Thursday Poem: The Mechanics Of Men by David Tomas Martinez

You should always read a poem aloud. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and I’ll say it until I die: you should always read the fucker aloud. I am especially grateful for having just read this sensational poem by David Tomas Martinez, for two reasons:

1) I found it just after reading an unrelated, but shitty poem. I don’t talk about poetry that doesn’t move me because I haven’t the energy to spare for hate or pettiness, but this lifeless poem I read left a bad taste in my mouth. So ‘Mechanics of Men‘ was an excellent palette cleanser, being just the opposite, brimming with life lived and lessons learned. With vitality.

2) For being so damn good I stopped midway and went back to start again, reading aloud this time. Usually, I read something first, so I have an idea of what ends where; I don’t like to pause in the wrong places –  even when it’s just me in my room, reading is a performance. I made an exception because I knew just sounding this one out would be an aural discovery, regardless of whether I screwed it up or not. But enough about that, let’s get to the goods.

It begins:

I have never been the most mechanically inclined of men.

             Wrenches, screwdrivers, or shovels
have never made nice with me. In the shipyard,

I worked alone, in the dark, deep in

               the bilges of frigates.

This is, on the face of it, an innocuous enough opening, for all that it does the job of setting up the narrative to follow, but my god, even here it’s a joy to read. There is throughout this poem subtle assonance and alliteration, a repetition of sounds, a rhythm that builds. God, I could chew on that second line. And he’s not even saying anything important! I’m nine kinds of impressed and too many kinds of jealous to count, so let’s move on.

The brass tool
              hissed like an ostrich
when it fed on metal. That day, my flame cut
permanent deck fittings; the loops fell like bright oranges;
              I ripened the rusty metal.

Look, this poem is a fucking orgasm in my mouth. Do you understand that? Maybe not. ‘Hissed like an ostrich’ is wonderful, but then, it isn’t just sounds that make this poem stand out, it’s the evocation of work and masculinity, of the gulf between a father and his son, of life and love and never quite fitting in and most assuredly always fucking up.

It’s the little things as well. I love the juxtaposition of ‘flame cut’ with ‘permanent deck fittings’, such a simple and literal line yet it undercuts the idea of permanence itself at the same time. I love, too, the way the metal becomes organic, a fruit that ripens. I want to quote this whole poem, basically, and I’m annoyed that I can’t. I’m annoyed too, just thinking that there will be some of you out there who won’t feel what I’m feeling – the intensity of joy suffusing my body right now, the ecstasy of recognition – that, hell, it might somehow read as lifelessly to you as that one poem earlier tonight did for me.

I read recently a quote from a book which said that the best moments in reading are when you come across something you thought special and particular only to you – that it’s like a hand coming out and taking yours. Well, if that’s the case, reading this poem was like meeting someone, making love, falling in love, getting married and then at the end of it, jotting down some thoughts. Which is to say, it felt like that damn hand reached into the pulpy, bony mess of my chest, pulled out some red stuff and daubed it on the page. There’s so much of me here it’s scary.

This is true for a lot of the poetry I love; this is the most subjective of arts. Every poem is a sampling of DNA, and it can be a matter of pure luck whether you turn out to be a match or not. Oh, I’m not saying those which don’t match aren’t skilful, or that you can’t appreciate them objectively, you certainly can, but it’s a cold and distant thing in comparison to this mad heat, this crazed passion you should probably only feel when in love or while fucking, but which somehow extends to this thrilling expression of language, this superlative art.

I’ll stop rambling now, but man am I glad to have read this outrageously good poem today. If anybody out there knows David Tomas Martinez, and he’s totally okay with you doing this, kiss him on the damn lips for me. Or just tell him this poem is seriously good, and that I now feel the same mixture of admiration and envy I reserve for those whose quality I aspire to emulate, to match and – in my wildest, most ambitious moments – hope to one day exceed. My benchmarks. I’ll end this with his words, and a reminder that you need to read this.

And that summer, I returned
               to each of the women of my past and bedded
them all, trying to reheat our want. I don’t regret that—drinking wine

and making love, or writing poems and making love, of wanting to stay
               but nonetheless leaving.

Celebratory Poem

So, I couldn’t wait till Thursday to share this, because it made me happy, and happiness is a rare and fleeting thing in my world: I woke up to find I’d received over 1,000 followers on this blog! Which is kind of crazy, since only a month ago I had about 150, tops.

1000

I’d gotten used to the idea that very few people were reading my weekly rambles about poetry, and that it would remain that way, but I guess I was wrong. Here’s hoping it continues to grow and more and more of the poetically inclined find their way here. In celebration of all this, and in thanks to you fine people and possibly-bots, I thought I’d give you a poem I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s just a little one, and I never know what to do with the little ones, so this is as good a use as any. I hope you like it.

None Of Us

Nobody cares about poetry
my poetry professor said.
Nobody appreciates the band
either, the lead singer said.
Nobody notices the backup dancers
the dancers said, not to mention
the choreographer, or the roadies,
the technicians, the bored IT guys
and girls. Nobody loves their father
as much as fathers want them to
or loves their mother as much as mothers
need them to. Nobody cherishes actors
until they’re gone and in black and white
on a memoriam screen. Nobody writes
about writers except writers and failed writers;
nobody thanks the cooks. Nobody wants
to be a farmer, we just want to eat.
Nobody thinks, nobody thinks, nobody thinks
about any of this
but damn do the flowers get their due.

Thursday Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Hello, and welcome, you magnificent bastards. Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to those of you who responded so kindly to my poem – I truly appreciate it. I’d also like to say, since it was raised in the comments, that if you’re keen to introduce yourself or say hi, I’m aware you can’t do so on my About page, but you can always go over to the Facebook page I recently made for the blog. It could do with some loving anyway. Ultimately, as I’ve said before, I’m not here just to hear myself talk – so to speak – I’m here to start a conversation. If you’re so inclined, go ahead and start talking.

Now, this week’s headline is perhaps a little misleading. See, what I really want to talk about is the article which led me to the poem. Bringing A Daughter Back From The Brink With Poems by Betsy MacWhinney is an extraordinary story about a mother trying to get through to her self-harming daughter. I’m going to quote liberally from this piece now because it’s so endlessly wonderful, but I urge you to read the entire thing:

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest, so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well. What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe…

One of the joys of writing this weekly blog, of this challenge to find a new poem to talk about every week – generally from authors I haven’t read before – has been the feeling of discovery. The way I seem to just trip over a poem at the last minute, or when I am least expecting it, as if it was some kind of house cat — something we think domesticated, but which is still wild at heart, and always getting underfoot, always making itself the centre of attention —  thrills me to no end. I love being surprised. I think this is why this idea of finding a new poem in your shoe each day resonated so strongly with me.

You will have noticed the poem linked to in the quote above is Wendell Berry’s ‘Made Farmer Liberation Front’, which is itself a truly exceptional poem propelled by furious rhythm; it is a manifesto for living and I can’t recommend it enough. However, I didn’t choose to make it the focus of this piece, I chose Wild Geese, referenced later in the above article, partly because above all, I favour simplicity, and partly because it ties in so well with the theme of the article, with the anguish of adolescence, and the crushing nature of depression.

Because, most of all, it offers hope. It begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

I fucking love these five lines. Forget the rest of the poem, lovely as it is. Let’s linger here. Poetry is all about lingering, anyway, staying in a moment long after the moment is gone, luxuriating in it, exploring, finding more and still more beneath the surface. That first line alone is a clarion cry – so much of our everyday struggle is to be good, whether we realise it or not. When we are children, what are we told? Be a good boy. Be a good girl, you wouldn’t want to be a bad one would you now? Shudder. Perish the thought.

There are times, however, as an adult, where this isn’t possible. You aren’t being bad, in the absence of good, you’re just unable to reach the ideal, to shoulder the constant, exacting burden. It’s too much. You struggle, you fall. If you’re lucky, in time, with help, you get up again and the struggle begins anew. This is why the opening line, ‘You do not have to be good’ is a clarion cry – it slices right through the bullshit, right through that notion that you must be anything, it frees you from expectation, unhooks the anchor lodged in your spine. As far as necessity goes, you need only concern yourself with the last of those five lines.

All you have to do is let yourself love what you love without discrimination, without judgment. Love it, and let it end at your love. Remember, too — this line is so fucking good — we are animals. There is something so delightfully undercutting about that, in the best possible way. We have a tendency to self-aggrandise, to attribute everything to our own actions, and in so doing, tend to judge ourselves on an equally obscene scale, which can only end badly. We’re just soft meat, in the end, like the geese in this poem.

Like them, too, we are always looking for home.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

America, You Sexy Fuck

So, today I found out that my shortlisted poem America, You Sexy Fuck, did not place among the final three winning entrants for the Judith Wright Poetry Prize. I’d like to take a moment to congratulate those who did; I can’t wait to read what I’m sure are exceptional poems. While I’m undoubtedly disappointed, I’ve had a few hours to think this over and I realised I was hurt not because I needed any further validation of the work itself – I’ve had that in spades since writing it and many others in the months since submitting it – but because of my financial problems at the moment, which I’ve written about previously. 

Basically, I was upset because all of my problems weren’t going to be solved in one fell swoop. When I realised that, I laughed at myself. Hard. Since when have any of my problems ever been solved all at once? Never. The same is true for most people. It’s a ridiculous sentiment to hold, even in the midst of a big disappointment. I went back and read a letter from a poet I admire, who was responding to one I’d written her, in which I wondered what the point of all this was, this crazy nonsense system of literary journals paying essentially nothing ($5-50 at most, per poem) and how anyone was expected to make a living through it. That’s $5-50 you’re only making if you get accepted, 3-6 months after you submitted in the first place.

She wrote back to say something along the lines of, she never relied on that broken system in the first place. The work – her work and the work of her unpublished peers – sustained her. Everything else came after. It was a reminder I needed. See, I don’t write poetry for publication in magazines. I don’t write it for prizes either. I write poems because they’re one of the few things in this life that can elicit true joy, and total relief. When I write poetry, I can breathe for what feels the first time in full, deep breaths. This is, in short, a disease. It makes no sense except to others who have been diagnosed with it, and it’s difficult to communicate why we do what we do, when there’s so little money and so much struggle.

You have to want it with a kind of demented zeal, a truly irrational desire. Imagine a salesman pitching this: “Hey you! Fancy a life of financial hardship, paralysing doubt and insecurity, as well as very little recognition and appreciation? Because if you do, man, have we got the thing for you! And all you have to do to get it is swim through this lake of fire.” It’s like wait, what? But the thing I’m going for is already bad! How can the trial and reward both consist of suffering? It made me laugh, honestly. I realise this, and a lot of what I say, might sound angsty in text, but more often than not I’m saying it and laughing. It’s so important not to take yourself too seriously, and I thank fuck every day that comedy constantly punctures my ego.

With all that said, the reason I’m writing this post now is simple: I write poetry, and I love doing it, and while publication in fancy pants journals is lovely, and shortlists and prizes are all very well and good too, I don’t need them. If they didn’t exist, I’d do it on the streets, standing atop a cardboard box if necessary. Which brings me to you: see, when I’m done with writing a poem, and it’s sitting there all pretty and new, I want nothing more than to share it. It kills me a little when I don’t, and instead send it off and have to wait agonising months for a reply, and so rather than go through that process again with this once-shortlisted poem of mine, I’ve decided I’m just going to share it here.

I hope you like it, and I hope to do this more often, too.

America, You Sexy Fuck

You are wearing your prettiest dress:
Fall, the only one named
for its desired effect, that is
when the colourful fabric (succinct
golds, russet reds, and deep browns
swirling together) drops
to your knees.
The trees are endless skeletal shadows
blurring the horizon,
some still clinging to their last vibrancy,
daring winter to freeze them
still crowned in faded glory.
The view out the window shifts
as gradually as the seasons: the slopes
of forest recede, and clusters of houses
peek out from the foliage – humanity
emerging from the landscape,
from your bosom – as of old.
Roads proliferate, black stretchmarks
stitching your body together.
Factories dot the distance, smoke hanging
between chimney and sky, still
as a painting, yet drifting apart all the time
like a cloud. Destiny is a beauty mark
on your collarbone (the dress has slipped
as you reveal yourself to me) sign-posted
at an intersection near Syracuse; I had the rare
pleasure of watching Destiny diminish
in the rear view mirror, not a final destination,
merely one of many options
getting you from here to there.
Fat syrupy clouds gather, swallowing the blue
and you begin to sweat.
I cross your bridges, your rivers
and dried up creek beds patterned with leaves,
tracing my footsteps across your soft middle,
wearing a groove into your skin.
I want to peel it back with my teeth,
see what’s beneath, what you’re hiding
but I am too distracted by your brazenness,
the swell of your hips. A valley beckons
and a vast wetness appears: steam billows
off the lake, or perhaps it’s a fog,
this dense rolling whiteness reaching up
to trail fingers over lips of storm.
I am heading to your borders,
to your discrete edges
so I can outline your everything
and hold your shape in my arms.
Between us, however, lies so much emptiness:
pit stops, Burger Kings, and dead towns
spoil the treeline
with a kind of beautiful desolation.
Beautiful because of people like Tammy,
iron-grey and pushing sixty, still working
behind the counter, smile flash-frozen in ‘89,
who keep industry alive
even in its death-throes, crowning capitalism
between halogen lights and trays of grease,
the way winter anoints autumn,
highlighting the end
in a furious burst of colour.

Thursday Poem: In Defense of Small Towns by Oliver De La Paz

Hello and welcome to my new followers! I don’t know where you’re all coming from, and I’m struggling to keep up with the notifications honestly, but I’m glad to have you on board. Normally, I post something on Thursday, but as my last post indicated, I’ve been in nine kinds of hell recently, some of which I had neither the energy or strength to expound upon then. My point is this: I’m late, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve just finished work and I have a friend over, so I still have no time to do this, but luckily, said friend is busy finishing a book, so I get to quickly introduce you to another gem (or remind you of it, if you’ve already read it).

This week’s poem is In Defense of Small Towns by Oliver De La Paz, and it is simply delightful. It begins:

When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there. September,
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay. And the smells

of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel

as they rode into town, dusty and pissed.

I often think of great poems like rivers; when I step into one, when I cede control, I expect to be taken gently downstream, for its flow to be inexorable and constant in its beauty. A less than great poem will pause, a clumsy line will snag my attention, prick the bubble and release me back into the world before its end. De La Paz’s poem has no such loose logs, no sudden outcropping of stone.

From beginning to end, I was drawn along, lost in the small country town he evokes with such ease. It didn’t surprise me, this town he spoke of, nor did the emotions, the need for escape we all feel for the places that bore us – so huge and endless while we were small, so confining and tiny as adults – and the conflicting surge of nostalgia we have once we’re gone from them. Despite the lack of surprise for this oldest of experiences, he still made it seem fresh. Each line sings with something specific, and like light hitting the water, it transforms the ordinary and mundane into priceless treasure, common pebbles glinting brighter than diamonds.

Even the cliche is given no room for purchase here, in a country town dominated by football:

The radio station

split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action

happened on Friday nights where the high school football team
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness

See how swiftly familiar terrain becomes divine? I adore that line. Of course we all have a chance at forgiveness during a football game: to forgive the players who mess up, and the referees for being referees, and each other, for hurling insult and hate at ordinary boys and girls whose only mistake was being born someplace else and wearing different colours.

We each of us have a chance at forgiveness every day, in most actions of our lives, no matter how small. It’s such an unexpected thing to be thankful for, to have the mere chance to experience it, and yet having read that line, it doesn’t seem so unexpected after all. It seems instead like I should have known that all along. That is just one example of the incisive way De La Paz cuts through the at-first-familiar skin of this landscape and shows us something new, something timeless and beautiful all at once.

I wish I had more time to rave about it but I don’t, so I leave it to you to discover at your own pace. Come back and tell me what you thought; I’d love to hear it.

Being Broke Fucking Sucks

Headline of the year, I know: “Man Discovers Lack Of Money Is Unpleasant, News at 11!” I’ve been poor before, actually, but that was while growing up, when it was out of my hands. During my teenage years, we went from poor to working poor to lower middle class, and I’ve largely stayed around there as an adult. I have had a privileged life, make no mistake, and I retain privileges even now that many poor people don’t. But these past few months I’ve been struggling in a big way, on the brink of being totally broke and having to move back home (which would only be temporary anyway, as my mum is being evicted soon and will be homeless herself), and it’s brought to mind some things I need to talk about.

These past few weeks, while unemployed and looking for work as the last of my savings drain away, have felt like a noose slowly being taut. Sure, I made jokes about it because that’s my first reflexive response to anything, but gradually, even that stopped. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve stopped taking public transport, stopped visiting friends and family, and with only a few exceptions, basically only gone wherever my feet can take me. Depression, which is always lurking around the corner, always waiting in the back of my mind, has surged to the fore and I am once again finding it easier to stay in bed, harder to speak, harder to look people in the eye.

I remember a couple years back, when I was properly suicidal, and I literally couldn’t look people in the eye. It was because, I thought, I was afraid they would be able to see my intent, as if depression and a desire for death was writ across my corneas. Actually, I see now that it’s just shame. I’m ashamed. It crystallised for me yesterday, when I was organising one of the two necessary exceptions I’ve taken, and a friend said the place we were meeting might cost $5 to enter. I objected. She laughed and said she couldn’t tell if I was joking. I wasn’t. I cancelled the lunch part of that trip when I looked up the menus nearby, and I felt a surge of something ugly in my chest. Shame. See, when you’re in the first phase of being broke and unemployed, you pretend nothing’s changed. At least, I do.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’ll go out, and I’ll order the same food as I would otherwise and justify it somehow in my head — that’s future-me’s problem, paying the rent and whatnot, current-me wants desperately to be on the same level as his friends. I’m not though. That’s the second phase: owning the truth of the situation, and severely restricting your spending. Coming to terms with that has helped me break through the bleakness I’ve been under lately, enough so I could write this anyway, so I could look at things a bit more objectively. A few months back, when the downward slope was beckoning, I actually wrote a letter to my friend outlining my situation and certain truths I had learned. Here’s part of what I wrote:

Continue reading

Thursday Poem: Over and Over Stitch by Jorie Graham

As with last week, I’ll begin this post with some great personal news: the Emerging Writers’ Festival has selected me as one of two writers to be sent on a Cultural Exchange program to the Bali Emerging Writers’ Festival in Indonesia, in a few weeks’ time. I did a quick Q&A with them earlier today, which you can read here if you’re interested. Needless to say, I can’t wait to get over there and meet new people, make new connections, and learn a great deal.

This week’s poem is Over and Over Stitch by Jorie Graham, who I had the pleasure to hear read live last year at the New Yorker festival. I read this a few days ago, and I’ve had it tumbling around in my head ever since. This is a poem loaded with resignation and reluctance, trembling on the edge of precipitous change, one resisted at all costs. It begins:

Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for just a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend
we wished for it?

The tone and theme are set up immediately in that first line, with the world digging in late in the season. Change is waiting, change is constant, yet it is late and the world is not giving in to it yet. Honestly, I could talk forever about those first seven lines, never mind the rest of it. It says so much without seeming to even try; the hallmark of great writing.

‘This isn’t a bad place;/why not pretend/we wished for it?’ This line, in particular, kills me. Why can’t you be happy with your lot, why must we be forever dissatisfied? Forever looking over our fence, forever wondering if we’ve done enough, forever busy wasting emotion and time and energy being resentful of what we don’t have and of those who might have more. This line reminds me of another from the recent Oscar-nominated film Whiplash, in which J. K. Simmons’ character says something to the effect of, ‘there are no two worse words in the English language than “good job”.’

He, like all of us, seeks greatness. Being satisfied with good is anathema to him; complacency kills the artist, whether the artist is aware of it or not. Graham, here, is hardly talking about the artistic process, her net is broader and more encompassing than that, but nonetheless, she angles in the opposite direction.

To have experienced joy
as the mere lifting of hunger
is not to have known it
less.

One could argue that the lifting of hunger, while the simplest joy, brings about the most intense experience of it – one we lucky few take for granted, perhaps inured to it by repetition – but that is not what Graham does here. She is not setting it up in competition with any other joy, no matter how rare the achievement or experience which sparks it, she is instead saying they are qualitatively the same. Joy is the great leveller.

There are moments in our lives which, threaded, give us heaven—
noon, for instance, or all the single victories
of gravity

The poet, having personified the world as reluctant, stubborn and sullen, is urging it/us to consider the miracles of the every day; the miracle of not being hungry, the divinity of noon, the wonder of gravity being just right constantly, without which we would be crushed prone or else lost to space, or any other number of horrible fates. This is a simple but powerful message, delivered with exacting skill, with consummate wisdom. Graham reminds us, too, that no matter how bad things seem now – to set us so at odds with the world, with the season, to have us digging in our haunches – “nothing again will ever be this easy”.

It’s a reminder I desperately needed this week. As bad as things are for me financially, as difficult as I’m finding the increased attention to my work, I am phenomenally lucky; I still have my health, my mind; I am still willing and able and physically capable of doing everything I want to do. Time will gradually rob me of these things, and nothing again will ever be this easy. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but it is of vital importance that I remember to enjoy this moment, one of many which, if threaded together, make up heaven.

You can read this beautiful poem here.

Thursday Poem: Museum of Tolerance by Michael Miller

Quick Personal Note: Hello to my new subscribers, all 450+ of you! It’s been an absolutely crazy week for me, both in terms of blog follows, and professionally. Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, whose work I wrote about here last year, reached out to me recently and has had a few poems of mine translated into Arabic and published in his newspaper. If you can read Arabic, you can check that out here. If you can’t, well, join the club.

It is a surreal experience to see my words in another language, in a language ostensibly my own, no less. I can speak a little bit of Arabic, but my ancestral tongue is otherwise lost to me. I’m taking lessons now to rectify this, to – as Najwan said to me – chase my poems into Arabic. I’m also incredibly happy to announce that my poem America, You Sexy Fuck has been shortlisted for the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets! I wrote that poem while I was traveling across America last year, and I knew then and there that it was different to anything I’d written before, that it marked a new beginning for me as a poet, and I’m just so thrilled to see that belief validated by others, to have it get this kind of recognition.

But that’s enough babbling about me, let’s get to the good stuff, the excellent poem ‘Museum of Tolerance’ by Michael Miller. I love everything about this poem, from the start to the finish, to the subtle movement of the lines themselves. Movement is important here, not just because of the rhythm and musicality which propels the piece, but because the poem begins almost at a run:

The shirtless man by the ticket counter
  has already broken the gloom here, his crowd
    of two boys and the cashier with the Star of David
      gathered around and mouthing astonishment

There is a sense that we’ve come in mid-way, the scene is already unfolding. This opening stanza does a heroic amount of work in such a short space; we know where we are, who we’re dealing with, and have a sense of both atmosphere ‘broken the gloom here’ and subject matter. It sounds dull, breaking it down into its composite bits there, but read those four lines again, and nothing changes; it’s still interesting, still propels you onward into this story about stories. The kind we tell after major events, the kind we tell each other, the morbid fascination we have with survivors, the way we flock to them both personally and as a media collective.

It is this which Miller dissects so brilliantly in this poem, this man who survived the Holocaust, recounting the stories behind his scars. Is he embellishing, when he says he split a real Nazi’s lip? It doesn’t matter. It’s the treatment of him that matters, as an object equal parts sacred and spectacle. Not for nothing does Miller mention the packed tightness of churches and carnivals.

Are they
  all survivors here, dazed and exhilarated
    by the fate that dropped them so far from blight?
      A father heads the line, shirt fat with muscles

That last line is perhaps my favourite in the piece, such a simple description, so expertly rendered. The contrast is so fucking juicy, so delightful ‘shirt fat with muscles.’ Ah! There are plenty of reasons to admire a poem, and this one in particular has a dozen different angles from which its light can be seen and appreciated, but for me, a surprising description of the otherwise ordinary will always standout the most. The unexpected is always delightful in poetry.

If that was all Miller accomplished, I’d probably still have chosen this poem, honestly, but that he manages to go beyond that and deliver an important message about survival and tolerance in its own right, elevates this piece to another level. I don’t want to dilute the power of that message any more by talking about it; as ever, I want you to read it yourself.

Thursday Poet: Philip Levine

This week, the poetry world suffered a great loss: Philip Levine passed away.

I’ve been chewing over that line for the past hour or so, writing a dozen different paragraphs and deleting them. Leaving only it. It’s a problematic line, in so many ways, but I think my major issue with it is the specification of world – the poetry world suffered. I think every world suffered this loss, his family’s especially and most obviously, the physical world, but my first instinct was to say poetry, which was his world. My world. Our world. Does that justify its placement there? I’m not sure. I’m not thinking right now, only writing, discovering each thought as it emerges from beneath my fingers.

The next issue is this one: is this truly a loss for poetry? I’m not so certain anymore. Let me explain. Last year, I wrote about his extraordinary poem ‘What Work Is’, and how I discovered him and his work at a live reading hosted by the New Yorker Festival. Afterward, I emailed my old poetry professor, Australian poet Judith Beveridge, to rave about the event and this man who had opened my eyes with such ease. I did so not just because I wanted to share my joy, as I do each week here, but because during the Q&A which followed the reading, Levine talked about letter writing and how he had maintained a 15-year correspondence with a random individual who had written to him once. In short, he talked about the importance of mentorship, and how much could be gained from communication.

So I wrote to her, and it turns out she’s been a fan of his work since her 20s, and she’d met him at a poetry festival over a decade ago. We talked about him for a while, and she promised when I got back to Sydney (I was abroad at the time), we’d catch up and she could loan me some of his books (which I couldn’t afford). Fast forward to this month, I’ve been back in Sydney for two months, and I finally arrange to see Judith in a week and get these books. Two days later, I hear the news that Mr. Levine has passed away, news which entirely recasts the tenor of the catch up, the poetry exchange I was to have. Now it was to be less an excited sharing of a voice still booming in the air, and more an exchange of echoes. A memoriam. Or so I thought.

Judith gave me several of his books and now I have weeks worth of his words to read, to live in, and in reading them I have discovered I can still hear his rough voice as if he were standing next to me. I am glad of that, so very glad, but that is not why I am saying he is not lost — I’m not going quite so Amazing Grace as that — it just strikes me that the loss we have suffered is a future one. It is the future which is robbed of any new work of his. Any new love. The past is full of it, so very full, and I thought it would be easy, so easy to pick a poem of his to celebrate this week, but I’ve spent the past two days swimming in his work, online and in these books, and I can’t pick a single one. There’s simply too much excellence.

Now I see that ‘loss’ is the wrong term to use, at least for me personally. It’s less of an absence and more a cessation, as of rain or a river or both that over the course of a lifetime filled a great basin, and at the end, left behind a lake. A huge, shimmering lake, the kind brimming with wildlife, bordered by trees – spears of green pointed at the sky, and drooping paint brushes both, the faded fraying brush tops leaking emerald into the rippling blue – which we can row across at will. Or admire from a distance, or dive into. Each time I choose to dip my toe into it, I find the waters are a different hue, a different temperature: sometimes he sends chills racing across my skin, up and down my spine, and other times it is a warm rapture.

So, yes, Philip Levine has sadly passed on, but there is so much left behind, so much yet to discover, that for me at least, it would be far too premature to say I have lost anything, when there are yet worlds of him to gain. On that note, I will link you now not to a single poem but to the extended catalogue of his poems available on the wonderful Poetry Foundation website. Whether you take a lunch break, a half day, evening or weekend, you cannot go awry with time spent on this man’s lake.

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I can never say no to love.

Thursday Poem: Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming by Thomas Lux

I wanted this to be easier.

I wanted to pick a poem I could just rave about and be done with, not because I like simple poems or any such thing, but because I’m tired and coming off a cold, but no, I saw this poem shared by The Academy of American Poets on Facebook earlier today and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.

There’s a lot to love about Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming with its sweeping universalism – the tapestry of experiences, small and intimate and vividly specific but which we can all relate to – and a lot to sift over, to wonder at. We begin with the declarative title, emphatic in its twofold certainty: the world is broken, an unbroken one is coming.

The very first line immediately counters it with a question: It must be coming, mustn’t it? The contrast immediately sets up the narrator, the poet as unreliable and so it’s difficult to trust what follows. The skill of the poem however, is that you do, buoyed by your own optimism no less as we come to the heart of the poem – a simple summation of humanity itself, as seen through the prism of our most basic desires and actions.

…Churches
and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.

Lux abruptly shifts out of this mode, as fast as the bullet metaphor he uses to do so. It proves only a brief interruption before the soliloquy on universal pleasures resumes, now more emphatic and explicit in its reaching:

It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.

Were the poem to simply continue in this vein, I think I would still love it, for saying what needs to be said and saying it plainly. Sometimes poetry needs no varnish. But instead, it returns to the creeping uncertainty with which the poem began. “And if there is a long train of cattle cars”, it’s no big deal we’re assured, it’s just heading to the abattoir. The problem with that assurance is it no longer rings quite true, and the following lines now acquire a kind of desperation which belies its earlier optimism:

The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!),

He wants it to be around the corner, he sees the tenets of basic decency all around, so it must be so, right? Right? That questioning lingers, as does the final ambiguous image of the poem. The more I think about it, the more ominous the cast of the entire poem, the more I feel tricked. I, like the poet, wanted so much for that reaffirming humanity to continue to be outlined, the common ground, the things we’ve all (and it is all of us, right? …Right?) felt or lived or desired, but ultimately, that quavering note is bound to enter our voices. Ultimately, we’re just not sure.

Perhaps that is for the best, as Bertrand Russell says: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

For reminding me of that, and for lifting me, however briefly, out of a wan day, this is my poem of the week. Give it a read.