Thursday, January 31, 2008

letter press

Don Emblen offered to make a chapbook for me on his letter press, the big one in his garage, a massive metal thing with type you set by hand. In Marcel Proust’s Within a Budding Grove (C.K. Scott Moncrieff translation) the narrator contemplates his ambitions:

“As an author becomes alarmed when he sees the fruits of his own meditation, which do not appear to him to be of great value since he does not separate them from himself, oblige a publisher to choose a kind of paper, to employ a fount of type finer, perhaps, than they deserve, I asked myself whether my desire to write was of sufficient importance …”

Am I that humble? I remember Don describing a poet who came and helped set type for her book. After experiencing what work goes into making the thing she decided, Don said, in the future she would use fewer words.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

dialect in Wuthering Heights

Emily Bronte includes a character in Wuthering Heights who speaks in dialect. Usually his speeches are brief, so when I can’t figure out a word or two I can at least get the gist from the context of the conversation.

But I just came across a paragraph in which Joseph is reporting to Nelly on the goings on at the old house where she used to work and some of it stumps me:

“’Nelly,’ he said, ‘we’s hae a Crahnr’s ‘quest enah, at ahr folks. One on ‘ems a’most gotten his finger cut off wi’ haudin’ t’ other froo’ sticking hisseln loike a cawlf. That’s maister, yah knaw, ut’s soa up uh going tuh t’ grand ‘sizes. He’s noan feared uh t’ Bench uh judges, norther Paul, nur Peter, nur John, nur Mathew, nur noaon ‘em, nut he! He fair likes he langs tuh set his brazened face agean ‘em! And yon bonny lad Heathcliff, yah mind, he’s a rare un! He can girn a laugh, as weel’s onybody at a raight divil’s jest. Does he niver say nowt of his fine living amang us, when he goads tuh t’ Grange? This is t’ way on ‘t – up at sun-dahn; dice, brandy, cloised shutters, und can’le lught till next day, at nooin – then, t’ fooil gangs banning un raving tuh his cham’er, makking dacent fowks dig thur fingers i’ thur lugs fur varry shaume; un th’ knave, wah, he carn cahnt his brass, un’ ate, un’ sleep, un’ off tuh his neighbour’s tuh gossip wi’ t’ wife. I’ course, he tells Dam Catherine hah hor fathur’s goold runs intuh his pocket, and her fathur’s son gallops dan t’Broad road, while he flees afore tuh oppen t’ pikes?’”

Some helpful context: Heathcliff has returned to Wuthering Heights (it’s a house) and is staying with his stepbrother, the inheritor of the house, who has been surly and depressed ever since his wife died in childbirth three or four years previous. Catherine, Heathcliff’s stepsister, has married a wealthy neighbor, master of the Grange.

Now let’s see if I can translate Joseph’s speech:

”Nelly,” he said, “we have [?troubles?] enough at our folks [your former employer’s house]. One of them almost got his finger cut off with [?hauling?], the other through sticking himself like a calf. [Joseph is talking about the men who work the ranch?] That’s master, you know, who is sure of going to the grand assizes. [An assize, according to the Microsoft Word dictionary, is ‘a judicial inquest or verdict’; as Joseph often quotes from or refers to the Bible and Prophecy, I suppose he’s talking here about God’s judgment on the master.] He’s not afraid of the Bench of judges, neither Paul, nor Peter, nor John, nor Matthew, nor none of them, not he! [Joseph’s saying the workmen’s injuries (or somebody’s) are the fault of the master’s inattention & sloppiness? God’s judgment doesn’t worry the master, no sir!] He really thinks he longs to set his brazen face against them. And that pretty boy Heathcliff [‘bonny lad’ is surely meant ironically], mind you, he’s a rare one! He can have a laugh as well as anybody at a right devil’s jest. Does he never say anything of his fine living among us when he goes to the Grange? This is the way of it – up at sundown; dice, brandy, closed shutters, and candle light till next day at noon [Heathcliff is playing dice & drinking brandy in the house by himself? or does he have friends over? he & the master gambling?] – then the fool goes banging and raving to his chamber, making decent folks dig their fingers in their ears for very shame; and the knave, why, he [? ‘carn cahnt his brass’? I haven’t a reading!] … and eat and sleep and off to his neighbor’s to gossip with the wife [that would be Catherine]. Of course, he tells Dame Catherine how her fathers’ gold runs into his pocket [Heathcliff’s?], and her father’s son gallops down the Broad Road while he flees before [?to open the gates? ?the upper peaks?]”

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

a peach

I like it when a poet bets on his metaphor. I mean, really goes all in. Looks at the cards in his hand and sorts them until they tell a story. It won’t always be a winner but it’s a fun strategy and what’s the game for if it’s no fun?

Michael D. Minard:

A Musician Returning from a Café Audition

of the Owner

Now that guy was a real fruit. A peach,
To be exact: smooth, sweet-smelling, kind
To the eye, fuzzily attractive. Oh, but to the reach,
To the closer look, damned if you don’t find
Him a rotten dripper, bruised on the back side,
Brown from sitting on his soft butt;
Past ripe, but unaware that the tide
Of his past-ripeness is flowing, hungry to glut
On his easy pink pulp: O God! drop
A blight on café owners, the entire crop.


I misread this poem several times. The speaker is a musician angry at café owners. I kept reading it as a café owner angry at a musician. I worked up four paragraphs on that reading.

Now that I’m clear on what’s happening I’m not sure what confused me, although I do still find that title & subtitle awkward. How about something like, “A Musician, Returned from an Audition, Complains about the Café Owner”?

The poem’s first sentence is a slur, an anti-gay slur. But the poet immediately checks it with attractive qualities. “A peach”, according to my Microsoft Word dictionary, is “somebody … particularly good or pleasing”. I’ve probably heard it (& used it) more often ironically. But we’ve only begun the metaphor. Like a peach the café owner is “smooth, sweet-smelling, kind / To the eye, fuzzily attractive.” All of this has an androgynous quality – he’s nice but there’s something about him, and that something has traditionally feminine qualities – sweetness, kindness, physical attractiveness.

Suspicion that something is a bit off is confirmed when you look closer, “find / Him a rotten dripper … / Brown from sitting on his soft butt …” This is a bit too clever, chewing the metaphor like scenery. Yet I like imagining a peach sitting on a stool judging the music. The owner is rotten -- because lazy? His tastes are old fashioned? He hasn’t kept up with the times, expects the musicians he books to play the same old tired tunes?

Minard allows in an unrelated metaphor here – “the tide [which] is flowing”. It is a metaphor once removed. The tide is a metaphor for the unstoppable (over) ripening of a peach; it is the sickly sweet rot of the peach that is the metaphor for the café owner’s … the café owner’s what? And whose hunger is it – “hungry to glut / On his easy pink pulp”? The tide’s hunger? Not sure there’s another candidate. What is the effect of the tide’s glutting on the café owner’s soft meat? A blight? The café owner goes out of business? He gets a fatal disease?

The musician doesn’t hold out hope the café owner (this or any other) will wise up and see the musician’s quality. It’s not a stretch to hear a poet talking about an editor, or a poetry reading coordinator.

It’s playful work and I haven’t even mentioned the rhyme scheme. But then it may be the rhyme scheme takes the blame for that overstuffed third sentence.

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Monday, January 28, 2008

birds, pistons, sawblade

I thought Ed Hoeppner’s metaphors a clashing mess. Jim Wayne Miller in his “On the Wings of a Dove” also offers up a disparate set – starlings & doves, pistons, a sawblade. But he sells them well.

… His troubles sat
right under his breastbone, black
as a treeful of starlings, all talking at once.
[Listening to the radio] his mind throbbed and hummed
like pistons under the hood of a good truck
hauling his thoughts over an open highway,
and the lights on the riverbank, and out
on the island got in tune with the bluegass and throbbing
pistons, and his mind turned into a whining sawblade
spinning so fast it grew invisible and quiet

the starlings under his breastbone stopped talking.

Then, white doves rose out of his ribcage
and flew out over the river toward the island.

A man is sitting in his truck, listening to the radio, drinking, looking out at the evening river. He’s a bit depressed, feeling noisy with unpleasant thoughts, his mind working them hard. But the drink and the music soothe him, quiet the noise inside.

I didn’t expect Miller to pull birds, pistons, and a sawblade together successfully. He invests in his metaphors – his thoughts aren’t just revving “like pistons” but “pistons under the hood of a good truck,” not a rattletrap laboring to make it to the next light; though the truck is “hauling” rather than traveling light. And the motor of his mind is in tune with the music on the radio, not clashing, so in tune that they become one music, a music that becomes a form of silence, not distraction, meditation. And the music is a tool, sharp and useful, that attracts no attention to itself.

Now the birds come back. They come back to listen to the perfected music so are silent themselves. And through their silence they are transformed from a chaos, noisy & black, to a peace, white & light, rising with no additional effort over water already hosting the sparkling lights of night fishermen.

Rather than a clashy collage these metaphors feel like transformations. The sort of thing that happens without effort in dreams every night.

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Jonathan London

For twenty years I’ve remembered two things about the Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980 -- that there’s a poem in it that uses imagery from The Wizard of Oz, and that there’s a poem in it by Jonathan London. I haven’t come across the Oz poem yet. But I will, I’m sure.

I remember the Jonathan London poem because Jonathan London was someone I knew. Not well, really. But he was a Sonoma County resident, west. I’d heard him read for the Russian River Writers Guild and he had a book, a small one. For a long time I owned the book; it had a lizard on the cover. I don’t remember the title.

When I began working for the Berkeley Public Library I would work at the North branch and, while at the circulation desk, would sometimes overhear the children’s librarian doing story hour. One of his favorites at the time seemed to be Froggy Gets Dressed. Little Froggy struggles with each piece of clothing and the librarian’s voice would accentuate the effort. I was pleased to learn the author and the Sonoma County poet were the same. London’s been making his living from his writing for years now. Good for him.

For those of you who haven’t read any of London’s poems, well, here’s the one that appears in Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980:

Batches of New Leaves

for Maureen

batches of new leaves
spurting green out the window
backyards filling up
with bird song
as i sit gazing
seeking snatches
of poetry
and then you come
swinging braids
running cold fingers
down my back
beneath my shirt
pressing crotch to my shoulder
dipping and encircling my nose
with lush warm lips
as the heat comes on and rises
from between the legs
of this desk straddling me
it’s just a tender moment
and you say goodbye
as you swing away
leaving me
to fill my hands with
this poem for you


Read it to your kids, folks!

Saturday, January 26, 2008

he hates tipping, too

"Tipping confounds me because it is not a reward but a travel tax, one of many, one of the more insulting. No one is spared. It does not matter that you are paying thousands to stay in the presidential suite in the best hotel: the uniformed man seeing you to the elevator, inquiring about your trip, giving you a weather report, and carrying your bags to the suite expects money for this unasked-for attention. Out front, the doorman, gasconading in gold braid, wants a tip for snatching open a cab door. The bartender wants a proportion of your bill, so does the waiter, and chambermaids sometimes leave unambiguous messages with an accompanying envelope, demanding cash. It is bad enough that people expect something extra for just doing their jobs; it is a more dismal thought that every smile has a price."

That's Paul Theroux in Dark Star Safari: overland from Cairo to Cape Town. He's on a cruise on the Nile, looking at ruins.

Friday, January 25, 2008

the reverse page

Careful description works well as poetry. The poet seeing, and putting down what is seen.

Careful description often requires a vocabulary that captures precise distinctions. In my own poems I tend to flee into metaphor, especially a story-heady metaphor that turns an object into a character in motion rather than a stone made of this mineral and posed on this slope. It’s fun. And you don’t have to fact check.

With the advent of the internet, research is so much easier than it’s ever been; for a recent poem I did a bunch of research and tried to incorporate the results, something I’ve always wanted to do but – well, one could spend hours and hours at the library, right? I get distracted doing that.

I would like to be able to describe what I see, not just conjure colorful whirls around it. I appreciate careful description. Reading Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980 I came across “The Library”, a poem by John Logan.

The first half of the poem blathers on about Ireland and tries to conscript the rows of library books into the big old organ by saying they look like organ pipes. OK, OK. But then Logan looks down at one book, propped open in a display case, and he begins to describe what he’s looking at right then:

Its goat skin pages open up for us under glass
in a wooden case. At this place:
a dog nips its tail in its mouth,
but this dog is of ultramarine, most expensive
pigment after gold, for it was ground out of lapis,
and the tail is of the lemon yellow orpiment.
Other figures are verdigris, folium or woad –
the verdigris, made with copper,
was mixed with vinegar, which ate into the vellum
and showed through on the reverse page.
Through the text’s pages run constant, colored arabesques
of animated initial
letters – made of the bent bodies
of fabulous, elongate beasts.


John Logan doesn’t push a metaphor in these lines. He does use some of the specialized vocabulary of the bookmaker, and I love the words – orpiment, folium, woad, vellum. The syntax doesn’t call attention to itself, nor does the poet dance around wearing a florescent ego. I read this over & over.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The stamp that made an impression

Reading “The Super Alkaloid”, one of the short stories collected in Spectral Snow: the dark fantasies of Jack Snow, I found myself experiencing a little flash of déjà vu. I read the following:

“You believe then,” I broke in, “that the theory asserting that the brain retains a history of every sensation, event and scene experienced by the individual, is tenable?”

“Precisely,” Olmsted answered sharply, “nothing, not even the stamp of a foot in childish anger, is left unnoted.”

I knew I’d encountered that stamping foot before. Wasn’t it in a description of the comprehensiveness of Glinda’s Book of Records?

With that amazing new research tool Google I found the passage I was looking for in L. Frank Baum’s Tik-Tok of Oz:

In her magnificent castle, which stands far north of the Emerald City where Ozma holds her court, Glinda owns a wonderful magic Record Book, in which is printed every event that takes place anywhere, just as soon as it happens.

The smallest things and the biggest things are all recorded in this book. If a child stamps its foot in anger, Glinda reads about it; if a city burns down, Glinda finds the fact noted in her book.

Jack Snow was a big Oz fan. When he was twelve he wrote to the publishers of the Oz books, offering to take over the series after Baum’s death. They found someone else.

But twenty years later Snow’s childhood dream came true. He wrote and published two Oz books with Reilly & Lee, the publishers who had brought to print all the Oz books since Baum’s Land of Oz.

And there, as well, in Snow’s own Magical Mimics in Oz was the child and the stamping foot:

Glinda's Great Book of Records is a marvelous book in which everything that happens, from the slightest detail to the most important event taking place anywhere in the world, is recorded the same instant it happens. No occurrence is too trivial to appear in the book. If a naughty child stamps its foot in anger or if a powerful ruler plunges his country into war, both events are noted in the book as of equal importance.

Magical Mimics in Oz was published in 1946. “The Super Alkaloid” first saw print in Jack Snow’s collection of short fiction, Dark Music and other spectral tales which was published in 1947. I don’t know whether Jack Snow consciously noted his use of the stamping foot in both places, if so he probably didn’t figure it mattered. Or maybe he thought of it as a tribute to Baum.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

a fateful deficit

I found a bag of purchases from the 2004 Alternative Press Expo. It was hiding behind the mountain of sampler CDs I just finished selling off (and giving away). One of the items in the bag was a collection of scary stories by Jack Snow, author of two of the Oz books. The collection, Spectral Snow, was published by Hungry Tiger Press and illustrations by Eric Shanower are included. They do manage an old pulp action illo feel. Some of the stories originally appeared in Weird Tales.

In “Dimension of Terror” – sounds like an EC title, don’t it? – the first person narrator is honeymooning at a mountain lake. Curiously, there’s a fresh new island in the middle of the lake. What better way to start their lives together than on a lark, he and his sweetie decide, be “the first humans to set foot on that newly born shore.”

Ah but had our narrator “the slightest suspicion of the true origin of the island, the very thought of setting foot on its accursed ground would have chilled me with revulsion.” Later, it’s suggested the island was a meteor. A meteor from Hell?

“If only we might have faintly suspected the unutterable terror that lurked there for us on that island, we would have shuddered at the mere hint of its exploration!” Sadly, they went forth with nary the faintest of unuttered hints, a paucity of slight suspicions, a fateful deficit in the very thought department. Poor kids.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Bronte as EC

I’m reading Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Not long ago I read a version of Wuthering Heights in the comic arts anthology Drawn and Quarterly, volume 5. At the time I remember thinking, as I was planning to read the novel, perhaps I ought to skip the comics adaption. I didn’t.

The writer-artist R. Sikoryak renames the story, “The Crypt of Bronte”, and presents it as an EC comic. EC’s most famous title is probably Tales from the Crypt; it was the inspiration for an HBO series. You’ve had the experience, haven’t you, of only half-remembering a story when seeing an adaptation of it but nevertheless recognizing scenes or plot turns just as they come up? So it is with Wuthering Heights. I don’t remember how the Sikoryak comics adaptation turned out but, now & then, as I read Bronte’s original, drawings from the comics version swim up from the darkness to illustrate a scene.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ted rescues a bat

Here’s an excerpt from “9 Willow Street” in Birthday Letters, the book of poems by Ted Hughes:

Something under the chestnuts
… black, soft, wrinkled,
Was wrestling, somehow, with the fallen
Brown, crumpled lobe of a chestnut leaf.
Suddenly, plainly, it was bat.
A bat fallen out of its tree
Mid-afternoon. A sick bat? I stooped
Thinking I’d lift it again to tree-bark safety.
It reared up on its elbows and snarled at me,
A raving hyena, the size of a sparrow,
Its whole face peeled in a snarl, fangs tiny.
I tried to snatch it up by the shoulders
But it spun, like a fighter, behind its snarl.

A crowd collected, entertained to watch me
Fight a bat on Boston Common. Finally
I had to give it my finger.
Let the bite lock. Then, cradling it,
Gently lifted it and offered it up
To the wall of chestnut bark. It released me
And scuttled upwards backwards, face downwards,
A rearguard snarl, triumphant, contorted …

What a mensch. But, uh, Ted, you let it bite you? Not till he gets home does he remember, American bats have rabies.

Naturally, the encounter is highly symbolic, and Ted makes sure we don’t get away from the poem without a good talking to about it, but I won’t go down that path.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

smelling the cat

Here’s a fun one by Margaret Holley, for those of you who like to press your face into your kitty’s tummy:

Your Woods

I can’t do it often.
My wild cat sleeps
splayed on the sofa,
underchin up like a fishbelly,
a floating wreckage
on the airy currents
of his birdstorming dreams.

Gently, I lower my face
into the downy fur
and its scent of clean oils,
woodsmoke and rosemary,
and this fragrant memory
so subtly awakening
and so tentatively kneading
its claws into my temples.


source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Saturday, January 19, 2008

skate, sword, pocketwatch

In his poem “From Garvey’s Farm: Seneca, Wisconsin” Ed Hoeppner offers us this sentence:

On clear nights, the moon goes
skating past the northern lights
which flicker like the sword outside Eden;
if it’s cloudy, the stars drop
their pocketwatches: snow comes ticking down.

That’s a skate, a sword, and an uncountable number of pocketwatches, three very different metaphors in one sentence. I picture the stars getting fumbly with their pocketwatches, disturbed, no doubt, by the swishing of that weirdly pretty sword, just as the moon swooshes by backwards in one of those skin tight skate racer suits.

Then he bothers the old paperboy in me:

The paper is late, comes in a pickup.
Spread on the kitchen table, it says
that the boy who usually delivers
has dropped from an iceboat
into the moving water below the dam.

Too bad. But there’s good news:

The weather promises to hold:
another clear night, another moon
skating …

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Friday, January 18, 2008

thoughts on “Grave”

So last night in bed I was thinking about Elizabeth Flynn’s “After Grave Deliberations …” (posted yesterday). I was thinking it would be better if she hadn’t made the body she sent God so literal. She wants the “ashes slipped into / an 8 x 10 manila envelope” … then when the Divine poetry editor decides, nope, not for us, back she will be returned to herself, presumably to live another life, or something. Something other than death, yes? This reading is made more difficult by the literalness of the ashes, the already destroyed body. How does that live on “elsewhere”?

Maybe if the body was more metaphorical to begin with, as in:

When my life is finished
I shall fold it twice,
join it with a cover letter
and an envelope, stamped & self-addressed,
and send them together, sealed with one wet kiss
to God in His capacity, etc.

Then when God rejects this submission, sending it back to be offered elsewhere, the reader’s imagination wouldn’t have to deal with a gritty bunch of cremains.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

rejection as new life

Those of you who write and send work out in hopes someone will publish it, have strong feelings about the process, I’m sure. Have you written a poem about it? In Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980 there’s a poem by Elizabeth Flynn that turns the often discouraging process around. You type up your poems, you fold them in thirds, you jam them in an envelope with another envelope helpfully stamped & addressed to yourself. After a few months that envelope returns to you full of your poems, and “a neat note / acknowledging [your] insight and … craft, / [and] regretting that [your poems] do not … fit … [the magazine’s needs].”

Here’s what Flynn does with the scenario:

After Grave Deliberations …

When I Go
it should be by cremation,
my ashes slipped into
an 8 x 10 manila envelope
with a second (stamped and self-addressed)
inside, posted to God
in His capacity as editor
of Everything.

I stand
a better than even chance
of being returned to myself,
along with a neat note
acknowledging my insight and my craft,
regretting that I do not,
at that time, fit
His divine needs,
wishing me luck in placing myself

[ellipsis in original title]

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

poem as metaphor, another

Most of my poem poems are quite short. Most of the poem poems I run into in my reading are actually parts of larger poems. The poem will go on about this or that and at some point the poet will refer to the poem as though it were a creature, or physical object, the poem itself will take on metaphorical qualities. Excised these passages would, I think, be poem poems. Among the denunciations in Joseph Duemer’s “Curses” are two directed at the poem:

Damn poem, dead on the page, accident
victim. Damn that it expects me
to read it from its blue coma.

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Ah, sex. Here’s the version in Rhoda Donovan’s “No Signal for a Crossing”:

He rides me like a locomotive
chug and chug and chug and chug.

I am a stuffed dummy, tied to the tracks.

source: Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980

Monday, January 14, 2008


It is not included with the dictionary that comes with Microsoft Word. This is the context (from Margery Dodson’s “Poem”, discovered in Anthology of Magazine Verse 1980):

Entombed in my heart no blood flows to you.
Shadows shine and forget, streamers of strength suck me
great as with child into the etoffe of living.
Who can say what a stone within a stone will do?

I always try to get a word from context before I look it up. Etoffe is posed opposite the “tomb” and “a stone.” So I’m guessing it is a vibrancy, a fertility (joined as it is “with child”).

I ran a Google definition and got only French. Running those through Babelfish I get a compromise definition: richly colored, densely woven, packed with intense but harmonious flavor.

The trouble with all that is, it doesn’t do much for the poem.

Dodson ends “Poem” thus: “walk hand in hand / each long and lovely day, the rutted rue.”


Your turn.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

poem as metaphor

The poem itself can be metaphor. In Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry Patricia Ikeda’s “Wild Iris” has the poem growing rather like a plant. The poem grows its own way, defying some of the poet’s preferences, “I wanted to describe the wild iris / … / But instead this poem wants to express …”

The poet muses about the state of the world & family life, what she “knows” about this or that, then comes back to her perplexity at the poem, “I cannot guess / what this poem wants to be, growing / … into my life. … This poem says / it doesn’t want to end … / … it wants to rise up / amid the ordinary course of our lives.”

Perhaps the poem as metaphor is a genre. I know I’ve written many variations.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

hackneyed language & cliches

Another poet in Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry, this one familiar and a favorite, John Yau.

He uses a technique in “Angel Atrapado XX” that I like. It’s a way to make tired old phrases work for you, revivify them. Take a cliché like … oh … Kill two birds with one stone. (I just heard it on an episode of the TV show Rome; I turned to Kent and said, “Caesar coined that phrase, first time it was ever said. So it wasn’t a cliché yet.”) So you have Kill two birds with one stone, right? What you do is you feed the reader enough of it that they think they know what to expect, then you give it a little twist: One lady watching the chef whispers, “All that stuffing! He’s gonna fill two birds with one stone!” (Stone, the weight measure, right?)

When the words start coming the reader thinks all necessary work on understanding was done years past and the phrase can slip effortlessly into that slot in the brain shaped for it, but then what was supposed to fit doesn’t quite and the brain wakes up a little. The piece has got some puzzle to it after all.

A couple lines from Yau (in no particular order):

This tongue is a flower. Someday you will hear what it has to pay.

… at tall costs.

… the clouds are free for the baking.

I hear this spoken at the edge of repair.

Friday, January 11, 2008


One of the first things that blew me away when I started reading a lot of contemporary poetry (back in the 80s) was the startling metaphor, especially the simile. There hasn’t been so much of that lately, at least in what I’ve been reading. So I had a sense of nostalgia as well as delight when I came across a poem by Juliette Chen in Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry. “Tai Po Mei” has a former inhabitant returning to her old neighborhood. It’s raining:

In the pungent wet
the village huddles like a stray.

Like a stray! That’s both too cute, pathetic, charming, and works for me. The poem crams in a few too many metaphors. By the time the final line has the “Night fad[ing] like an old bruise,” I was thinking that was one too many. Maybe I just don’t like the old bruise.

Oh, here’s the whole thing:

Tai Po Mei

Came back to a discreet rain,
to the shyness of distant lightning
mussing mountaintops.
In the pungent wet
the village huddles like a stray.
Windows flicker with a firefly pulse.
The way dips in the dark.
Now and then a swaying bulb
spills silhouettes of dancing vines
on broken walls, plays its lurching light
over shards of snail.
This trail of shell leads home.
This is home then –
this black iron door
that clangs shut so finally.
This is real then –
the balcony rail under the hand,
the lights that rim the bay
like salt on a margarita,
fishing boats throbbing
to cicada rhythms.
In the night
a rising wind will usher rain
and send the mosquito net flying
like a surrendering flag or sail of mourning.
There will be music
in the agitation of bells,
in random notes struck by moths
alighting on the zither strings.
Like flowing grass
the wavering shadow of gauze
crosshatches the pillow case
to net the flutters of ragged wings.
Fossilized on a wall,
a gecko waits.
Waits for brazen birdsong to flaunt the day.
Waits for sunlight sparkling on jewelled web.
The mat has left its weave on the skin.
Night fades like an old bruise.


I find myself enjoying so much -- the “windows [which] flicker with a firefly pulse”, the “random notes struck by moths / alighting on zither strings.”

I still struggle some how “the wavering shadow of gauze” is “like flowing grass”, and “the lights that rim the bay / like salt on a margarita” had me wondering which country this village was in, whether margaritas are popular in Chinese (or Vietnamese?) villages.

The poem has a cuteness (the lightning mussing mountains, the vines dancing) and a chilliness (“the black iron door / that [prison cell-like] clangs shut so finally”), a too-muchness – really, both a surrendering flag and a sail of mourning?, and the plain observed detail – “the mat [which] has left its weave on the skin” that makes the whole quilt-like, flashy pieces sewn to gaudy pieces sewn to the already a bit worn. I like running my fingers over it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

he wanted to go to Vancouver

So I’m reading Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry, right?, and yesterday I posted about the difficult relationship between the “mainstream” and the margin. Here’s another take, this time from a two part poem by Joy Kogawa. (I’m just going to reproduce the first part.)

Driving down the
highway from Revelstok –
the road built by
forced labour – all the
Nisei having no
choice etcetera etcetera
and mentioning this in
passing to this Englishman
who says when he
came to Canada from
England he wanted to
go to Vancouver too but
the quota for professors
was full so he was
forced to go to Toronto.

Nisei is the word for the children of Japanese immigrants. I like the way the speaker sounds a bit tired of the whole thing, “etcetera etcetera,” do I really have to repeat all this? she seems to say, “mentioning this in passing.”

Ah, yes, the humorous anecdote.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Polish your craft, that small boat

In Premonitions: the Kaya anthology of new Asian North American poetry edited by Walter K. Lew I came across a nice acid satire of multicultural paternalism by Thelma Seto. The poem’s speaker, winner of an arts grant from the Canadian government, wishes to enlist Seto (or some other person-of-color artist) into their project.

First, the speaker offers a couple pieces of advice for the future, and maybe Asian artist will get her own grant next time:

Polish your craft, that small boat.
Learn our structure, that mausoleum.

Later the speaker gets confiding:

We’re glad you were born here
instead of there
which is why we offer you this token
of our esteem,
in payment for making it possible
for us to remain white.

White, not better.
We aren’t the dominant culture,
just mainstream. So dull,
which is why we adore your work.
It adds such color!
How could we be white without your color?

White, as a race, was only imagined once it was necessary to make stark the difference between the master and the slave, the civilized and the native. Up till then your people were your people, those who spoke your language, who lived nearby, who worshipped the same gods, and everybody else, whatever the color, was Them, nice enough maybe, enemies often, but Us was not a color and neither was Them.

Monday, January 07, 2008

their whole story hung – a miasma

I picked up Ted Hughes’ Birthday Letters again this morning. All the poems are directly addressed (“You yourself were a whole Antarctic sea”) to Sylvia Plath, the mother of his two children, wife, a poet whose fame (despite Hughes’ being named England’s Poet Laureate) has virtually eclipsed his own, and a woman long dead, a suicide. These poems are fun! Having recently read Plath’s collected poems (edited by Hughes) I’d say Ted & Syl were a good matched pair -- both tending to the histrionic in their poetry (& in their lives!), but with Goth obsessions this side of campy (usually). So much contemporary poetry is restrained to the point of bloodlessness, but these two, they reveled in / sopped in / coughed up blood, pointed at it and went, “Ooh, Daddy, come look!”

Of the house they bought together, the last owner a widow whose husband died in the house, Hughes writes, “She had left the last blood of her husband / Staining a pillow. Their whole story / Hung – a miasma – round that stain. / … / [T]he grease-grimed shelves, the tacky, dark walls / Of the hutch of a kitchen revolted you / Into a fury of scouring. I studied the blood. / Was it mouth-blood or ear-blood, / Or the blood of a head-wound after some fall?”

Hughes paints Plath a freak for cleaniless and modernity, while he claims the wildman title, probably a distinction Plath would have owned, too (more or less), but she needed her wildman, she did, madonna of the churchyard claimed by the old gods.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

male parturition

I’m reading the 1980 edition of Anthology of Magazine Verse, edited by Alan F. Pater. When I first read it a few years after it was published I was not yet copying out poems and I saw reading its 456 pages as an education. I believe returning the book to the library and wondering if I would ever again read poems by those poets whose work I enjoyed or know it if I did, was one of the pushes toward the copying out project. I recognize more of the names now. Haven’t run onto one I know I have to hang onto this time, although I did read this one aloud to Kent (who has a horror of kidney stones):

Thirty Childbirths

by Millen Brand

In James Street,
as if my pneumonia had not been enough,
I started to have attacks of kidney gravel,
human penalty
for emerging from inanimate matter – pain.
The pain of one daylong attack of gravel
has been compared to the suffering
of childbirth. I must have had
thirty attacks. I thought of suicide.
One time an attack lasted three days
and in my male parturition
I screamed like a woman.
Hospitalized in Jersey City,
I had a doctor, assigned by Uncle Sam Cosgrove,
who without anaesthesia pushed a tube
up my penis, and this scalding insertion
let me be flushed with liquid and the liquid
washed out the gravel, or I pissed it out.
No birth, but still
a delivery
giving me back to life.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

love rinses its hair full of stars/starfish

Last night I finished Harold Norse’s collected poems, In the Hub of the Fiery Force. There was one experience reading this hefty tome (615 pages) that I found unusual. I kept having the feeling I’d read a line before, sometimes an entire poem. Now it’s typical for me to flip open a book and read a bit here or there (entire poems sometimes) then when I work my way through the book from first page to last find familiar the piece I’d read before. At first I thought that the most logical explanation for my little bouts of déjà vu. Then I came upon the second of the two poems to follow. And I recognized it immediately and knew the title of the poem of which it was a minor variant.

I’d thought “parapoem 35” one of Norse’s more successful surrealist pieces and used it to generate a text of my own. (Maybe I’ll post that at the LuvSet blog.) So I was primed and when “love rinses its hair full of stars” appeared I could locate “parapoem 35” in but a moment and compare. Since the poem appears under different titles and has a different first line in each case neither the contents page (poems by title) nor the index of first lines would have been much help.

Herewith I reproduce “parapoem 35” and “love rinses its hair full of stars” (Norse uses a variety of indents and spacing that I won’t try to duplicate):

parapoem 35

love rinses its hair full of starfish
the frozen hotel wears a collar of lips
we follow corpses into a lake
of newspapers and dead flags
flowers scream, images sprout from their sticky leaves
a voice proclaims: I ERASE ALL MEMORY!
a man bleeds in the mirror
a radio scratches the sky with raucous announcements
ice cubes take possession of Vesuvius
chimneys write news items in Persian Rose Smoke
a man comes out of the ground saying


love rinses its hair full of stars

the frozen hotel wears a collar of lips
we follow corpses into a lake
of newspapers and dead flags
flowers scream
images sprout from their sticky leaves
a voice proclaims: I ERASE ALL MEMORY
a nun bleeds in the mirror
a radio scratches the sky with raucous announcements
ice cubes take possession of Vesuvius
chimneys write news items in Persian Rose Smoke
a man comes out of the ground singing

Love rinses its hair full of stars


I typed them both to make sure I got everything, though they are so virtually the same that a mere copy & paste wouldn’t have missed much.

Differences: titles; in “love” the line “flowers scream, images sprout from their sticky leaves” is two lines (eliminating only instance of comma); in “para” the bleeder is “a man”, in “love” it’s “a nun”; in “para” the man “comes out of the ground saying / WE HAVE SEEN THE WRECKS OF OUR DAMAGED BRAINS” while in “love” the man is “singing” and what he sings is the title “Love rinses its hair full of stars” (italics in original); and, of course, “para”’s “starfish” has become “love”’s “stars”. If there are any other differences I can’t see them.

Norse notes that he wrote a series of “parapoems” while at the Beat Hotel in Paris. I presume, then, that “love rinses its hair full of stars” is a later revision.

This is the only instance in which I knew how to quickly find & compare a familiar-sounding poem with its earlier appearance. As I suggested above, I suspect there are other poems with twins or substantial pieces of recycled language. I don’t mean when the poet writes more than once about the same incident, I mean when the words are reused unchanged. I can certainly see reusing bits to create new effects (or to recreate old ones) but it seems to me the editor was remiss in including poems so nearly identical.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Best Poems of 2007

As I read a book of poems I keep handy a stack of bookmarks. Should I read a poem I want to revisit I tuck one of these scraps of paper in beside it. I read marked poems several times. After I’ve finished the book and am ready to put it away, I decide whether I can leave the poem behind. If I can’t I copy it out by hand in a notebook. I’ve been doing this for almost twenty years.

These are the poems I copied out in 2007:

Allen Ginsberg … “America”
Amy Allara … “so I would be ready to set about”
David Antin … “Endangered Nouns”
Tsering Wangmo Dhompa … “Third Lesson”
F.J. Bergmann … “Atonal Bisque”
Edward Smallfield … “Secret Lives”
Sara Littlecrow-Russell … “Russian Roulette, Indian Style”
Nikolai Gumilev … “A Baby Elephant”
Pablo Neruda … “Dream Horse”
Sylvia Plath … “Snakecharmer”
Sylvia Plath … “Moonrise”
Sylvia Plath … “In Plaster”
Spencer Selby … selections from “Text From My Visual Book”
Michele Ruby … “Apostrophe”
Iain Crichton Smith … “You Are at the Bottom of My Mind”
Ibaragi Noriko … “When I Was Prettiest in My Life”
W.S. Graham … “Night’s Fall Unlocks the Dirge of the Sea”
Kyle Kaufman … “fog the fold the name the”
Vicente Aleixandre … “The Bottom of the Well”
Else Lasker-Schuler … “Parting”
Yannis Ristos … from “Romiossini (VI)”
John Olson … “The Conservation of Strangeness”
D.L. Emblen … “A Rule to Keep One from Losing a Mountain”
Laynie Brown … from “Daily Sonnets”
Spencer Selby … “Original Veneer”
Emily Dickinson … “914: I cannot be ashamed”
Anna Deavere Smith … “Your Heads in Shame”
Larry Kearney … “The Soul”
Wang Wei … “Magnolia Basin”
Srikanth Reddy … “Circle (I)”
Kirmen Uribe … “The Cherry Tree”
Wang Shih-chen … “Arriving After Rain at the Temple of Heavenly Peace”
Mei Yao-ch’en … “Eating Shepherd’s-purse”
Liu Tsung-yuan … “On Covering the Bones of Chang Chin, the Hired Man”
Essex Hemphill … “Civil Servant”

Best Poems of 2006

Best Poems of 2005

Best Poems of 2004

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

El Raton

Kent and I went to a New Year’s Eve party in San Francisco. We’ve been to the house of these friends many times and I’ve looked at a set of drawings (prints?) on the wall and I’ve found their simple iconic quality appealing. The art was done by the sister of the host. Inspired by cave paintings, he says. Doesn’t know from where. Lascaux? Seems he remembers his sister saying the drawings were based on the famous prehistoric cave paintings of Lascaux in France.

So last night I was sitting and talking and sipping from a glass of champagne and I looked up at the animal shapes in the art and recognized them immediately. The drawings are details from the mural called El Raton near the town of San Ignacio in Baja California. I’ve been researching the cave paintings of Baja as part of the planning for the trip we’ll be making in the spring.

El Raton (The Rat) is apparently named after a dark figure in the mural that looks like a rat. More likely it’s a mountain lion.

Here are some excerpts from Harry Crosby’s description of the El Raton mural in his study The Cave Paintings of Baja California:

“A black mountain lion … painted representations of these animals occupy a special niche in the Painters’ repertory. For some reason … leon figures vary less than any other, animal or mono [human figure]. They all have the same long, stiff, extended tail, the short legs cocked at a similar angle. There is virtually no neck and the round, short-muzzled head is set with small round ears. Most leones are black but several red examples have turned up; the oddity is that these animals are never bicolored. They are unique in this respect.”

The image in this post comes from the bajaquest site (link); the lion is in the middle right, nose pointed up and to the right.