a wind interrupted

60 years ago, in October 1955, Ginsberg published the first part of his famous poem ‘Howl’. This is a poem in response.

a wind interrupted

after Ginsberg

I have yet to see the best minds of my generation emerge
beneath polluted smog lit stars,
let alone suffer the ecstasy of destruction, the implosion
of intellect and idealism uncoiling
in lurid imagery in a poem few of them have read or know of
except for that movie with the guy
from Harry Potter in it being gay and risqué and getting fucked –
did he howl? – nobody knows.
I wish I saw my generation raving through the streets for longer
than it takes a body to cool or a name to fade
or a scandal to be replaced; I wish the miracle of revelation
still deigned to grace mad men
and mad women to write poetry in whorls of smoke
and perhaps they still do, if you count the barrels of guns recently emptied
of hot lethal sonnets into movie theatres and churches,
summer camps and school rooms. When governments automate death
to drop from distant drones and the police punish
rather than protect – when injustice remains the voice of the state,
the creed of the nation, and the angels no longer fly,
their once-glorious wings clogged with filth & the detritus of coal –
the best minds should blaze while streets shudder
beneath the stampede of callused feet on the march at last.

Ginsberg, where lies the wounded genius of now?
Where the genesis for today’s inspiration, where the originator,
the guiding thought-spirit for eruption?
For all the cock and endless balls and winged semen in your words,
was nobody impregnated, has nothing come of it?
Perhaps it wasn’t a matter of shooting blanks but of contraception
too rigorously applied, of conservatism run wild,
stomping heedlessly on logic and reason in the pursuit of putting a bullet
in Change, the one universal constant
beyond even Time, which struggles to stay present even here, even now,
and who can blame it when we cannot help
but repeat ourselves? If you saw the Black corpses in the street,
you might wonder what time it was too,
and if you saw the blown-to-fuck remnants of the Middle East,
you might wonder what year it was too,
and only the disappearing birds and bees, the species withering
before the wasted flame of our reckless youth,
only they and the rising sea might let you know you are a ghost in my poem,
in this future machine.

My generation, who pickle their minds in lethargic ordinariness,
who believe empowerment lies
in bursts of 140 characters & digital thumbs up, a revolution
of resolution, high pixel quality,
a carousel of images and text mutating like the diseased state
they seek to claim – who entertain
an inactive activism glibly encouraged by the establishment –
know nothing of the majesty
you can find in a curled red leaf, and everything of hopelessness
in the face of supernatural corporations
owning everything. My generation, who plant their heads in sterile mud
while forests recede into stumps & lakes into sludge,
have bought hook line & sinker the delicious idea that nothing we do matters
so why vote, why protest, why make a fuss
why shake things up, hey people are working here, don’t you have a job
come on now get productive, there are prisons to fill
and hands to cover in dirt.

Fetishising the past is the hobby of white men and I will not indulge it,
except to say this: In Vietnam,
relentless coverage of the cost exacted on human bodies erased
the distance between ideology & nation,
between rhetoric & compassion, folding space into itself
so the viewers at home
could smell the stench of a child’s burning hair,
could gag on the dead,
ending a war nobody wanted but which dragged on
through its own hideous momentum –
now, in this digital epoch of imagined violence, viral beheadings
and mounds of bodies blurring together
in Youtube comments, the distance that needs defeating
is the one that stretches between all of us.

This is not a generation who could see Mohammedan angels illuminated
without calling the national security hotline
to purge the pus-filled abscess of fear grown rancid in their own mouths
or gramming it with a filter
hashtagged #bordercontrol #terror #gobacktowhereyoucamefrom;
this is a generation more aware
of the wonders of the multiverse and the billion-billion planets spinning
in distant galaxies than any who came before,
but who remain inured to its coruscating charms, who pass
through universities and emerge with more chains,
not less; who live out of time, out of country, localised entirely
in codes and avatars and surges of data approximating
a tepid zeitgeist of humdrum middle class angst. These people,
my people, so inventive and innovative when it comes
to creating applications facilitating a quick fuck – one thumb swipe
and a barrage of stats like 6ft 1, 85 kgs, 6” cut cock,
dominant top no old fatties please, young white things preferred,
every physical dimension & want outlined
in boxes so as to arrange an economic exchange of fluids,
an attempted discharge of a core emptiness
which at best is deferred briefly, then worsened.

This is not a generation willing to stare an impossible future in the face
and run full speed toward it regardless,
rearranging the possible with a wildness even this heaving
magma-fuelled rock of thrashing seas and endless sky cannot match.
When yesterday’s rock-throwers conquered the moon
and left its bitten corpse to hang on a cord of stars, haunting our nights,
they launched us beyond ourselves, defining the reachable
cosmos. Now we shrink from the vastness of space
and the scope of science, now we cower from a burning tomorrow
already sending seraphim crashing comet-like to earth,
for they, like us, exist both now and then and all times at once.
This is a generation (and how dare I use that word!
For whom do I speak except myself?)
who live in carefully orchestrated cycles of outrage and righteousness
which when aired, give the semblance of progression –
look, they say, are we not being heard? this wind, this howl? –
and who no longer need the government
to segregate them, but police their own tribes with maniacal glee, I am this
and you are that and neither can speak of or about the other
but must remain in carefully demarcated zones of safe speech &
acceptable anger. This here is a generation deliriously in need
of a certain kind of madness or dreaming that transfigures all of us beyond
a codified loneliness burned into telephone wires
cat’s-cradling this dying world. I do not want to be the voice howling.
the bell tolling, the azan razoring through
the clatter of heat hazed alleyways only to be lost in the roar
of the subway, the autoplaying advertisement –
we are, as always, beyond the ability of being roused by just one voice,
which is why we need something more
like an enduring scream torn from a million throats
and less like a lone wind, interrupted.

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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Thursday Poem: The Colonel by Carolyn Forché

This week’s entry is a famous poem, “The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché. I actually think I’ve read it before, a year or two ago perhaps, as one of the striking images toward the end had the resonance of familiarity, a kind of echo that said you know this already. 

Forché’s opening gambit addresses this idea of prior knowledge in the opening line:

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house.

There is so very much to love about this sensational poem, this model of efficiency, but all of it comes back to this opening. The assumption that you already know the story sets the tone – one of confession and anticipation – then follows it with the physical scene, which immediately layers it with an ominous foreshadowing. Five little words: I was in his house. And you shudder, because we as a culture and a society know that spells worry, that spells violence – we know that story too well. In a sense, even though you likely come to the poem not actually knowing what the first line refers to, you find out as I did, that really you do, and this idea of what we’re conscious of hearing and what we choose not to remember plays out throughout the poem.

WHAT YOU HAVE HEARD is true. I was in his house. His wife carried
a tray of coffee and sugar. His daughter filed her nails, his son went
out for the night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol on the
cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on its black cord over
the house.

Earlier, I used the word ‘confession’, but although that is implied by the first line, the more accurate term which is borne out by the style of the poem is reportage. This is a report, a statement, almost as if given in court, and this is very deliberate, coming from the poet who coined the term ‘poetry of witness.’ It helps that the story itself is a true one, this is non-fiction, but the journalistic element is only one of many skilfully employed here.

Note the short declarative lines, fleshing out innocuous domestic details to relieve the tension built in that first sentence, which then returns three lines later: ‘a pistol on the cushion beside him.’ It is a delicate dance, the weaving of tension, and Forché executes the steps perfectly. She never quite lets you forget it, though the reel of short precise details propels you so quickly along that it slides easily into the background. Then, of course, there is that gorgeous little line, and possibly my favourite of the lot: ‘the moon swung bare on its black cord over the house.’ The immediacy with which that brings to mind an image of a dinky black and white film, one we have all seen, is stunning. Just because she has adopted a plain reporting aesthetic does not mean she is incapable of peppering the scene with adroit descriptions, with beautiful imagery.

…The parrot
said hello on the terrace. The colonel told it to shut up, and pushed
himself from the table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries
home. He spilled many human ears on the table. They were like
dried peach halves.

After several more excellent lines bringing the scene to life, we come to it here, the tension slowly ratcheting upward with as simple a moment as the colonel telling the parrot to shut up – it comes not just from the act itself as the revelation of his military status. Then, the grocery sack, another layer of domesticity and in it, the horror. It is the absence of horror, however, which is so striking in the scene, the ordinariness of the moment to him, and in the description. ‘They were like dried peach halves.’ That’s the line that rung bells in my head, that said you know this, and I did. There’s a lot to love, to admire about this exquisite poem but like all great poems, it is exemplified in the ending:

He swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held the last
of his wine in the air. Something for your poetry, no? he said. Some
of the ears on the floor caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the
ears on the floor were pressed to the ground.

Here, we come back to the idea of what we’ve heard prior to reading the poem, to what we know, consciously and subconsciously. To how we turn away, how we engage in a collective forgetting. Some of us, even disembodied and on the floor, still hear it, still witness it, and some of us have our ears pressed to the floor. Crucially, there is no judgment, just as there was no tangible horror, no emotive words, and it makes all the difference.

There is a lot of circuity in poetry, and it is a very popular belief that the ending should mirror the beginning, but I wouldn’t recommend it, personally — there is a risk of it being too neat, too contrived, and if you aim for it, that is often how it will turn out. Personally, I prefer a little ugliness, a rough cut, but then too there are times when it all comes together with a synergy as complete as this, and you just have to bow your head and say bravo (if the poem isn’t yours) and thank fuck, if it is.

Thursday Poem: Rilke’s “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes.”

So, I think by virtue of the fact that I often come across poems on social media and the web, I have (broadly speaking) managed to cover predominantly modern poems by living poets. The dead don’t get much play here, except for the recently departed. There’s nothing wrong with that, and that tends to be my focus anyway: what’s happening now, not so much what happened before. That doesn’t mean I pay no attention to the classics or the past, of course I do – without historical context, you will only be seeing part of the picture – it’s just that with very little time on my hands and a modern aesthetic of my own, framed by the times, I don’t go out of my way to seek out those older works.

This week, Rilke’s poem “Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes” was suggested to me, and though it has the feel of a flowery ballad, not at all what I seek out in poetry, it nonetheless grabbed me with its beauty, its effortless language. If you’re not familiar with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, here’s a quick primer: Orpheus was a legendary musician whose lament at his wife’s death (Eurydice) was so moving that Zeus granted him permission to go to Hades to see her again. There, his music once again was so great that it moved a god, and Hades said he would relinquish his claim on Eurydice soul and allow her to return to life. The catch? As she followed Orpheus back to the land of the living, he could not turn back, not even once to see her. If he did, she would be gone forever.

The poem begins (as translated by Stephen Mitchell):

That was the deep uncanny mine of souls.
Like veins of silver ore, they silently
moved through its massive darkness. Blood welled up
among the roots, on its way to the world of men,
and in the dark it looked as hard as stone.
Nothing else was red.

Aside from its immediate sombre atmosphere, there is a lilting scale to the language, a soft near rhyme which propels you along. In the first two stanzas, Rilke effortlessly establishes the underworld as a tangible landscape before even introducing his characters:

In front, the slender man in the blue cloak —
mute, impatient, looking straight ahead.
In large, greedy, unchewed bites his walk
devoured the path; his hands hung at his sides,
tight and heavy, out of the failing folds,
no longer conscious of the delicate lyre
which had grown into his left arm, like a slip
of roses grafted onto an olive tree.

“In large, greedy, unchewed bites/ his walk devoured the path.” Fuck that’s good. It says everything you need to know about Orpheus’ state of mind, his desperation to get out of there so he can turn and see his wife, know for sure she’s even there and that this isn’t some cruel trick played by the gods (which, being notorious dicks, they were known to do).

They had to be behind him, but their steps
were ominously soft. If only he could
turn around, just once (but looking back
would ruin this entire work, so near
completion), then he could not fail to see them,
those other two, who followed him so softly:

I love this little passage, especially the parenthesis – I like to think it’s a little meta note on his part, a reminder to himself that he couldn’t stop now when he was midway through the poem, couldn’t go back to edit or rearrange, he had to push on lest it all be for nought. There’s a lesson in that for all of us. And then came the introduction to Eurydice, a shift to her perspective which is where the heart of the poem lies, the depth of the romanticism as well as the meaning, the exploration of death.

A woman so loved that from one lyre there came
more lament than from all lamenting women;
that a whole world of lament arose, in which
all nature reappeared: forest and valley,
road and village, field and stream and animal;
and that around this lament-world, even as
around the other earth, a sun revolved
and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-
heaven, with its own, disfigured stars —:
So greatly was she loved.

“a sun revolved/and a silent star-filled heaven, a lament-/heaven, with its own, disfigured stars –“. Now there’s a line worth repeating endlessly. The alliteration, carrying the ‘s’ sound without leaning on it too hard; the stunning image of disfigured stars. This is the kind of Poetry with a capital P that people often think of when the subject is brought up, and with good reason, given how much of it was written over the course of hundreds of years. The grandeur of emotion; the discovery anew of the world and nature through grief. With any kind of mass saturation, what follows the initially successful work which captured the imagination of readers is inevitably weaker.

But now she walked beside the graceful god,
her steps constricted by the trailing graveclothes,
uncertain, gentle, and without impatience.
She was deep within herself, like a woman heavy
with child, and did not see the man in front
or the path ascending steeply into life.
Deep within herself. Being dead
filled her beyond fulfillment. Like a fruit
suffused with its own mystery and sweetness,
she was filled with her vast death

I love this idea of being deep within yourself, and I think many people, but especially writers, will be familiar with this sense of falling away from the world. Of being rooted in Self, in the inner world whence your feelings and thoughts come, and not wanting to or not being able to leave it. I also love the idea that with death comes fulfillment, its certainty is so great, there is no room for anything else. Too often afterlives are painted in pictures of endless torment or endless pleasure and neither of those things seems to me to be particularly appealing; as human beings, we abhor sameness, and thanks to the gift of consciousness are always aware that everything is changing around us.

The other option tends to be purgatory, which is another kind of punishment. But here, the afterlife begins and ends in death, such is the totality of it – nothing else is needed. Nonetheless a consciousness remains, an awareness and understanding of the state you exist in. It is, in short, like life: when you occupy it, the fullness of it is bursting within you. Things change around you, and you struggle to retain a grasp on the big picture, constantly assaulted not just by the world itself and the advance of time, but also your memories, everything flitting between your grasping fingers. Here, Eurydice is consumed by the state of her existence, unable to grasp what once was but content also in the now. There is a peace in now for all of us, the living and the dead, if only we could learn to live without greedily wrapping it between before and after.

That was my takeaway, anyway – it’s midnight now, and I’m not sure if I’ve conveyed my meaning well enough, but either way I hope I will have convinced you to read this moving poem about life and love and loss, memory and mortality.