Brock-Broido, Donald Hall, and more recently Sam Cornish to name a few. Kathy Nilsson’s interview with poems2go reflects on how Lucie’s life and death impacted her. This quarter we’re featuring Lynne Knight’s “In memoriam” to Donald Hall.
“Obit” by Victoria Chang addresses her father’s stroke and loss of speech during the time her mother was dying of cancer in what became a series of poems in the form of an obituary. Its linear block form also holds the shape and tension of the door she writes of:
Walk out of doors. The handle of
time’s door is hot for the dying.
What use is a door if you can’t exit?”
A door that can’t be opened is
called a wall. My father is on the
other side of the wall. Tomatoes are
ripening on the other side. I can see…
The ripening tomatoes are a sensuous contrast of one life producing while another is diminishing. The poem goes on to question what the tomatoes mean. We look for meanings in even the smallest gesture, such as this fruit’s swelling, to help make sense of what we’re grappling with. Take the bulls, for example, in Jan Verberkmoes’ “Elegy as Insistence: Bulls in a Field.” They’re a powerful parallel image to the action of a man emptying the ashes of his dead sister into a stream, “until she’s neither ash nor water/the stars the stars the bulls low behind his eyes…”
Associative images are transformative. Verberkmoes does this again in her “Elegy as Recursion: Into Another” when she depicts a horse biting a man, then the man shooting the horse in the white star of its forehead. The poems asks: “…couldn’t we do this without the horse/without the horizon without any bodies in a field…” I invite you to read this and all of p2g’s featured poems to form your own associative constellations.
We have many questions when it comes to life and death: Quintin Collins wonders in “Dust to Dust”: “…do they know agony/looks like a head bound to split? Mercurio’s right, we’ve got to keep asking, even if we’re afraid of the answers because as Rebecca Connors’ “Definition of Future” reminds us: “See also: Hope.”
Enjoy this Fall Quarterly collection. May you find a poem that illuminates your heart.
ps: Hats off to Eileen Cleary who served as our guest editor this quarter and is kicking off her debut literary journal The Lily Poetry Review.
Poems2go is happy to give you an inside look at the writing, and reading of poet, Kathy Nilsson. It took twenty years before she published her first book. In our present day of immediate gratification, it’s welcoming to hear about her process and patience.
A visual artist as well, Kathy’s poetry is often a collage of “gleamings of trash and gold from her readings.” Her images and sounds are evocative of abstract expressionism.
Read this insightful interview here.