Update

Friends, I know it’s been a little while since I did a Thursday Poem post, and I’m sorry for that–there’ll be one coming up very soon, I assure you. Until that time, I just wanted to share a little interview I recently did with someone I knew in my university days. He has a series of interviews on his blog with a bunch of interesting people I urge you to check out. I certainly enjoyed answering his questions, talking about poetry, writing, and life.

You can check it out here.

Here’s a little snippet for the click-averse:

What’s the best advice you’ve been given?

A friend of mine, Najwan Darwish—an incredible Palestinian poet and all-round wonderful man—was apologising for not responding to an email I’d sent, and I was trying to brush it aside. I said something like, “don’t worry about it, it was a minor query.”

Without missing a beat, he replied, “there’s nothing minor in life.” Words which resonated then and still do now. Every so often, I turn them over and find some new meaning there.

Alan-Rickman-Wallpaper-alan-rickman-6979163-1024-768

I Was Thinking Of Alan Rickman

One of my favourite actors, Alan Rickman, recently passed away.

This poem is a summary of the day I’ve spent trying to process this.

I Was Thinking Of Alan Rickman

when the clouds swept in, a fleet of blue bellies, a swelling
stain across the sky

when you bent over my body, heavy with need, words
lost in the shadow of rain

when grief circled my heart in frantic laps
like a mad dog

when i discovered my chest is the perfect amphitheater
for loss

when the sodden cotton sky eventually tore into
wounds of light and sun

when the cat curled into a black half-moon, his purr
a soft song of remembrance

when I lay in bed, pain pressing its thumbs
into the back of my head

when my work took a walk into the woods

when i realised every sorrow burrows beneath the skin
and echoes the others already living there

when the trees opened every palm to wave goodbye

when I realised poetry wasn’t enough

when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice
when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice
when you said: I can’t stop reading this in his voice

“always”

Thursday Poem: The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Today’s poem is ‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz and as you may have guessed from the above quote, it is about grief, about pain and coping with hardships.

It begins:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Straight away, we have an intriguing opening. The metaphor of life as a road-cum-journey is so boring today that I could barely get myself to compose this sentence, but Kunitz makes it interesting with the simple use of plurality. Lives, not life, he says–imagine that first line again as ‘I have walked through life’ and it is dead on arrival. He doubles down on his plural and even widens the scope of its meaning by following it up with ‘some of them my own,’ which I love.

Of course, he’s saying that none of us walk alone, but in fact in a tangle – I would say it’s inescapable, walking through lives, but he doesn’t present it as such. It’s strong and active, as if by choice. I love this idea of multiple lives for one body, one person; it encompasses all the changes that occur to us, both physical and not. Change is the strong theme of the poem, the transformative power of our experiences–of loss. All grief is change, disguised. All change is a kind of grief.  Given how much we go through over a lifetime, how many selves we leave behind, how many deaths we die, it’s a rich and evocative conceit he sets out to explore: who wouldn’t love to take a walk through the lost snippets of our lives?

He goes on to say that despite no longer being who he was, ‘some principle of being/abides’, a kind of core self, and yet, though he posits it as such, he once again brings into play active choice: ‘from which I struggle/not to stray.’ Meaning that there is no unchanging undisputed self, and that though he recognises it as what remains despite all the change, he could stray from it if he so desired, he could be different. He chooses, and struggles in the choosing, to stay true to his perception of himself.

Let me tell you: if you’re struggling with grief or depression, this poem is an excellent read for you. It encourages you not just to put things into perspective, but to take an active role in perception itself–when it comes to depression, in particular, passively accepting the bleakness is enormously dangerous. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, and that is to our great advantage.

Having said all that, I have to say there are some lines in here that are a bit much for me, a bit too dramatic–but given what I’ve recently gone through, it happened to be just what I needed to read. This next line, in particular, has been ringing on repeat in my skull all week:

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

The emphasis here is mine. Having suffered losses as he goes, and struggling mightily with them, he turns, exulting in his ability to do so–in the constancy of change–he can go anywhere, and no matter how long or difficult the road, every stone on it is precious to him. I love that line so very much. It is one of those grand acts of poetry, loving the hurt. It doesn’t matter how much the stones have taken from you, doesn’t matter the toll, the way they might dig into the soles of your feet, each and every experience–in helping to form the ever emerging self–is precious.

That kind of grandiloquence will, as I mentioned earlier, be too much for some people. For me, I took it as a reminder to keep things in perspective, to be grateful for what I have, no matter what I perceive as lacking, and to try, always, to love–not simply people and not simply what’s easy, but also the pain, also the loss, also the grit and the dust and the stones.

A Hiatus

Dear friends,

I’m sitting at my desk, staring out over the houses, backyards and trees that creep their way toward the horizon, a domestic clutter pricked by a few solitary lights. The sun is a fading gradient of mango smeared across the blue, the hot humid stink of day finally giving way to a coolness. I love this view; it is perhaps the only thing I love about this house, the vantage it offers from its perch atop this hill. I am not playing any music, nor reading anything, and until a few moments ago, I wasn’t writing anything either. I just sat here enjoying the breeze, the diminishing gold light, my own plunging temperature, the silence finally allowing me to think.

Ah, I should stop stalling and just state the obvious: I’ve neglected this blog these past few weeks, and for that I apologise. My life has ruptured in this brief span of time, in too many ways to stop the gushing–worse, it did so in a horrifyingly public way. A way I could not hide or spin, for many reasons, not least of which is that I simply had no capacity to do so. As a writer, I’m used to controlling the narrative, see. Not being able to do so in a satisfactory manner made me realise how insecure we writers are, where the need to tell stories (at least in part) really stems from. It is an ugly place, and I am only just now emerging from it, battered and bandaged and leaking, but still here.

This–my recovery from the upending–is the main reason I have stopped updating the blog regularly. Aside from that, however, it’s also true that I am becoming increasingly critical, increasingly harder to please and so finding poems I love unreservedly is rarer and rarer every day. I can’t let that deter me, however, I think I’ll just to have to be brave enough to share work that I enjoy despite the flaws, as well as those in which I can find none. All of which is to say, quite simply, that I haven’t forgotten this tiny little corner of the internet, or you, the regular readers, and I hope you’ll stick around for the next post.

With love,
Omar

Thursday Poems: Brown’s Odd Jobs & Carver’s Happiness

I’ve spent the last little while reading two poems over and over again, and ultimately, I couldn’t decide which to share–or rather, which I had the most to say about, so I’m going to talk about both of them. Let’s begin with Raymond Carver’s poem Happiness, in full:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They have on caps and sweaters,
and the one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs palely over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

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It’s such a simple, lovely poem. Just two kids out delivering the paper, and in that moment–not thinking about anything beyond it, purely ensconced in the endless present of childhood–they are as happy as they’ll ever be, even if they don’t know it. It is the deep nostalgia of the narrator, of the man by his window, that makes this poem so deeply affecting. I’m typically against the overt naming of an emotion in poetry, I don’t want to be told so cheaply what is being felt, I want only to feel it, but Carver does it twice in this poem and I don’t care. For this poem, I could forgive just about anything–though I’ll admit I’d love to remove ‘palely’ from its line. It’s the one ugly mark on an otherwise gorgeous work, one which, as he says, goes beyond any talk about it really. It’s all there in the moment, the scene, the poem.

Now to Jericho Brown’s brilliant poem, Odd Jobs, which given its brevity, and how much I want to quote all of it, I’ll just put here too:

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

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I love that first line so fucking much, y’all. Why? Because fuck commas, that’s why, it does all the work it needs to do just by placement alone. The muscular economy of it, the way it resists you on first reading, is so damn good. You should study that opening line and look again at your own to see whether you accomplish even half so much with just seven words. The second line is equally good, and the rhythm is so damn tight, especially running off the alliteration-heavy ending of the first line, ‘cuss cutting grass’ is just ace. After that, Brown moves briskly to the heart of it: ‘the loneliest people have the earth to love/ and not one friend their own age.’

But here’s the thing, even with those excellent three lines I just mentioned, this might just have been an okay poem if not for the ending. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: poems are grenades and by the time they end, there ought to be an explosion. You ought to feel the blast. That doesn’t mean it has to be dramatic or violent, far from it–in fact, I’d say most often it involves an unexpected turn inward, which bursts open the poem and in so doing, sets off a similar impact within us. Brown absolutely nails it, again with breathtaking economy, undoing the earlier bitterness he evoked with his ugly sweating hard work, by adding a quiet touch of longing: I once had something to do with my hands.

In this, actually, there is a commonality between the two poems. Both Brown and Carver look to their childhoods, and both are talking about odd jobs, albeit one from a distance, with the other in the present before shifting forward. Both, I think, are also getting at the same point: our inability to enjoy our present circumstances. We bitch and we moan and we’re hateful and we’re struggling, as if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re not struggling–which simply isn’t true. The nature of the struggle simple changes, it adapts as you adapt, so it may be money now but if it ain’t that later, it’ll be something else. And something else. Until you might wind up one day thinking about something you used to hate, and say damn, I once had something to do with my hands. Then realise hell, happiness, it comes on unexpectedly.

Pledging for Poetry

This week, instead of sharing a poem, I’m sharing a poet.

My friend Deborah Emmanuel has launched a Pozible campaign for her new book Rebel Rites, a memoir about her time in prison. Technically, this isn’t poetry, though if you pledge enough, she’ll also throw in her debut collection of poetry which was published earlier this year. As to why you should support this extraordinary woman, well, let me tell you a little story.

I first met Deb at the Bali Emerging Writers Festival, and we became fast friends. As much as I love exploring new landscapes, I tend to always think of travel in terms of the people I met, which is why I value this one in particular so much. Because as lovely and weird and wonderful as Indonesia proved to be, Deb is all those things and more: kind and generous and warm, the kind of person who lights up the room around her.

My favourite memory from that fever-trip week is pretty innocuous: we shared a cab on the way to a panel we were both speaking on, and since I had just finished writing a poem about a teacher I met in the mountains, she asked me to read it. I felt a bit foolish doing so, to be honest, and not just because it was a first draft, but because like most people, I’ve been conditioned to think of poetry as this naff thing, not something to be shared as casually as conversation, as easily as flame.

When I was done, she recited one of her spoken word pieces. We were just two people in the back seat exchanging poems, occasionally snacking on mixed nuts. I don’t know what the cab driver made of it, he must have thought us mad, but I loved that moment for its ordinariness. It’s also when I realised that on top of being such a great person, she’s also a damned talented artist, and I was very lucky that circumstances conspired to have us meet.

‘Okay, chill’ you’re probably thinking, but I have to write this and I have to be this effusive because I don’t have any money to spare and I feel guilty as hell. Because this book deserves to be made, because it’s always worth hearing what she has to say. Soon as I have a job again, I know I’ll be contributing. In the meantime, you should definitely check out her work and if you have dollars to spare, then spare them no more. You’ll find plenty more info on her campaign page, and you can see for yourself whether what you read/listen to suits you.

Not enough people give back to poetry, as much as poetry gives to us all, so I hope at least a few of you head on over to help her out. That’s my spiel done – I promise I’ll return to my regularly scheduled poetry-talk next week. Until then, keep reading.

Thursday Poem: There Are Birds Here by Jamaal May

So, it’s been a while since I shared some poetry. I know I gave y’all a heads up a while ago that I wouldn’t be posting as often, but I still feel shitty about it. Things have been altogether rubbish on my side. Even though I’ve had some great publications in the past six weeks–in Junkee, The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Mascara Lit Review, The Wheeler Centre and Going Down Swinging–things have been generally declining on the financial front since my day-job work has dried up. Even as I begin to stress about paying the rent, my mother is facing eviction from her house, and I’ve been trying to deal with that at the same time. Obviously, I have been less than successful on that front. In any case, here we are; no matter the circumstances, the general awfulness of everyday, I return to poetry. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to communicate the level of comfort and joy there is in knowing I’ll forever have a home in its ephemeral heart.

Which brings me to the poem of the week, ‘There Are Birds Here‘ by Jamaal May. It begins with a dedication to Detroit, then:

There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.

Many people in the poetry world have a hard-on against the use of birds in poetry. It’s been done, ugh, they’ll say. I’ve even seen it on submission pages, editors saying they don’t want to see poems about or principally featuring birds. Imagine being so unreservedly dull and closed off to potential? The truth is that everything’s been done to death even death itself, so singling out anything in particular seems silly. What it comes down to is what it always comes down to: execution. Care and craft. If you have those two things, you can render anything new. Don’t be afraid of writing about a subject purely because of the subjective opinion of others; if it appeals to you, go for it. Besides, birds used to be fucking dinosaurs; how that doesn’t occupy more of our everyday thoughts, I’ll never know.

Anyway, back to Jamaal’s intriguing opening, the repetition of ‘there are birds here’ implies a lie–it has that slight sing-song of denial. And denial here is the rampant theme, this is a poem rejecting a reality we only get to “see” through the poet’s own negation. It is the missing part of the conversation, except in those opening lines where it gets to say that the birds here are metaphors, which is immediately shut down with “No.” followed by confirmation of his opening:

The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.

I love love love that last image, ‘the confetti a tank can make of a building.’ That’s stunning. I love, too, this refrain of denial–to whom is he saying no? Is it the city itself?–which sets up the images he clearly wants us to see, images which cannot be repudiated. Simply saying no is not enough, you know? There are aspects to this reality which are undeniable, there are things you cannot unsee, devastation you cannot simply wish away when it has already worn itself indelibly into your world. In that sense, the narrator of the poem is unreliable. You cannot trust his “no”, cannot trust his assertion that the birds aren’t metaphors, not when every rejection is followed by truth.

The first time I read it, each ‘No’ had a hardness to it, the rigidity of anger, but on reading it again, I’m more inclined to hear the sorrowful no of grief, when you’re trying to come to terms with any kind of loss–personal, social, geographical. Make no mistake: damage to the landscape that shaped you can wound every bit as much as a knife in your flesh, but is far less likely to heal.

My thanks to Rabih Alameddine for sharing this excellent poem on his blog. Go and read it.

Thursday Poem: Robert Frost at Eighty by Peter Boyle

Tonight, I had the very special pleasure of having the great Australian poet Peter Boyle attend an informal poetry workshop group I take part in, and as such I thought it fitting that I take a look at one of his poems. He read from his current work-in-progress, and though I’d heard of him and read some few poems of his before, I realised I knew far too little of it. I bought his book, and was reading it on the train home as rain spat against the metal and glass. Already, I sense a burgeoning love: you know that feeling of kinship and wonder when you instantly connect with another poet’s work? I’ve had it with Philip Levine, Langston Hughes, and Tracy K. Smith, and it is occurring again.

I may not entirely stick with ‘Robert Frost at Eighty‘ because I also love ‘Paralysis‘, another poem of his I found online. But let’s see how we go, and start with the titular work. It begins:

I think there are poems greater and stranger than any I have known.
I would like to find them.

There are multiple things I admire about this opening: the acknowledgment that great and strange poetry beyond his ken exist in the world, even though it comes with the doubtful qualifier ‘I think’, and the fact that it is swiftly followed up by his desire to find them, doubt be damned. This is, after all, what I do on this blog, what I search for every week, the great and strange poems I know to be out there. Finding them, of course, is the issue:

They are not on the greying paper of old books
or chanted on obscure lips.
They are not in the language of mermaids
or the sharp-tongued adjectives of vanishing.

Right here lies the source of kinship I mentioned earlier. In my recent interview with poetry journal Meanjin, I talk about my early fiction influences and how they skewed toward the fantastic – the Roald Dahls, Ray Bradburys and Gabriel Garcia Marquezes of the world. With my poems, however, it has been fairly straightforward to date. Imaginative and whimsical at times, to be sure, but really, nothing like the fiction I love to read and to write; only now am I beginning to stretch those muscles in poetry.

A key element to practicing that effectively, though, will be reading excellent poems that manage the fantastic at the level of craft I hope to achieve, and this is why I feel so ecstatic about coming to Boyle’s work at this point in time. I simply haven’t been reading enough of it, which makes this a beautiful and necessary confluence of events. Look how easily and readily he slips in the languages of mermaids without remark! Without irony or self-consciousness. It is what it is, that hallmark of the strange made ordinary that lives in the worlds of Kafka and Murakami.

Though I bury all I own or hold close
though my skin outlives the trees
though the lines fall shattering the stone
I cannot catch them.
They have the lilting accent
of a house I saw but never entered.
They are the sounds a child hears –
the water, the afternoon, the sky.

It would not be polite for me to tell you the lengths I would go to, the depths to which I would sink, to have written this line: ‘they have the lilting accent / of a house I saw but never entered.’ Fuck! Superb. Just fucking superb, damn his hide. And those next two lines, a kind of spectacular synaesthesia, merging the aural with the physical and ephemeral all at once. I’m straight up falling over myself at this point, I love this passage so much, so I better shut up before I embarrass myself further. I don’t want to spoil the whole thing, so I’ll just say that you should read the last lines, and then return to the opening, to that statement of desire. Therein, as with so many poems, lies the key to the thing.

With all that said, I’m just really stoked that I have his entire back catalogue to go through–truly, there are so many great and strange poems out there for me to read! And since I’m reading Tales from Ovid by Ted Hughes and Talking Dirty to the Gods by Yosef Komunyakaa at the same time, I am simply awash with it at the moment. Though I doubt I will ever come close to any of these luminaries, and I feel ashamed to even include this link in the same paragraph, one of my own poems did go up online this week, and I would be remiss not to include it. You can read that here, if you like.

Thursday Poem: Call of Duty

So, I came home today to discover that my copy of the Australian Catholic University’s poetry chapbook had arrived, which features all the shortlisted entires for their Poetry Prize of the same name. It isn’t online, however, so I’ve decided to share mine here. The theme for this year’s competition was peace, tolerance, and compassion, so I wrote a poem to my brother, who I fear will hate me one day. I hope you’ll forgive my temerity in sharing one of my own poems this week. I figure I’ve earned at least one.

Call of Duty 

Salaam, brother. Your body is knotted,
expression tense and brooding. ‘Search and destroy’
comes the instruction over the speakers
and your fingers begin to fire, the machine gun
your only visible manifestation of self
on the screen. You’re so eager to kill pixels
I say, and so soon after praying, echoes
of the azan still on the air.
…………………………………………..The fading sound
calls for submission, but though I see
your head hit the mat in the unfolding
choreography of prayer, the fire within
you does not dim even for a moment,
not then and not now, as duty urges
you to kill with such ease then laugh
at your victory, glee and vitriol flowing
from your lips.
……………………………………..Samson, our dog
careens wildly at our feet, hair untrimmed
and gossamer thin, fey-lit with ghost light
as if from within in the living room. Mum
isn’t here, her anger has yet to frost the space
between the smiling photos of our departed
but she might as well be, given the sweat
on your brow, the way you grit your teeth.
Only when your phone pulses and sings
God’s song do you press pause on the game,
then turn to see if I’ll join you.
…………………………………………………I demur,
and you laugh. ‘Still on the fence? No?
What are you then?’ I don’t answer, brother,
because I am already doing my best to submit
to our reality, without much success. Salaam, I
accept you’d rather the fantasy of death and fury
given form than to speak to me; I too barely know
the comfort of family or how to fill the fields
between us with things green and growing.
Salaam, dear brother, I know when you discover
my multiple loves, I will lose yours and the ache
of that prescience gnaws at my bones,
this loss I have yet to bear.
…………………………………………..Salaam is knowing
your hatred is foretold, inscribed in Arabic,
in the holiest of text, and loving you anyway.
I would rather lay forever-burning stars
into the fabric of my skin than submit to this,
it is that hard to think of a life lived without
your laugh. But that day is coming soon,
driven closer with every poem I write like this
and I write every day, even now, in the corner
of the lounge as you play on, serene in the chaos
of your virtual world. Salaam is knowing the morning
will yet dawn when you pretend not to know my name,
when you will not look my way.
…………………………………………………..Brother, salaam
but I must ask: if I cover my body in the verse
you cleave to, will you see me then? Maybe
later, when you bow to the East, your mouth
gracing the Earth, you will know me in full
or at least make the effort to try, submitting
to this new reality even as I struggle with it
now. Some would say that if this is peace–
accepting our paths, twinned from the start,
are set to part– I should make war, should set fire
to the wisdom warped into the weave of your life,
but I do not know if you would survive
the breaking of all that you think you know,
and I would rather you live on hating me
than die unfulfilled, haunted by despair
and the absence of faith. This is me, dear brother,
saying I forgive you for all that is to come
and praying at last for salaam to exist
in some way between us – in this life, or the next.

Thursday Poem: County Fair by Mary Karr

This is going to be another small entry, I’m afraid. Firstly, I should belatedly do the thing where I promote some of the writings I have recently published. I wrote about my trip across Australia for Going Down Swinging, and the first of three pieces can be seen here, the second here. A preview of the latter:

I have often heard people describe a perceived sameness as boring: that sky, roads, and even beautiful countryside can become a blur after a while. I don’t think I’ll ever understand those people. Though we had, over the past three days, been on roads that extended as far as the eye could see, they never failed to leave me stunned, humbled by scale, and thrilled in a way I had never been by a landscape large beyond reckoning. A largeness only literature could hope to map in its entirety, to expose not just the outer lines, the broadness of its body, but to interrogate its features, its tiny miracles and incongruities.

I have a poem in the latest issue of Tincture Journal, which sadly isn’t part of the free content but which you can purchase for $8. I also have a poem in the latest issue of Meanjin.

What’s with all this self-promotion, you might be thinking, where’s the poem by Mary Karr? Well, here’s the thing. County Fair is a goddamn beautiful poem. I love it so very much. But I don’t actually have much to say about it. I’ve read it several times now, and each time, the joy garnered from the reading has only increased the buffer around it. Love is resistant to interrogation that way, at least at first. I have yet to pierce that skin. So, at least for now, I’m going to stay away from trying to pick it apart and continue to enjoy its beautiful evocation of this childhood mainstay, of parenthood, and the beauty and ugliness in all of us.

It begins:

On the mudroad of plodding American bodies,
         my son wove like an antelope from stall
to stall and want to want. I no’ed it all: the wind-up
         killer robot and winged alien; knives
hierarchical in a glass case; the blow-up vinyl wolf
         bobbing from a pilgrim’s staff.
Go on and read the whole thing, before I just quote it in its entirety.