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.


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.


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, it’s 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 latter, 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. And 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.

Three Poems To Tide You Over

Dear friends in poetry,

I am too tired and too adrift today for my usual ramble. Here instead are three poems I read this week, presented in their natural state.

1.‘Epithalamion’ by Rickey Laurentiis
2. From “Home, Again” by John McAuliffe
3. Some Say by Maureen N. McLane

These are, one and all, stunning in their own unique ways.

a constant state of collapse

[Note: if you follow my blog for poetry posts, you can turn away now. This is personal.]

I have been struggling recently. Those five words are among the hardest to write, to say. Though I have admitted it before, and though this is neither the first or the last time it will happen, it somehow doesn’t get any easier. It’s been an especially weird period in my life, because on the face of it, it hasn’t been all that bad. I have made numerous strides in weaning myself off the soulless corporate tit and transitioning to a life paid for with my words. My writing (which is generally published by other corporations but these at least have some shred of soul, I’d like to think). Professionally, I’ve been doing well. Many poetry publications and a couple of prize shortlists this year is nothing to sneeze at, and I’ve still got work forthcoming in Meanjin, Going Down Swinging, Archer magazine and The Saturday Paper.

Personally, however, things have been pretty bleak and never more so than this week. I found out that my poem didn’t win the ACU Prize; my mother lost her tribunal hearing in regards to her housing so she has to find a new place to live in a few weeks’ time (whilst unemployed); one of my older cousins passed away; and my father is in the hospital. Over the course of the past few weeks, I also haven’t been paid for any of the work I’ve done, both the regular “real world” type and the freelancing writing kind, the strain of which is beginning to tell. The only reason I’m even mentioning the failure to win this prize is because, as everything was disintegrating around me, it gave me a sliver of hope I usually don’t indulge in that I would be able to fix things.

A sliver of hope that I might be able to swoop in and help my mother in a substantial way–not save the day completely, because she has never been a woman in need of saving, but help nonetheless. Everyone needs it at some point. Naturally, I ending up losing that chance, if I ever had it to begin with. Knowing that only two non-white poets have won prizes like these out of the last 120+ in this country means that I approach any shortlist with a mountain of cynicism in tow. Once more, my financial circumstances led me to a place of desperate hope and once more I was disappointed. It’s foolishness, really, allowing myself to fall for the same trap. But this isn’t about money, nor is it even about being able to help my mother, as important as I feel that is…

It’s about the fact that for weeks now I’ve quietly been preparing to tell my family directly about my bisexuality. My friends know, of course, and I’ve been open about it online so if any of my blood should happen to look up my name, it’s there to be seen, but I am tired of waiting now. I was praying the decision would go my mother’s way (as it should have, for long and complicated reasons I won’t go into now) and I was praying for the prize in case it didn’t, even though I am not a man given to prayer.

I was praying because if I didn’t have to worry about my mum’s circumstances, I’d be free to tell her about my sexuality. The only reason I can’t now is because once she knows I expect that she’ll never want to hear from me again, even if I was in a position to help her. She’s just that angry, that stubborn, that proud. Like me.

You might say, well, then it’s not your problem. If she turns her back on you, then it’s her own doing and none of yours. Except it doesn’t really work that way. She’s my mother. I will always love her, no matter her flaws, no matter our fractured and violent history. I have to do right by her even if she isn’t doing so by me. So I’m back to closing my mouth, and keeping the words I desperately need to say inside. Eventually, sometime over the next six weeks, I expect the money I am owed for the various works and writings I have done will trickle in, and I will be in a slightly better position, a position to help her. I will do that, as I am able, and then say my piece. If everything goes to plan, that tie will be cut, that weight lost, and I will finally be at ease.

After visiting my dad in hospital today–an experience worthy of its own post–I went to my great-uncle’s place. His son, 45 years of age, passed away recently. I’d never met my great-uncle or his wife prior to this point, but I walked into their little flat, into their grief, and his face lit up. He said, in broken English, ‘You, your father, same.’ Turning his hand this way and that. ‘Exactly same.’ He, like many of my Turkish relatives, seem unendingly delighted in my features, in the similarity they see there. His wife was much more reserved, she didn’t say anything other than to indicate where I could place the box of oranges. I was there with my own uncles (his nephews) to provide the two with enough boxes of fresh food to feed a village. ‘We have to take care of them,’ my uncle said. ‘If not us, then who, you know? They’re old.’

To give you an indication of the age range here, my uncle is 60, his hair silver to my great-uncle’s snow white. Despite that, he huffed his way up four flights of stairs, carrying boxes of food for the elderly couple. That sense of family, of being there for each other no matter what, nearly broke me tonight. As I was leaving, my great-uncle seized my hand and said, ‘Here, you come anytime. Here. Home. Always home, always welcome. OK?’

I nodded and smiled, wanting so much to give in to the ache of belonging, but unable to do so. That deliriously comfortable notion of home is the reason I haven’t been direct with my family all these years. That is the nature of this struggle — it’s finding the courage to accept being cast-off and finding or building a new home in those who stick by you. I could talk about a whole range of other issues plaguing my life, but I have laid bare the crux of it and already I feel better for it. I do have some income due soon, as mentioned, and some work lined up; my life feels like it’s disintegrating, yes, but it seems always to be in a state of collapse and I have survived it before, I will survive it again; and I am always, always aware of my own privilege in still having a home and food, in being a man–even a brown bisexual one–in relation to the rest of this wracked, broken world. So, even now, even in the midst of this, I find room for gratitude, as I think we always must.

It’s only a permanent impermanent home that I lack, a family I can trust in full.  There are worse things to face, I suppose.

Thursday Poem: 38 by Layli Long Soldier

I do not know how to introduce this poem. In fact, I’m not even sure how to talk about it at all, to provide my usual preamble. I’ve decided, then, to take my tack from the work itself and state things simply and plainly. This is called “38” and it is by Layli Long Soldier. It is a poem about the Dakota 38, men who were executed by hanging on the order of President Lincoln for their part in the Sioux Uprising. It is as much non-fiction as it is poetic, no matter the lengths Layli disavows the latter element, the creative license she has taken.

In my last Thursday Poem entry, I spoke about Carolyn Forché’s ‘The Colonel’, and poetry of witness, the expression she coined. How it was an example of the power of reportage, of the basic bleached language of journalism employed with brutal impact. Even her form, the prose poem, the block of text, was a way of disavowing the very act of poeticising a moment of significance, a moment of horror – political, social, domestic. In 38, Layli takes a different approach. Her sentences are spare and clean and separate, divided by plenty of white space, so it could easily be mistaken for a poem at first glance. It may look the part, she is saying, but it is altogether different to what you are expecting. The form is a lie.

It begins:

Here, the sentence will be respected.

I will compose each sentence with care by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.

That’s an ambiguous enough opening, which we’ll get back to in a little bit, but immediately the poet is telling us to pay attention to the language being employed – her focus is clinical to an almost comical degree. Language matters. This looks like a poem but it is not.

You may like to know, I do not consider this a “creative piece.”

More than that, the poet is actively commenting on her process as she goes. She is taking you along for the ride, so to speak, almost as a reflexive act to preempt guilt — look, I am not doing this for art, she seems to say, look, see my thoughts as I go. See the lie, if lie there is. Many artists feel this way, wary of turning pain into art, be it historical or personal or a mesh of both. Generally, I’d say it’s always a good idea to interrogate your motivations for tackling a certain subject, and this is as good a way as any of dealing with that – incorporating it into the work. However, I do think this act of meta-writing is taken a little too far at times, but the moments when it is pulled off to great affect make it all worthwhile. Consider:

The hanging took place on December 26th, 1862—the day after Christmas.

This was the same week that President Lincoln signed The Emancipation Proclamation.

In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

(I had to bold it, since block quotes italicise everything, but you get the point). Here, that meta-commentary provided by the last sentence is seemingly pointless. Later in the poem, however, we get the pay-off to this set-up:

The Dakota people were starving.

The Dakota people starved.

In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.

You know, it is somewhat ironic, given the self-analysis employed within the poem, that I am couching it within my own examination. Nonetheless, I think both our points come across. Hers, with the unexpected twist that commentary can provide, giving added depth to a line, forcing you to return to it and read it again. Mine, that although some elements of it can seem unnecessary, Layli is supremely aware of what she’s doing.

These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as The Minnesota Treaties.

The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.

Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.

Everything is in the language we use.

So, let me return to the opening line, and the meaning of this poem, the intersection of form and function. Remember, the poem opens: “Here, the sentence will be respected.” In direct contrast to the many broken treaties referenced in the poem, and indeed in history – here, her language matters. In direct contrast to the legalese and the deliberately convoluted nonsense employed in contracts, here, her words are simple. Her meaning plain. She will tell you what she is doing and why, as she does so.

It reminds me, in fact, of an Indigenous author I interviewed recently. She was talking about governments and said that – in response to their fickleness and the seeming whimsy that saw laws change constantly and old agreements get thrown out – Indigenous elders always had the same response: ‘Our law is strong.’ Meaning, unchanged. Meaning, what we say matters. This poem, every word and every line, shouts this aloud.

If that’s all it did, it would still be an excellent poem. If all it did were teach us about a moment in history too often overlooked, it would still be an excellent poem. That it does this, and is emotionally evocative as well, unfolding at last in those truly spectacular last lines, makes it a remarkable poem and well worth your time.

Go. Read it.

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These Laughing Gods


A year on from Robin Williams’ passing, and the hole he left has yet to be filled. Re-posting this tribute because it’s a good time to remind yourself to look out for your friends and loved ones who may be struggling much harder than you realise–and to look out for yourself, as well. If you are depressed, don’t hesitate to seek help. There’s always someone out there who cares, always another reason to draw breath, always a little bit of light glimmering somewhere in the dark.

Originally posted on Scratch That:

I think we all fall a little in love with the funny ones.

You know the ones; a smile blooms on your face just by thinking of them. Like your body has bookmarked their joy, and said, look, this is how they make you feel. Store this beauty, store this secret magic, let it line your eyes. You build it up inside with every laugh leaving behind an echo, a residue. This is why sometimes, even when they say something that isn’t particularly funny, you’ll find yourself braying at the moon like a drunk donkey, while others sit with a polite grin frozen on their faces. Didn’t you guys hear that one?

Robin Williams – the outstanding comic and brilliant actor, the man, the husband, the father, the genie – passed away today. This will not surprise you, I am sure; his death has hit the world with a seismic…

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