“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.
an introduction by Sarah Kirstine Lain
From a woman’s “lettuce” head to Dixie Land, from veteran to refugee, this edition of poems2go asks: what are we harvesting (and who)? What are we left with after the reaping? We gain insights into survival and desensitization; we consider displacement of the human as crop. We go back to the flood and the olive branch and observe – through various eyes – a poetic landscape, as we consider the harvest and reaping.
“What do we farm but loss, and isn’t
this also an argument for denying
everything loved? Your brothers
and sisters. Your parents. Better not
keep what you know will not escape
sorrow but will escape you, leave you
looking at a yard of white flowers:
fringed phacelia, appearing as a mist
in spring. A bell for the earth.”
– Hannah VanderHart (from “What Escaped.” First appeared in American Poetry Review)
In The happiness of sleeping walking men, Christopher Hopkins writes of yielding to dreams. To harvest a dream, one must traverse to “god-spit” stars that have been cut into a “deep han blue” fabric by a cherub’s teeth. At first reading, Christine and I wondered whether the poem intended a playful sarcasm toward the adage, “ignorance is bliss.” There is a selfishness about this speaker— a time for this moon-and-star nothingness seems gratuitous under earth’s Industrial Rule. Simultaneously, the speaker describes stars as “holes for me to breathe,” depicting a sense of desperation: “let my dreaming”— that repetition: let. It’s as if the speaker is giving self-permission to be with imagination, to reap a defiant beauty. Is dreaming here a selfish act, or an act of survival, or both?
Survival and harvest go hand-in-hand. In Genesis 8:1, a dove returns with her olive branch after the flood. The olive tree survives God’s wrath and lives on as a peace symbol. In Fred Merchant’s Olive Harvest, this tree still “has the scent of the sea” (or flood). And what is it about human suffering and war that makes poets nostalgic for trees? Is it not Darwin’s survival of the fittest, where some would argue that fittest equates to state-of-the-art weapons technology and military strategy? Why is it that after God reaps an entire world, an olive tree “comes back, here & here & here?”– unarmed, remaining.
This steadfastness is also present in Luke Hankins’ Emerald Acres, where nothing is harvested but “an idea about beauty.” Like an abandoned house’s windows, the poem is opaque, fractured; light passes through its lines. We can enter “twenty acres of greenhouse” and live for awhile in a place that neither attempts to judge nor prove. This house offers “No protection / but an appearance” which is this poem’s offering to readers willing to stay for awhile. Appearance— impression, participation, an act of becoming visible: this is one way of seeing.
In contrast, Anna M. Warrock’s Snow speaks to a relentless continuity of human reaping– it is not a nice poem. Here is a harvested language: broken, clumps, tore, and hacked. This poem haunts us with: “and the roaring,” a reference back to line four where “desert lions tore at the flesh of the boys running.” In every sense; the poem itself is a run-on sentence, run-down human: a refugee. I consider Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America” when Warrock writes, “pieces of the sky’s body / come down, torn edges, someone tore them, some booligan” — but as Baraka would say, “Who and Who and WHO who who / Whoooo and Whooooooooooooooooooooo!” Who is responsible for human displacement? Is it “white / cold that coats all things,” or is it unfortunate, or is it… Who?
“Isn’t the truck parked in the holler.” This opening line in Hannah VanderHart’s Dixie Land Delight nails down the harvest’s duality: dual syntax (question-period), dual meaning in holler, dual nature in growing things to kill. The same irony is present in VanderHart’s What Escaped: “Not the pigs. Not the seventeen roosters / from the spring incubators.” Irony is a master breeder of narrative horror; I think back to Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery, how children participate in systemic slaughter— a tradition of desensitization. Comparably, the child speaker in Dixie Land Delight “looked in the glassy / eyes of dead things, washed feathers / and blood from my hands.” This same child has “so little time / for trouble” because s/he is busy hammering fruit to death and killing chickens. Finally, the speaker “laid / down on my quilt /… when I could take no more.” Even here, irony continues, as quilts often link to things passed down, heirlooms, the comfort and shut-eye that tradition can sow.
War is another kind of human reaping that speaks to VanderHart’s poignant question, “What do we farm but loss?” In Richard Waring’s Stop the War, a veteran mentions his knees made of Teflon, and the speaker considers how he “has war in his knees!” Ironic, because the veteran asks the speaker where he can find a “Stop the War” button. As he literally embodies war as a survivor, he simultaneously seeks its cessation. How can the survivor put an (external, systemic) end to that which persists inside himself? Madison McCartha’s [read my lips] describes fruit within the fuel (of a machine, perhaps). The two do not go together, as gasoline cannot water fruit. The poem speaks to death and depression, of passing on, not as a physiological act, but as the harvest of sadness unspoken, impermissible. “Better not / keep what you know will not escape / sorrow but will escape you,” writes VanderHart.
Kathy Nilsson’s WITH EXTROVERSION takes a scientific observation of the world. Extroversion, face recognition, and laughter (usually human traits) are all used to describe rodents, sheep, and fish; meanwhile, the speaker compares a woman to a vegetable (lettuce) and describes her hair as “phenomena.” Detachment characterizes each image: poem as microscope and lab to harvest a woman “at the edge of the cosmos.” In WITH EYES WIDE CLOSED, Nilsson writes of birth. Whose birth is stirred by “ground and sky separated long ago?” Is it the harvested earth, saying:
You can finish with me now.
Read the P2G Harvest Summer Quarterly here.
Read Sarah’s fruitful interview with one of Spring Quarterly contributors, Hyejung Kook here. Hyejung expresses an honest eloquence in her thoughtful responses.
And p2g keeps growing. Thanks to Mandy at River Road Cafe in Granville, OH, (home to Denison University students, and the most delicious cinnamon rolls on earth,) for finding room for our poems’ blossoms.
Also, our Scottsdale ambassador, Sarah V. has planted more poems at The Poisoned Pen Bookstore.
P2g poems are spreading like dandelion snow.
Thanks Daniel Wuenschel for promoting our public poetry project, and our Spring Quarterly featured poets in celebration of National Poetry Month.
We love Cambridge Public Library, and its dedication to increasing the awareness of poetry to its residents via readings, discussions, and now p2g. We are honored to be in your halls.
Look out for our next P2g reading event to be hosted here, in the fall.
The stark imagery of William Fargason’s “Porcelain Nocturne” carries the weight of fragility, which is an underlying theme in this Spring Quarterly collection of poems. This was not a theme we promoted or asked for from our submitters, yet the melancholy of the times procured its own theme. Fortunately, fragility often calls upon resilience, and these poems share that as well. Fargason writes: Here, it always rains. No matter. And he continues with the evocative imagery of sharing an umbrella, branches of a tree, light from the moon. Then he imagines (inviting the reader to join in) the moon as a tiger, how it will be shaped from glazed ceramic, how we will add another stripe.
Given the current landscape of what we read and are faced with daily, it’s not surprising that poetry is yielding such consideration and concern. Poetry is sacred ground for our empathy, keeps us company below the surface of such rumblings. We are each engaging in our own way, whether in the forefront or behind the scenes, and the universal me too is being heard.
Several of these poems turn to nature as metaphor for resilience, such as Fred Marchant’s “The Migrants.” Here, a migrant happens upon dry myrtle along the side of the road and a ground that seemed soft enough to sleep on, gratefully accepting that There will be at least this much tonight. Cindy Veach’s “Psalm at Sixty” turns to the abandoned nest to remind herself Of every bird,/all throat and call/refusing to be silenced. And Kaela McNeil is gathering the feathers, the baby bird bones, makes a mask, a roost to carry her little crows in.
Continuing this progression, a father and son are watching the slow, far wavering/of things disappearing from the world as fog rolls in “Absence” by Jim Nawrocki. This poem reflects upon a quiet resolve of life, of what comes, and leaves such as the wind’s current in the father’s hair, in the folds of his shirt that examines and then leaves him. It recognizes our place in this force we call life. As readers, we are left with a sense of solitude within these moments of contemplation, that is and isn’t our own. Of course, what would contemplation be without the nagging interruption of a fly? – Even, the eater of flesh in Hyejung Kook’s “Blue Fly” is deserving of care and examination: Honor to you/vital decomposer…
I want only/to die at the exact depth as you, writes Marjorie Thomsen in “To An Old Shipwreck.” How poignant to feel the burden of a vessel, sunk, and still to see its lightness in being gauzy, delicate, with unmatched blessitude even as the poem opens: You said shipwrecked was a verb/ you needed to be. It is with this same lightness that JP Howard would Say I love you, even when you can’t love yourself, as she does, along with thirty other incantations in “What to Say to a Friend Who Wants to Give Up.”
With the tenderness of bruised fruit, “Tangerine Trees & Little Bags of Sugar” shares a story of a mother teaching her child about gratitude through the remembrance of and depiction of the delicate balance of survival, of determination, of thriving, a sweetness you can only get from sugar & sweat.
Even artificial intelligence, the most contemporary of subjects, can’t ignore the vitality of nature. Ernesto Abeytia’s “My Lover is a Robot” juxtaposes a droning generator, a steel smile full of gnash against a hedgerow of azaleas. There is no stopping the resilience of nature. For all its fragility, it’s a source to be reckoned with. And despite our advanced technology, Abeytia believes we must never forget about the blooming springtime bulbs.
We invite you to read these intelligent and thoughtful poems, embrace your fragility with grace and honor your strength with resilience.