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The Dead Do Not Return: Featured Poetry by Barbara Crooker

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Some Glad Morning, the new collection by Barbara Crooker. “No one gets excited when they see sparrows,” the narrator writes—an apt metaphor for how Crooker looks at human bodies aging and worn, in fear of being forgotten. Crooker’s lines are often steeped in melancholy, but her sense is powerfully redemptive: Those gone from us are still part of the fabric of this world, woven into our longing and our memories.

“Absence”

Sparrows for sorrow. One for everyone you’ve loved,the missing. Count them under the feeder: one two threefour five. Mostly whitethroats, singing O Canada orOld Sam Peabody, depending on where you come from. Drab at a distance, but boldly striped when you get close,bodies of tan and brown, stark white throats, a splotch of sun between eye and bill.

No one gets excited when they see sparrows, although the rusty cap of a chipping sparrow signals springwhen they come back. The dead, though, do not return. Spring brings splashes of color: orioles, indigo buntings, rose-breasted grosbeaks, all back from the tropics.But my interior weather is winter, where the missing gather by the fire, then vanish like smoke. The bare tree limbs, the black and white landscape punctuated by the muted palette of brown. And below the feeder. juncos in their gray and white vests, house finches drab as Wednesday mornings, goldfinches stillin their dull winter garb. And sparrows. And sorrow.Come back, we shout, into the wind that scatters them.But they’re gone.

“Absence” from Some Glad Morning by Barbara Crooker, © 2019. All rights are controlled by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA 15260. Used by permission of the University Pittsburgh Press.

Her Moment of Escape: Featured Poetry by Shimon Adaf

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a piece from Shimon Adaf’s book-length elegy, Aviva-No. Exquisitely translated from Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz, the book is a song of grief and absence. In this section, Adaf captures the feeling of a life—a relationship—forever unfinished. How we try to grasp onto the “stretched glimmer” of the past, despite the past covered “with soot, / a little cloud.”

A stretched glimmer is the glasson the window, bliss it wasdeserted in that grove.
I took a stone—a pieceshe scorched for mesaid I should lookthrough it at the sun.
It was a eucalyptus grove,its scent awakened, waned.Its flames idle, rustling,green glint burstfrom them, drowned
in a light hard with soot,a little cloud. Thirtyyears my back was turned toher moment of escape

“A stretched glimmer is the glass” (poem) from Aviva-No by Shimon Adaf and translated from Hebrew by Yael Segalovitz, Alice James Books, 2019.

Trippingly on the Tongue: Featured Poetry by Maurice Manning

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Maurice Manning’s new collection, Railsplitter. Written in the persona of Abraham Lincoln, the poems are by turns lively, contemplative, and pungent—swollen with lament and anger. Lincoln, taken down in a theater, returns to the stage and the shooter often in these poems. He liked Shakespeare’s tragedies best, and here, among the lines and lore of Hamlet, we feel his struggle toward ghostly moderation: “gestures must not be over done, or else / Chaos will upend the unity desired.”

Aside. Wormwood, wormwood.
Trippingly on the tongue, so Hamlet says,How lines must be delivered from the stage,Especially when passion must be tempered,
And gestures must not be over done, or elseChaos will upend the unity desired.The groundlings, claims this son, are capableOf nothing but dumb-shows and noise, nicelyReaching beyond the stage to pander and pun,
Which makes one wonder how serious is thisEntreaty, then, to hold the mirror up toNature? In the play within the play, a mouse-Trap catches a king unnaturally.
To be or not to be, was never my pick.O my offence is rank, is the better speech—
Heaven is how high it smells, the offence—Enlivened language for murder, ironically.Low act, but elevated thought, to playLightly a scene of wretchedness and folly.

Copyright 2019 Copper Canyon Press. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Copper Canyon Press.

Everything Here Is a Test: Featured Poetry by Paige Lewis

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Space Struck, a deft, entertaining debut by Paige Lewis. Lewis is a poet of surprise, but never mere novelty: behind play or pun, there remains transcendence. In this great second-person piece, the narrator gives instructions on how to leave that place of permanent stasis. “Lift your arms toward / the sky and receive nothing.” The poem loops and spins, perhaps, forever.

“So You Want to Leave Purgatory” 

Here, take this knife. Walk down the road until you come across 
a red calf in its pasture. It will run toward you with a rope tied 
around its neck. Climb over the fence. Hold the rope like a leash. 
You haven’t eaten in years. Think— are you being tested? Yes, everything 
here is a test. Stop baring teeth upon teeth and leave the calf 
to its grazing. Lift your arms toward the sky and receive nothing. Keep 
walking and think about the rope around that calf’s neck. Consider 
how fast its throat will be choked by its own growing. Walk until you 
understand what the knife was for. Now forget it. Here, take this knife. 

Copyright 2019 Sarabande Books/Paige Lewis. All rights reserved. Posted here with permission of Sarabande Books. 

We Were Born in a World with Predators: Featured Poetry by Rose McLarney

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Forage by Rose McLarney. Her poems always make me want to linger. If poetry, as an art, slows us down, then McLarney’s poems slow us and sink us and rejuvenate our sense of the surrounding world.

McLarney’s poems are so tactile; here we follow the narrator’s hands into the cold chicken, feel the “warmth of eggs / in the time when we / collected them fresh.” These moments of touch allow McLarney to widen her scope with the shift of a line—so that her abstractions feel as tangible as lemons and herbs.

After Hearing of His Passing
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.
I kept sliding lemon under the skinand herbs into the openingsof a chicken, its cold countering
the recalled warmth of eggsin the time when wecollected them fresh
from beneath hens. Our hands,feather-brushed, found waysto come near one another.
We took the birds’ eggs. We tooktheir lives too, if raccoons didn’tfirst, eating the craw full of grain
only and leaving the bodyto waste, as the whole of himdoes now that he’s dead young.
Most waste I can avoid (I’d save hearts,sauté livers, when we slaughtered).But not the truth that I have handled
his body, intimately, and other beings’entrails. And I still make meals.We were born in a world with predators.
We have lived, from the beginning,knowing how we were created,sharp-toothed and hungry.
But not who would have the pleasureof feeding, when one would feel the painof prey. I will serve another chicken,
and I may say its cooked skin is golden,a kind of exaltation. And the sorrowwill be biting. And birds will keep surviving.
Scavenging insects and flesh from the sickof their flocks, seeds from sunflowersand blossoms from rose bushes in reach.

From Forage by Rose McLarney, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2019 by Rose McLarney. Previously published in the Birmingham Poetry Review.

The Space Between Silence & Enough: Featured Poetry by Nick Flynn

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from I Will Destroy You by Nick Flynn. His books are often God-haunted, with doubt and faith giving breath to each other.

Flynn has said that he writes “about Jesus quite a lot, he’s appeared in nearly every book I’ve written, it seems…distilled down to his essence, I think he’s a beautiful figure…he is a scrim for each generation to project upon—he seems the perfect ambiguous image, which forces us to figure out what he means, over and over again.”

The complex identity and legacy of St. Augustine fits that same description, and in this poem, the final in Flynn’s excellent new book, we feel the narrator’s conversation with the past. “Even as I write each word I am farther from God,” he says—a powerful song of longing.

“Saint Augustine”
Saint Augustine preached humility &the need to simply be on the ground.Do you wish to rise? he asked. Whatwould he say of these words then, which,after all, are meant to replace us? Whatwould he say of the way I go back, again& again, to the burning house, the housewe’ve already escaped? These words—so quick, the way they rise up, like sparks,or smoke, a person could get lost in the skywatching them, a person could lose trackof the important things. Spot quiz: What’sthe opposite of standing before a houseon fire, trying to understand the flames,& knowing you will never understand?I want to enter into that moment my motherstrikes her first match, but I’m still asleepupstairs. In the dream I’m walking throughthe marsh, because only there, surroundedby water, am I safe. Are your handsthe water? Are these words the flame?The reeds are taller than I am, the mudslows everything down. In some waysI cannot imagine seeing you again, but hereI am, kneeling as in prayer at your bedside,counting our breaths. What would stop mefrom taking your hand then & placing it on mychest? O Lord, help me be pure, but not yet.Even as I write each word I am farther fromGod—sometimes I just can’t find it. If only I couldhave the faith I hear coming from the radio,the way it always knows I’m listening. One daythese years will be known as the space betweensilence & enough. I still have trouble being alonein either, which is why the radio is always on.Do you wish to rise? Augustine asks. Beginby descending.

“Saint Augustine,” from I Will Destroy You. Copyright © 2019 by Nick Flynn. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

Where to Submit Poetry in 2019

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Here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say you’re a lover of poetry. Maybe you like to read our poetry excerpt series; perhaps you eagerly await our monthly must-read poetry lists. Now, a step further: perhaps you write poetry? Might you be looking for a place to submit said poetry (and have been energized, instead of dejected, by Glen Cadigan’s recent essay on submissions)? Is it possible that you have not yet compiled the highly detailed spreadsheet of poetry journals, submission dates, and contests that every aspiring poet must make before sending out a single poem for consideration? To get you started, Meimei Xu of The Adroit Journal has put together a list of the best places to submit poetry in 2019. Complete with information on submissions periods, links to past issues, and blurbs about the history and mission of each journal, the list includes both big names, like Ploughshares and The Kenyon Review, and lesser-known gems, like Diagram and Waxwing.

Holy in the Hands of Old Oak: Featured Poetry by Alexandra Teague

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Her book is full of richly-textured pieces like “Driving After Rain,” a poem whose rhythm begins with its first line—a single sentence, dressed with complementing s and f sounds, appended with a final, single word that moves us forward. She’s as skilled moving among phrases and sounds as she is portraying bodies—our ineffable drift through this world: “we were always driving nowhere // and it didn’t matter then.”

“Driving After Rain”
The self like silverware laid out finally for a feast. Brightlanes of light along the gorge this morning, that watery rush
like the waterwheel I used to love to go see at the mill:the War Eagle gushing brown Southern babble
over sunspots of stone, dark flecks of childhoodlifted into swinging buckets, rain pockmarks of failure
or giver or grief churning not in transubstantiation but in waterrising up as water, holy in the hands of old oak;
Oh God, make them like a wheel, not a curse, but a wayto ride the whole way around our bodies
and back—like once in the front seat by an L.A. highway,I’d pull over with a man, a storm
so blinding rain blinding no one saw my skirt liftingagainst steering wheel; we were always driving nowhere
and it didn’t matter then, suspendedlike water I don’t quite understand, how it falls fast enough
to carry itself up and over and still be wholethe way I pretended I wasn’t—knowing he was lying
that he’d ever love me, throwing myself anywaylike this river was everything. As stubble before the wind.  
Inside that mill, flour dusts every skin. So whatif I’m dammed and damned and driven; some days
I’m also shining like spoons milled by water, breadmy mother kneaded as I set knife beside fork—hunger
taught to be orderly as wheels at fairs, that sky-swinging dangerwith its sturdy spokes like psalms splitting the word of God
from the water of every other word.

“Driving after the Rain” by Alexandra Teague from Or What We’ll Call Desire by Alexandra Teague. Copyright © 2019 by Alexandra Teague. Posted by permission of Persea Books, Inc. (New York). All rights reserved.

This Is Our Intimacy Now: Featured Poetry by Carmen Giménez Smith

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Be Recorder by Carmen Giménez Smith. Her poems often reflect a narrator’s childhood memory or perspective—and these glimpses into the past help sharpen the present.

In this poem, Smith shows the pain of seeing a parent struggle, someone who was once “remedy and anchor” but is now disoriented, unsure. It’s a moving poem of loss, love, and how both are “beautiful and sad and strange.”

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice”

as if I were a hunger becauseit is our bleak and common futureto reverse the sphinx. I study the meanderof her logic for context. Sometimes it islike a poem that is not quite realizedfilled with hollows and bursts,a stranger’s grief and rage. She asksfor home when she’s home. She screamsfor the purse we haven’t hidden from her.Sometimes we circle the same spots,and I try to be as I know she was with meonce: remedy and anchor. I’m a fairto poor replica, yet still her proxy.

That you didn’t know her is yourmisfortune: a hot planet’s core,late summer’s best light. As metaphorI evoke a pink, vulnerable jelly,translucent and containing the past.I hold it in my hand and against a lamp.This is our intimacy now. My nails tracethe brown spots that mark her losses.Beautiful and sad and strange, I say,because I’ve made her into something else.

“I Will Be My Mother’s Apprentice,” from Be Recorder. Copyright © 2019 by Carmen Giménez Smith. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.

My Poem Will Not Save You: Featured Poetry by Dunya Mikhail

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Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from In Her Feminine Sign, the new book by Dunya Mikhail. Full of gently-delivered lines that rumble with resonance, Mikhail’s poems are worth pondering—and they will often leave readers with much to carry forward. “My Poem Will Not Save You” begins with an arresting viral image, gracefully delivered—an elegy for this child whose body and soul has taken on another, digital life. Mikhail’s poem reminds us of difficult truths: her poem “will not turn him onto his back / and lift him up / to his feet.” Her poem will not defuse a bomb or block a shell from falling. Poetry might not save us—at least in the way we desire. The poem’s refrain—”I am sorry”—feels so authentic, so necessary.

“My Poem Will Not Save You”
Remember the toddler lying face downon the sand, and the waves gently recedingfrom his body as if a forgotten dream?
My poem will not turn him onto his backand lift him upto his feetso he can runinto a familiar laplike before.I am sorrymy poem will notblock the shellswhen they fallonto a sleeping town,will not stop the buildingsfrom collapsingaround their residents,will not pick up the broken-leg flowerfrom under the shrapnel,will not raise the dead.My poem will not defusethe bombin the public square.It will soon explodewhere the girl insiststhat her father buy her gum.My poem will not rush themto leave the placeand ride the carthat will just miss the explosion.Many mistakes in lifewill not be corrected by my poem.Questions will not be answered.I am sorrymy poem will not save you.My poem cannot returnall of your losses,not even some of them,and those who went far awaymy poem won’t know how to bring them backto their lovers.I am sorry.I don’t know why the birdssingduring their crossingsover our ruins.Their songs will not save us,although, in the chilliest times,they keep us warm,and when we need to touch the soulto know it’s not deadtheir songsgive us that touch.

By Dunya Mikhail, from In Her Feminine Sign, copyright © 2019 by Dunya Mikhail. Reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corp.