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Washington Post Poet's Choice 
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Post August 9, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'Chives' by Jody Gladding

By Jody Gladding
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Though I've lived in north central Vermont for over 20 years, I've only recently come to appreciate how the summers, even more than the winters, shape us here. There are fewer than 90 days between the last spring and first fall frost. I've seen snow in every summer month. Today it's 50 degrees, and I'm wearing a sweater and warm socks as I write this. But "Chives" isn't a weather report. It's a celebration of the bright surprise of summer, sharpened by the arrival of summer neighbors who wake us to it. Really, "Chives" could be reduced to a little bunch of exclamation points!


Chives

between

the slow dying

green

the difficult birth

there is this green

GREEN!

the summer!

house thrust open

the pollinators' return

.

between

winter just past

hollow

winter looming

pointed

we rise from our cramped beds

in suspended disbelief

.

to people

the generous myth of summer!

its acrid largess

.

"Chives" appears in "Rooms and Their Airs," recently published by Milkweed Editions.



Sun Aug 09, 2009 5:52 am
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Post August 30, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'Content Is King' by Rebecca Wolff

By Rebecca Wolff
Sunday, August 30, 2009

This is the crypto title-poem of my new collection "The King," which in large part has to do with becoming a mother or otherwise encountering -- embracing -- objective reality. I've long been concerned, at times excruciatingly so, with the effort of moving from individual nothingness into communal language, and particularly into speech (check the penultimate line of the poem). In my young womanhood, I experienced an enduring existential paralysis that caused me to have great difficulty in producing spontaneous utterance. This wore off eventually, thank heaven, but even now poetry serves as a fulsome reprieve from any lingering sense of incapacity. In the compositional state one has a merciful conviction. Language arrives, and means. Here it even rhymes, and puns.


Content is King

I queen it

.

over emptiness.

.

I invent it, a surplus,

a bombast of nervous

.

encryption so the process

of blanking becomes

.

isometric -- Pilates.

I think of how clueless

.

and relentless-

ly depthless

.

my mother, nonetheless

she birthed and hers

.

is the aspect

and prospect

.

the matter

and subject

.

and

.

gangway.

I find something to say.

.

The king is content.

Rebecca Wolff is the author of three books of poems, most recently "The King" (Norton, 2009), and the founder of the literary journal Fence.



Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:45 pm
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Post August 23, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'Reading Novalis in Montana' by Melissa Kwasny

By Melissa Kwasny
Sunday, August 23, 2009

"Reading Novalis in Montana" was triggered by my reading, in translation, the works of German romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801). Along with other German poets and philosophers who were precursors to romanticism as we know it, Novalis believed in the doctrine of correspondences, that the natural world is a mirror or lens or double for the divine presences symbolized by it, that there is a correspondence between inner and outer worlds. Such thinking led to Wordsworth and Coleridge's return to nature as a temple and eventually, in America, to the writings of Emerson, Thoreau and Dickinson. Living in rural Montana and being preoccupied by our place in and outside the natural world -- compromised as it is -- I am drawn to both the romantics and the Native tradition of respect for and communication with non-human forms of life. Seeing the geese fly above me one fall morning on my way to get the mail, I began to wonder: What might it mean in this country, at this time, to read the world? What messages do the geese have for me, and, in turn, what part might my attempt at reading play in their flight?


Reading Novalis in Montana

The dirt road is frozen. I hear the geese first in my lungs.

Faint hieroglyphic against the gray sky.

.

Then, the brutal intervention of sound.

All that we experience is a message, he wrote.

.

I would like to know what it means

if first one bird swims the channel

.

across the classic V, the line flutters, and the formation dissolves.

In the end, the modernists must have meant,

.

it is the human world we are weary of,

our arms heavy with love, its ancient failings.

.

But that was before the world wars, in 1800,

when a young German poet could pick at the truth

.

and collect the fragments in an encyclopedia of knowledge.

There is a V, then an L, each letter

.

forming so slowly that the next appears before it is complete.

The true philosophical act is the slaying of one's self,

.

Novalis wrote and died, like Keats, before he was thirty.

They have left me behind like one of their lost,

.

scratching at the gravel in the fields. Where are they

once the sky has enveloped them?

.

I stand in the narrow cut of a frozen road leading into mountains,

the morning newspaper gripped under my arm.

.

But to give up on things precludes everything.

I am not-I, Novalis wrote. I am you.

.

If, as the gnostics say, the world was a mistake

created by an evil demiurge, and I am trapped

.

in my body, abandoned by a god whom I long for as one of my own,

why not follow the tundra geese into their storm?

.

Why stay while my great sails flap the ice

as if my voice were needed to call them back

.

in the spring, as if I were the lost dwelling place for the flocks?

(This poem appears in "Reading Novalis in Montana," published earlier this year by Milkweed Editions.)



Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:50 pm
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Post August 16, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'Elegy with a Mute Bell' by Brian Barker

By Brian Barker
Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Elegy with a Mute Bell" began in a workshop taught by Edward Hirsch at the University of Houston where I was a graduate student. The assignment was to write a poem that addressed the notion of form -- poetic or other -- in some way. At the time, I had been thinking about the relationship between form and function, between form and the essence of a thing. What happens when something loses its form? Does it cease to exist? Does it continue on as a figment of its former self, or does it become something else entirely? If the latter, how much is the new thing dependent on human will or imagination? These are large, abstract questions that are grounded in this poem in one object: a clapperless bell that I took as a keepsake from my great-grandmother's house after her death.

At least, I thought the questions were grounded in the bell. The surprise of the poem -- for me at the time of composition and, I hope, for the reader -- is the imaginative leap in the second section of the poem. Here the questions take on an emotional weight as they address the human form, the body and its inevitable diminishment.

The poem is an elegy, but in rereading it, I can't help but think of it as a statement about poetry itself. Form in the world breaks down, but poetry pushes back against this transience of being. It makes palpable again everything we lose to the unyielding forces of time.


Elegy with a Mute Bell -- in memory of C.M.L., 1899-1982

1.

This is what I've chosen

to remember her by. Not her cabinets

of chipped china, or shelves of porcelain

.

bric-a-brac, or boxes of empty snuff tins,

but a small bell. The carved handle painted

green, and where the green has given way

.

to the pinch of fingertips, worn by oil

and salt, the wood shines, rubbed

to a sheen of blackened honey.

.

Its mouth, once a polished silver, is now

mottled with rust, the deep umber

of a softening pear, and when I lift it

.

only the lip-scrape and hollow clink

of the clapperless tongue: a corroded wire clip

plumbing the bell's vaulted dark.

2.

Imagine what she must have thought

when she picked it up during the night

to beckon the nurse, expecting the perfect

.

high-toned pitch to shimmer over the sound

of the rain dripping from the eaves.

What she must have thought when the bell

.

let go of its lead bob, and it fell

for the first time since being drop forged,

hitting the pine floor and rolling --

.

not the slow, measured roll of the marbles

she played as a girl, but syncopated, skipping,

wobbled by the soldered eyelet --

.

into a black abyss of safety pins and dust.

What she must have thought when she caught

herself still waving the mute bell like a wand

.

and knew she was also disappearing, her body

receding into itself, slipping behind her clavicle,

her rib cage, into unseen fissures of light.

3.

It rests on my windowsill, unrung,

yet upright in its silence. I'm certain

if I lifted it, its absence would be marked

.

on the sill, a black ring, an imprint in the paint.

A bell in form? Yes, but something else,

memory's icon or monument. Or a prop

.

on a stage, the backdrop this: late afternoon,

the sun's gold delirium against the glass,

the tiger lilies bowing their orange-cowled heads;

.

the trellis brocaded with roses, and skirting the fence,

a bramble of blackberries, the ripe fruit glistening

like the small things we lose everyday

.

made palpable again. Starlings swoop from the maple,

snatch the berries, return to their claver and chaos.

They appear iridescent, fat, the berries hardening

.

in their bellies like ballast. Without warning,

the conclave rises, veers, scatters. They go silent,

grow dark as ink, and before disappearing,

.

tumble in failed shapes across the sky.

From Brian Barker's first book of poems, "The Animal Gospels" (Tupelo Press, 2006). He teaches at the University of Colorado-Denver where he co-edits Copper Nickel



Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:52 pm
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Note: The August posts for Poet's Choice are in reverse and mixed up order. Sorry, too much driving done this month to keep up with this tread.



Fri Aug 28, 2009 9:54 pm
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Poet's Choice: 'Ethel's Sestina' by Patricia Smith

By Patricia Smith
Sunday, September 6, 2009

Herbert Freeman Jr., his mama's only son, had spent his entire life at his mother's side. After she raised him, he moved next door. As she grew frail, he moved in with her again.

In the wretched days following Hurricane Katrina, Herbert and his mother waited for rumored rescue from New Orleans' Morial Convention Center. They waited for three days. She died on Sept. 1, 2005, just after asking her son -- yet again -- if the buses were coming.

When the rumbling calvary finally did appear and Herbert was urged to evacuate, he wrote his name and contact number on a piece of paper and positioned it near his mother's hands. Then, for the first time, he left her. After news photographs showed Ethel Mayo Freeman draped in someone else's poncho and curled like a comma in her wheelchair, the 91-year-old woman became a country's abandonment and a sweet city's fall.

In writing this persona poem in Ethel's voice, I wanted her to triumph. I chose the form of sestina (six end words repeated in varying order in each stanza) because it mirrored the way elderly women speak, returning again and again to the same idea, the comfortable words.

(Patricia Smith will be a featured presenter at the National Endowment for the Arts Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival sponsored by the Library of Congress. The festival will take place on September 26 on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.)


ETHEL'S SESTINA

Gon' be obedient in this here chair,

gon' bide my time, fanning against this sun.

I ask my boy, and all he says is Wait.

He wipes my brow with steam, says I should sleep.

I trust his every word. Herbert my son.

I believe him when he says help gon' come.

.

Been so long since all these suffrin' folks come

to this place. Now on the ground 'round my chair,

they sweat in my shade, keep asking my son

could that be a bus they see. It's the sun

foolin' them, shining much too loud for sleep,

making us hear engines, wheels. Not yet. Wait.

.

Lawd, some folks prayin' for rain while they wait,

forgetting what rain can do. When it come,

it smashes living flat, wakes you from sleep,

eats streets, washes you clean out of the chair

you be sittin' in. Best to praise this sun,

shinin' its dry shine. Lawd have mercy, son,

.

is it coming? Such a strong man, my son.

Can't help but believe when he tells us, Wait.

Wait some more. Wish some trees would block this sun.

We wait. Ain't no white men or buses come,

but look -- see that there? Get me out this chair,

help me stand on up. No time for sleepin',

.

cause look what's rumbling this way. If you sleep

you gon' miss it. Look there, I tell my son.

He don't hear. I'm 'bout to get out this chair,

but the ghost in my legs tells me to wait,

wait for the salvation that's sho to come.

I see my savior's face 'longside that sun.

.

Nobody sees me running toward the sun.

Lawd, they think I done gone and fell asleep.

They don't hear Come.

.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Come.

Ain't but one power make me leave my son.

I can't wait, Herbert. Lawd knows I can't wait.

Don't cry, boy, I ain't in that chair no more.

.

Wish you coulda come on this journey, son,

seen that ol' sweet sun lift me out of sleep.

Didn't have to wait. And see my golden chair?

.

Reprinted from "Blood Dazzler," by Patricia Smith, Coffee House Press, 2008.



Sun Sep 06, 2009 12:46 pm
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Post Sept. 13, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'September, 2001' by Valerie Martínez

By Valerie Martínez
Sunday, September 13, 2009

This poem was actually written in the first week of September, before 9/11 and after a particularly terrible spring and summer of suicide bombings in Israel. My anger is apparent. I had no idea what was lying in wait.

What might the afterworld be like for those who take so many lives on their way out? What of those paradisal virgins that some bombers believe wait for them upon their martyrdom? It is with some pause that I share this poem, written in a state that could wreck any work of art. And yet I come back to it, time after time, as I grapple with the political and religious violence now characteristic of the 21st century.

Wallace Stevens, in his lecture "The Noble Rider and the Sound of Words" (1941), discusses the "plea" of poetry and art that enacts "a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality." Stevens considered this a noble act. I wonder how noble, however, if poetry remains primarily private or within the limits of fewer and fewer readers. Good poetry in the public arena, I believe, moves it from the realm of the palliative (in the best sense of the word) to the possibility of the proactive. This is not the only thing that poetry does or should do, but I'm so very glad it sometimes does.


September, 2001

Who scatters the bones, bus stop, sun.

Torso wrapped tight. Trigger button.

How many. Heavy. Much.

.

You with the dark hair. You

with the conviction. You

with your paradisal maidens.

.

Come crashing in.

Deliberate.

.

Surprise.

.

There is no music, no goblets

no table of golden loaves.

If I am virgin, it matters not.

Your eyes are disparate -- knuckles, arms, windows --

blown apart.

.

Now, find your hands

and there is one task:

harvest.

.

This is how the dead work.

.

BECAUSE you have scattered

flesh, marrow, breath,

writ the bloody writ.

.

THUS you'll live every specific

agony. Your own. Each one.

Family. Every friend.

It goes on.

.

NOW gather it.

Make it whole again.

.

Don't ask how.

.

Here you go, wandering:

shrapnel, earlobes,

inky red-blue, bits of bone.

.

Everywhere. Wherever.

.

What? No light?

(and I am so comely)

Messy? Cold?

.

What comes together

.

sparks, makes heat,

sumptuous, whole

and lovely,

.

glows and glows.

(From "World to World," by Valerie Martínez, University of Arizona Press, 2004.)



Mon Sep 14, 2009 6:45 am
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Post Sept. 20, 2009
Poet's Choice: 'Optimism' by Jane Hirshfield

By Jane Hirshfield
Sunday, September 20, 2009



I wrote "Optimism" at a time when the resilience it speaks of was needed. As poets do, I waited for some image or idea to open the hard field those weeks and months were. What came was "crown shyness": the way that trees, rather than compete for light, sometimes withdraw from their neighbors' shade and grow instead toward any available brightness. A basic and exemplary sanity. The poem began, then, at the confluence of personal crisis and ecological pondering. But poems have their own fates, and this one has had many. It's been framed on hospice walls and put into a series of letterpress broadsides responding to the invasion of Iraq. Throughout the 2008 presidential race, I gave it at readings as an expression of hope for our country's saner future. Most recently, a young writer from Zimbabwe, Petina Gappah, used it as the epigraph for her first book. When I e-mailed to ask how that happened, she answered that someone had sent her a copy and she'd thought the words "embodied perfectly the spirit of the Zimbabwean people." Marianne Moore once said, "Poetry watches life with affection." In this spirit, poetry itself is an instrument of resilience, reflecting life's continuing embrace of its own implausible, risky existence. Both poetry and life take whatever challenge comes -- painful or joyous -- as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase possibility, variety, beauty, warmth, endurance. Each holds a limitless capacity to surprise and go on.



Optimism


More and more I have come to admire resilience.


Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam


returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous


tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,


it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.


But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,


mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.

"Optimism" first appeared in "Given Sugar, Given Salt" (HarperCollins, 2001).
Jane Hirshfield will be a featured presenter at the Poetry and Prose Pavilion at the National Book Festival on September 26 on the National Mall from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.



Sun Sep 20, 2009 2:56 pm
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Quote:
Marianne Moore once said, "Poetry watches life with affection." In this spirit, poetry itself is an instrument of resilience, reflecting life's continuing embrace of its own implausible, risky existence. Both poetry and life take whatever challenge comes -- painful or joyous -- as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase possibility, variety, beauty, warmth, endurance. Each holds a limitless capacity to surprise and go on.

From Jane Hershfield's Poet's Choice piece with my bold. This is the best arguement I've ever come across for reading and writing poetry! Poetry is scripture.



Sun Sep 20, 2009 3:07 pm
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Post Readers choice
Jane Hirshfield wrote:

Quote:
I wrote "Optimism" at a time when the resilience it speaks of was needed.


Hello Saffron:

I enjoyed this poem very much. I can see how this poem would be used in hospice facilities. I have to admit, I have printed it out for myself. I am currently in a situation that is testing my optimism, and happiness, and hope, and I appreciate this poem. Thank you. Resilience as a form of optimism, I've never thought of this, but it is true, don't you think?


Jane Hirshfield wrote:
Quote:
What came was "crown shyness": the way that trees, rather than compete for light, sometimes withdraw from their neighbors' shade and grow instead toward any available brightness. A basic and exemplary sanity.


This is beautiful in it's own right. I have seen this in trees. Trees that bend over so far, they look like they may break. This says to me, don't compete for the light, find your own, find your own happiness and find your own hope. This is resilience, and this is optimism. It's difficult sometimes, I for one, rely on certain things for my optimism, but when those certain things are lost, new ones need to be found.

Quote:
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,


mitochondria, figs -- all this resinous, unretractable earth.


Here she adds persistence. I love the mention of turtles, and the persistence of rivers is powerful, and the persistence of mitochondria is relentless.

I have found a lot of meaning and comfort from this poem. I suppose each reader will apply it to thier own set of circumstances, and become more hopeful because of it. After reading it, I can see hope, but through resilience and persistence, maybe I'll find my optimism too.



Sun Sep 20, 2009 7:08 pm
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Saffron wrote:
Quote:
Marianne Moore once said, "Poetry watches life with affection." In this spirit, poetry itself is an instrument of resilience, reflecting life's continuing embrace of its own implausible, risky existence. Both poetry and life take whatever challenge comes -- painful or joyous -- as a lattice for invention, a chance to increase possibility, variety, beauty, warmth, endurance. Each holds a limitless capacity to surprise and go on.

From Jane Hershfield's Poet's Choice piece with my bold. This is the best arguement I've ever come across for reading and writing poetry! Poetry is scripture.


I'll have to make a point of seeing Jane Hirshfield at the Book Festival (which I can do thanks to you!). That statement of Marianne Moore's is splendid. If you contrast that attitude with the prevailing one that is communicated in the media and often is in evidence here on Booktalk (mea culpa, by the way), well, it makes you think. "Watching life with affection" is very different from what we often do in our cultural warfaring, so concerned with drawing battle lines.

Hershfield's use of science interests me. Some people have said that there's an opposition between science and poetry, but not at all. Science is part of the mix in poetry, or should be. I'm reading two biographies of Robert Frost and learning that he was deeply interested in developments in science and was particularly fascinated with evolution. This interest comes out often in the poems.



Last edited by DWill on Sun Sep 20, 2009 7:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.



Sun Sep 20, 2009 7:18 pm
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Post Re: Readers choice
Suzanne wrote:

Hello Saffron:

I enjoyed this poem very much. I can see how this poem would be used in hospice facilities. I have to admit, I have printed it out for myself. I am currently in a situation that is testing my optimism, and happiness, and hope, and I appreciate this poem. Thank you. Resilience as a form of optimism, I've never thought of this, but it is true, don't you think?


Very true, I think! I also am at a point in my life that I feel my mettle being tested and was comforted by this poem. I also love that turtles are mentioned in the poem.

ps Love the Faulkner quote!



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Post Re: Readers choice
Saffron wrote:
ps Love the Faulkner quote!

Hey, did you notice where Suzanne's gem of a quote comes from? It's in our work book group selection, As I Lay Dying, and is the last sentence said by Dewey Dell, on p. 41 in my edition.



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Post Re: Readers choice
DWill wrote:
Saffron wrote:
ps Love the Faulkner quote!

Hey, did you notice where Suzanne's gem of a quote comes from? It's in our work book group selection, As I Lay Dying, and is the last sentence said by Dewey Dell, on p. 41 in my edition.


Nice catch, DWill!



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DWILL:

Did you like "As I Lay Dying"? I had a difficult time with the dialogue, but then again, I feel southern writers have a peculiar way with words. It's a potent little thing tho. I prefered "Light in August".

I like the quote because it makes me feel anything is possible.



Sun Sep 20, 2009 7:35 pm
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