Before I get started, I have a few things to mention – the first being that a poem of mine will be published in the Lost in Track Changes book put together by the wonderful folk over at If:Book Australia. I wrote about their project here, and I’m happy to say one of my poetic remixes is going to be included in their print edition. I also write comedic articles for SBS Comedy, which I don’t talk about often here, but the latest piece I have up is about Halloween, and specifically, the hilariously awesome folklore behind the jack-o-lantern: check it out!
With that out of the way, let’s talk poetry! This week, as I’m sure many of you are aware, American poet Galway Kinnell passed away. I follow a great deal of poets and poetry journals and organisations on Twitter, so for a while, his passing was inescapable for me. Sadly, I had not read any of his work, so I figured it was more than time for me to start. There’s a fair amount of it to be found online, and of those I’ve read, I keep returning to this small, simple poem titled After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.
It’s markedly different from the others I’ve found, like Another Night in the Ruins or The Bear or Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock, which exquisitely build poems into the landscape and are so very much concerned with place, with being and now. There is an unabashed lyricism in his detailing of nature, as in from Another Night:
Wind tears itself hollowin the eaves of these ruins, ghost-fluteof snowdriftsthat build out there in the dark:upside-down ravinesinto which night sweepsour cast wings, our ink-spattered feathers.
Or in Flower Herding:
There is something joyous in the elegiesOf birds. They seemCaught up in a formal delight,Though the mourning dove whistles of despair.
Though I haven’t read his other work, I imagine this gorgeous intersection of self/nature/poetry continues throughout his bibliography. Perhaps that’s why this poem in particular stands out to me: it’s so small in scope, so intimate a portrait, a moment of adulthood, of parenthood so perfectly sketched it caught my breath. I’ve read it numerous times now, and always the second stanza brings the poem to a full and satisfying conclusion, brings out the beauty in what could all too easily have been nothing more than an awkward situation. Here it is, After Making Love We Hear Footsteps:For I can snore like a bullhornor play loud musicor sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishmanand Fergus will only sink deeperinto his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,but let there be that heavy breathingor a stifled come-cry anywhere in the houseand he will wrench himself awakeand make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,familiar touch of the long-married,and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.
I should mention, you can click on through to the Poetry Foundation to hear an audio recording of the poem, too. Maybe it’s the incredible sap in me, I don’t know, but I just adore those last four lines.
They’re beautiful, don’t you think?
Okay, so it’s clearly Friday, and this is late, but in fairness, this has been a completely crazy week for me. I took a bus from New York to Toronto, a near 11-hour trip of static nothingness but which at least featured some gorgeous scenery: so many trees, some still in full autumnal dress, others nude, crooked limbs scratching at the sky. We drove past cliffs and lakes and factories, across bridges, intersections, and through empty towns.
It was a kind of beautiful desolation.
Now, three days after I took said trip, and after many shenanigans, I’m in Boston. Currently, I’m loitering in the library at Boston University, pretending I’m a student, while my friend, who is an actual student, goes to class, so I finally have time to share a poem. I actually only read it twenty minutes ago, with its eye-catching title in the side-bar of ‘related poems’ to the one I was reading at the time. I am talking about The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain, by Wallace Stevens, so without further ado:
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
This is a beautiful, simple poem that brilliantly evokes the nature of poetry itself. That is, that a poem reshapes your world. That it has its own interiority, that in writing it, you are carving out a space within yourself, a world for it to inhabit. Worlds within worlds within worlds, it is the most magnificent of matryoshka dolls. Here, Stevens is discussing the building of said world, climbing it to ‘pick his way among clouds’, and how once there at the summit, new meaning dawns in his life and we get that lovely melancholy last line, where he gazes down at the sea in full and final recognition of the loneliness at the heart of this solitary pursuit of art.
On Sunday, I was lucky enough to snag a last minute ticket to the New Yorker Festival event, ‘Poets Read Their Work’, featuring Michael Dickman, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Philip Levine and Tracy K. Smith. I was there for Smith, whose work in Life on Mars I have previously raved about. It’s transcendent. And yet, possibly because of the heights of my expectation, I ended up being blown away by the other poets.
I had heard of Terrance Hayes, and read one or two of his poems, but the others were a mystery. More’s the shame. I can’t wait to buy their books. Well, I can’t wait until I have the money to buy their books, especially Levine’s, because he was a revelation. A small old man with a wiry moustache, and silver hair flecked with black, he read third. I remember wondering what he’d sound like; his hands were trembling, and he didn’t get up and stand at the podium like the others had. Said he was afraid he’d pitch over into the second row.
Given this, I thought his voice might be soft, that I might have to strain to hear him, but I was wrong; his voice was strong, with a rasp and gravel to it that is wonderful to listen to and which also adds a layer of authenticity to the often workaday subject matter of his poems. At least, of the ones I’ve read since then, and of those I heard him deliver. I don’t mean to say his poetry is ordinary; it isn’t. You can read one which is simplicity itself, elevated to great heights with his succinct lines, his understated musicality.
And you can read one rough as rocks, rough as hell, rough as Detroit which hits you square in the gut – in the feels, as my generation would likely say. I had planned to share Terrance Hayes poem ‘Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy’, which is utterly gorgeous and absolutely worthwhile reading, until I came across the poem ‘What Work Is’ when I was binge-reading all I could about Mr. Levine, and found myself nearly in tears by the end. Holding them back, just barely.
Don’t take that as a slight. Nearly in tears. Honestly, I’m always holding them back. I’m so practiced at it, that I struggle to simply cry, which is a tragedy I’d love to undo – a scar I’d love to unstitch. So to have anything bring tears to my eyes is a beautiful thing, even if I only hold them briefly, and blink them back. This poem made me think about my brother, and miss him so fiercely it was an actual shock to my system.
Mostly because my brother is an idiot. I love him dearly. He’ll never say no to me if what I ask is within his ability to give, but somehow, the scars – there’s that word again, I am riddled with them – of childhood and adolescence still linger over our relationship. And so when I think of him, my first thought is not of love, not usually, but closer to irritation. An irritation laced with affection. Ah, he’s such a fuckhead, such a baffoon, what am I saying, but I love him anyway, and I always will. So when I read this poem, I was buffeted by everything I have ever thought and felt about him, by the insane bond only brothers can have.
Such was its power, it has redrawn the lens through which I view him, and everything. I fucking love this poem for that, and Levine too. If I ever get to meet the man, I’m going to give him a hug. A big old man hug. If you’re interested in reading more about him, too, check out this fantastic interview he did with the Paris Review. But enough rambling, here, see for yourself what I’m talking about:
What Work Is by Philip LevineWe stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork is, although you may not do it.Forget you. This is about waiting,shifting from one foot to another.Feeling the light rain falling like mistinto your hair, blurring your visionuntil you think you see your own brotherahead of you, maybe ten places.You rub your glasses with your fingers,and of course it’s someone else’s brother,narrower across the shoulders thanyours but with the same sad slouch, the grinthat does not hide the stubbornness,the sad refusal to give in torain, to the hours of wasted waiting,to the knowledge that somewhere aheada man is waiting who will say, “No,we’re not hiring today,” for anyreason he wants. You love your brother,now suddenly you can hardly standthe love flooding you for your brother,who’s not beside you or behind orahead because he’s home trying tosleep off a miserable night shiftat Cadillac so he can get upbefore noon to study his German.Works eight hours a night so he can singWagner, the opera you hate most,the worst music ever invented.How long has it been since you told himyou loved him, held his wide shoulders,opened your eyes wide and said those words,and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve neverdone something so simple, so obvious,not because you’re too young or too dumb,not because you’re jealous or even meanor incapable of crying inthe presence of another man, no,just because you don’t know what work is.
After writing some 10,000 words since first securing a place in New York, these past few days have seen a brief stoppage to the outpour. I’ve done some editing, and typed up some poems, but otherwise have taken pause.
Moments like these, moments to recharge, are every bit as important as the days spent tirelessly at your desk, typing away, even when you’ve lost faith in what’s being written.
Given that, I think today’s poem – a spoken word piece from the always-wonderful poet Shane Koyczan – is particularly pertinent. It’s all about that signature pause, about taking that moment to reflect on what’s happening, to take stock of the challenge ahead, and to not be daunted by its size and scope.
I’ll let him do the talking, though:
Recently, while speaking to a friend, I was asked to describe New York, and how I’ve found it so far. As if I could synthesise the enormity of what I’ve experienced so far, could take this world and its endless vastness and reproduce it quickly in conversation. I can’t. Even now, even writing about it with some time and space to reflect (a reflection bound to be flawed as I’m currently still here, still enmeshed in it, body and soul), I can’t. I expect the repercussions from the explosions occurring in my chest and behind my eyes will continue to wreak changes on my internal landscape from now until the day I die; as such, I’ll never fully be able to chart the contours of this experience.
But I can show you glimmers; I can pull out shards. So, this is what I said:
New York. This fucking city. It’s magic, you know that? The best way I can think to categorise the glory of this place is that all the people I see seem like major characters. Let me explain what I mean: everywhere you go, great swathes of humanity will not register on your radar. People walk by with hunched shoulders, eyes downcast. They murmur, and shuffle to the side. Or maybe they just sit there, posture normal, faces blank. I’m talking about the forgettable ones, the extras in this thing we call life.
Not here though. Not in New York.
There is a vibrancy and diversity on display in this city and it has nothing to do with the buildings, with the famed skyline, with the great stores or comedy clubs or films – it has everything to do with the people. They just pop. They sizzle. The crowds here are a dizzying carousel of colour, and people stride about with purpose, or the kind of swagger movie stars would kill to have; to mimic, if never own. They’re always talking, shouting, laughing, engaged in a conversation not just with their friends but with everyone around them; words pour out of these people and with every one of them that I meet, I think, you’re a major character. A protagonist. Somehow, I feel like this story is about you.
And then I meet another, and another, and another. It’s endless.
So, am I writing? Am I walking around? Yes, and yes. I think I’ve walked everywhere, and yet conversely, feel like I’ve still got everywhere to go. I’ve written a short story, but that’s about all, since getting here. I’ve only had stable accommodation and writing space since Monday, so I’m okay with that, but even outside of the actual putting words down on paper, I feel like I’ve been writing every minute of every day since I landed. Just by living here, just by absorbing these experiences, meeting these people, I feel like I’m charging my body with stories. My mind and heart and soul with poetry.
That’s just a taste of what I’m thinking and feeling right now, the merest hint of flavour on the tongue. And it’s not at all satisfactory, not at all close to the full colour and range of what’s happening here. But enough about that for now — I’m sure some of you noticed the absence of a poem last week, and I’m sorry for that; I was on the verge of homelessness in this great city, and I’ve only now recently found a place, if through the strangest possible way, but that’s a story for another day.
This week, I think it’s only right to celebrate a poem about New York, and so I’ve chosen one of the more famous poems by Frank O’Hara, ‘A Step Away From Them.‘ It’s a wonderful evocation of the city, all the more so for its plain language and emphasis on the mundane, the everyday workers and ‘hum-colored’ taxi cabs, the Coca-Cola and stray cats; in short, shining a light on the things we see but don’t see, the things we are practiced at ignoring.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and to make up for last week, here is a short, sweet little poem by Evelyn Scott, ‘Midnight Worship: Brooklyn Bridge‘, which is unabashedly lyrical. It takes a famous feature of the city and with light brushstrokes renders it holy, transfiguring the ordinary into the sacred. It is, in a word, beautiful.
Hello from Turkey!
My trip thus far has not been as productive as I’d like, it’s been far too disruptive for that, and I’ve realised that as beautiful as this country is and as much as I love having seen my family here in their element, it cannot house me comfortably for the months in which I want to write. So, I’m going to fly again, this time to New York, there to spend my all in living, loving, writing.
In thinking of flying, however, I remembered that I haven’t been totally unproductive. On the flight from Dubai to Istanbul, at over 30,000 ft in the air, terrified for my life as I always am at any great height, I began to write a poem. A poem about falling. A poem about plane crashes.
I have never been so scared, ever, as at that moment. It is, I think, the most courageous thing I’ve ever done – to face my fear so directly. I almost felt as if by doing so, I was inviting the world to strike me down for my hubris, for nothing more than poetic synchronicity. And so today, I think I’ll stretch that hubris just a little further, and share what I wrote.
Questions in the Air
Think of those who fell;
were they white-knuckled
with fear, wondering if
the buoyant sky could hold them
long enough, or were they cheery
like this little girl dressed in pink
peeking over her chair at me?
She doesn’t know enough
to be afraid & I envy that absence,
that joyful trust-by-default in the world.
The plane shudders now
as if it can feel the ghost fingers
of the dead clutching at it,
or else my questions picking at
the spit-welded iron and steel holding us
so unnaturally among the papyrus clouds
which scatter in our wake, torn
like an old bride’s wedding train
come apart at last.
Think of those who fell,
even as you rise in God’s kingdom
of nothing; were they watching
a film, an episode, or the sky outside
with its endless blue curve,
its sourceless ocean of light, or
did they have their heads in a book,
lost to this world already?
Did they sleep even as the engines failed,
oblivious as the tube cracked open
like an egg, to drip its yolk into the upturned hands
of the world, onto the heads of strangers below?
Most strangely of all, did they perhaps
write a poem like this one,
doomed to never bless the page?
Did they fall, limbs akimbo,
graceful in descent as never in life,
a mad pirouette in sunlight,
thinking, even then, of the last line
Did they trace their words in the air?
These questions shadow-flock the sky,
buffet me from every side, and I have no answer
except this: I may not be able to trust
in machines, in the intangible otherness
of invention, but I can look
at this little girl’s flushed skin,
her ripe berry bright eyes,
and feel the unassailable conviction
coursing through her blood,
the sharp edges of her joy.
She stands on her seat, looming
above us crouched men
and for a single lasting moment,
I’m no longer afraid, no longer
a man, just another poet
adrift on the wind.
I could leave it there, of course, but this week I also read this fabulous article in the Atlantic with Stephen King, who references James Dickey’s long poem ‘Falling’. It was too great a coincidence to pass up, so I read it, and it was absolutely wonderful. So absorbing, so wide-reaching, a poem that takes a single moment and through it expands to consider the universe and our place in it, our mortality, and identity. It does so with rich, evocative language and looping themes of life, water, the moon, and country. Do yourself a favour and check it out.
I’m going to have to make this quick — I’ve left Sydney for a writing holiday, and I’m currently burning hours in Istanbul, so I’ve not got much time. However, I wouldn’t forgive myself if I forgot to rave about my most recent discovery/poetic love: Naomi Shihab Nye, an Arab American poet.
I came across her as I do most poems these days — through a link on Twitter, bless that chaotic jigsaw puzzle of a social media platform. Though short, this poem ‘Song Book’ is absolutely lovely. It is not a particularly original concept, being about the act of writing and its instruments, but one thing this subject will never lack is an audience: we writers are naturally obsessed with our own vocation. Obsession is the one and only determining factor in the creation of successful writers; if you are not devoted to this craft beyond all reason, how can you expect to hurdle the one million and one obstacles life will throw at you, the endless rejections, the constant miasma of fear and self-doubt and loathing?
So, we write about the subject, and we read it, too. Given that, you inevitably feel as if you have seen it all, but Nye does a wonderful job here with a combination of elegant simplicity and deft personal touches, culminating in those sensational last two lines:
but we are still adrift, floating,
thrum-full of longing layers of sound.
Just gorgeous, isn’t it? Read the whole thing here!
In all honesty, after reading that, I went on a bit of binge over at Poets.org and read a bunch of her poems. I feel like an older, wiser, female version of myself wrote this poems, such is their resonance; it’s as if the words were drawn in secret from my blood and my bones and my hope and my fear. Discovering her work has been an absolute balm, and on that note, I’ll share one more of my favourites, ‘Arabic’, which begins like this:The man with laughing eyes stopped smiling to say, “Until you speak Arabic, you will not understand pain.”
Like I said, drawn in secret from my fire and my darkness, my joy and my hurt.
Naomi Shihab Nye is a wonder, and she is waiting for you to discover her — be it anew, or again.
Okay, so I’m a little drunk — this is only relevant because I can’t actually remember which poem I last shared with my friend, and so in turn, I can’t share it with you, the nameless, faceless internet.
However! I am nothing if not industrious, and so I went to the extraordinary effort of looking to the stack of books by my elbow and the top book on that shelf — Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. I read this collection some months ago, and I may have even blogged about it then (I can’t remember that either), but it’s still on my desk, still on top of the book pile somehow. Maybe I just always wanted it close at hand. More likely, though, it’s just laziness, pure and simple.
That said, this particular collection remains my favourite of all the poetry books I’ve read – from start to end, it is a cohesive, beautiful whole. And this poem, in particular, is exceptional, for all that it is just a single limb on this languorous body. I owe my love of it and the book it came in, to poetry editor Felicity Plunkett, I must admit, as she suggested it to me on Twitter. When I read this poem, I feel like I’m reading America, it’s so unmistakably set in that place, and within a set period of time, though it does cover some ground.
Somehow, despite being laden with pop cultural references, despite being so quintessentially American, it also frames questions and ideas that speak to our humanity as a whole, that contextualises us within the vastness of the universe. The poem itself obeys no particular formal constraint, at least not consistently, though it does favour a 3-line stanza by and large, and shines with light musical rhymes that drift in and out.
Now I’m going to shut up, and highlight my favourite part, even though that’s impossible, because it’s entirely fantastic from start to finish:Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick onAt twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the hornsNot letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to beOne notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.Wide open, so everything floods in at once.And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.So that I might be sitting now beside my fatherAs he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipeFor the first time in the winter of 1959.
‘the frenzy of being. I want to be
one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’
There are not enough words for how much I fucking love that. Would that I could write something some day with that much grace, beauty and power. Maybe in a decade or two, I should be so lucky. Now, since I am full of duck and alcohol, I’m going to curl up in bed. Oh, and before I forget, go read the rest of that sensational damn poem here. (God, I hope I don’t regret writing this in the morning…Here’s hoping!)
Hello all! I’d like to take a moment from my usual Thursday Poems ramble to announce some great news! That is, I’m proud to say my short story ‘Up Above’ has been shortlisted for Overland Journal’s inaugural Story Wine Prize!
I received the news some days ago, while on the train home, suffused in a black cloud after a dreary day, and it totally revitalised me. I don’t think I was even conscious of just how much my steps had been lagging lately, how reluctantly I walked, or how low my confidence was until I was shocked by this wonderful development.
After two years of dedicated effort – with some encouraging little successes along the way, to be sure – I really needed a sign I was on the right path. It’s come at an especially crucial juncture for me, considering I quit my job recently to focus on my writing and go overseas. In fact, the day the news was officially released, my Canadian visa application was refused on the basis of a ludicrous technicality (one I refute, but that’s a story for another day), and I suddenly found myself weighing my future once again.
As a writer, it’s hard to know where to go, or what will best yield results, but I suspect this is for the best. Why? Because I’ve never done too well with plans; always I’ve leapt before looking and, as Bradbury suggested, built my wings on the way down. It’s worked out fairly well for me in the past, and hopefully will again, now that I’m pivoting to travelling around instead of a permanent move. I’ll still be able to get a chunk of writing done by staying with family in Turkey for a while, exploring my ancestral homeland and practicing my craft at the same time.
Now, were it not for this news, I’d still have gone and still have written (there’s no other option), but it would not have been with this spring in my step, this renewed drive. For that alone, I’m already incredibly grateful and happy that the judges chose my story. The depth of talent and experience on display in the other finalists is quite humbling; I’m stoked just to be included among them. I wish everyone the best of luck with their stories.
As for the poem I chose last week, it was Adam O’Riordan’s The Corpse Garden, from his collection In The Flesh. Sadly, it’s not online from what I can see, and I haven’t had time to find another poem available for your perusal. Instead, I’ll urge you to seek out O’Riordan’s work — so far, I’ve found his collection to be musical, sparse, and sharp enough to draw blood. His imagery is fantastic, his writing graceful, and stories… well, they’re just downright unusual. And I live for unusual, so I am absolutely loving it. I’ll have to leave it at that, I’m afraid! Hopefully I’ll have more to share next week.
Best of luck to all with their writing!
I’ve spoken at length about my love of Ray Bradbury; hell, I started a whole other blog, 52 In A Year, based on advice he gave in a wonderful speech around 2001. He said to aspiring writers that instead of working on a debut novel, they should try writing one short story every week of the year. As he said:
“The problem with novels is you can spend a whole year writing one and it might not turn out well because you haven’t learned to write yet. But the best hygiene for, for beginning writers or intermediate writers, is to write a hell of a lot of short stories. If you could write one short story a week, doesn’t matter what the quality is to start but at least you’re practicing, and at the end of a year you have 52 short stories and I defy you to write 52 bad ones. Can’t be done.
It can’t be done. At the end of 30 weeks or 40 weeks or the end of the year, all of a sudden a story will come that’s just wonderful. That’s what happened to me.”
So I set out to do just that. And, over the course of the following year, I wrote 22 short stories, 18 chapters of a novel (I couldn’t help myself), 2 creative non-fiction essays, and 10 spoken word pieces, as well as two short film screenplays. All in all, some 90,000+ words. The year before that? I’d written maybe 3,000 words, tops. So, without a doubt, it was a great success for me. It led me to enrol in a Masters of Creative Writing, to discover poetry, and to the various publications that have come since. I owe everything to Ray Bradbury, to his inspiring words.
So I thought I’d write a little something about him today, on his birthday, just for context. Here now are some great quotes from the man himself, in the hope that they might do for you what they did for me: provide endless inspiration.
Happy Birthday, you wonderful, wonderful man, and may you forever rest in peace.