My Mother Once Gave Up Her Savior: Featured Poetry by Tina Chang

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Tina Chang from her new book, Hybrida. “Mankind Is So Fallible” is a lovely, ambitious poem about the mysteries of belief. Chang’s lines are simultaneously gentle but jarring: we are eased into the murky and mystical place of faith. In Chang’s poem, the narrator’s mother sets aside God—”She no longer believed in the unseen”—leading the narrator to wonder with what one might replace the divine. Perhaps belief “could be as simple as sleep, curling inward / toward an avalanche of hummingbirds.” This poem thrums like that small, beautiful bird’s wings.

“Mankind Is So Fallible”
We lie down to the day as if we could fleefrom the body’s burden. On the ground are notes,candles, a saint’s face painted alive with gold.
Where does God live if not in the shadowsof struggle, marching next to the living,with battlements and a slogan, knowing
faintly more than we do? Someone dispatchesa call for help. Someone notes the patcheson a man’s jacket. Somewhere there is a circle
of people praying and dying at once, the lossof which makes a narrative rain downin news feeds across frames of light.
~
My mother once gave up her savior,walked into our living room to professher love for the here and now.
She no longer believed in the unseen,could no longer bow to invisible idols.She sat on the chair in front of me
more mortal than she ever was, face lit with resolve, done with faith,done with the promise of rapture.
Somewhere, glass breaksand the one who shatters itwears a mask of God’s many faces.
~
How would the body be summonedif we started over? Imagine a blank bookin which the body is drawn.
Would the body lie horizontal like a violinwhose music plays off-key or would it standupright like a totem pole against its own weather?
I place a book under my pillowas the ancient Japanese courtesans didto dream the body into being.
Wind gathers from the past until I am walkingin snow. The arms and legs move in unisonwith the mind, an engine of sinew and meat.
How should I draw it, not the bodybut what it contains. Not its contoursbut its tensions. Not its stew of blood
and clattering bones but its promise.I prefer now to think of the body’s debtand what it owes to the ledger of the living.
~
I imagine the courtesans rising from sleep,hair rushing to the waist like ink. They rubtheir eyes of dream, tighten their robes
as they lift the book from beneath their pillowas if urging a stone from its bedrock.How would they think of the body then,
having wakened from that placeone could describe as near death.Instead, the body startles forward toward infinity.
~
The courtesan runs her hand along the page,feels the blank space, an urgent bell summons her.Dips her brush in ink and draws a line through emptiness.
When a young man enters a church,he seeks a furnace to burn away his hatredand a foundation on which to kneel.
He seeks his mother’s mercyand his father’s vengeance. He passes throughthe doors and we call this worship.
If it could be as simple as sleep, curling inwardtoward an avalanche of hummingbirds, the mindfreeing itself as the body lets go its earthly wreckage.
If it could be like enduring the wholeness of a dreamso real we dissolve into a veil of the past,wind dragged backward, so brutal in its disappearance.

Reprinted from Hybrida: Poems. Copyright © 2019 by Tina Chang. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.

A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”

I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”

Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”

Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”

We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”

A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”

Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”  

I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”

She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
there?”

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.

This Is the Fruit I’ll Never Die For: Featured Poetry by Paisley Rekdal

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Paisley Rekdal from her new book, Nightingale, a careful, hypnotic work. The book opens with “Psalm,” a poem about a narrator’s observation of her impatient, earnest neighbor, who, despite the “ice-sheathed” branches, “waits, with her ladder and sack, for something to break.” In “Pear,” the longing for fruit returns in a meticulous poem that shows Rekdal’s vision and storytelling gifts. “It is not a sin / to eat one,” she writes, “though you may think // of a woman’s body as you do it, / the bell-shaped swell of it / rich in your hand.” By turns sensual and sweet, Rekdal’s narrator captures the many facets of hunger.

 
Pear                                                                                                      after Susan StewartNo one ever died for a biteof one, or came back from the deadfor a single taste: the cool fleshcellular or stony, white
as the belly of the winter hareor a doe’s scut, flicking,before she mates. Even an unripe one
is delicious, its crisp bite cleaneralmost than water and its many namesjust as inviting: Bartlett and Comice,
Anjou, Nashi, Concordeand Seckel, the pomegranate-skinnedStarkrimson, even the medieval
Bosc, which looks like it droppedfrom an oil painting. It is not a sinto eat one, though you may think
of a woman’s body as you do it,the bell-shaped swell of itrich in your hand, and for this reason
it was sacred to Venus, Juno, all womencelebrated or dismissedin its shape, that mealy sweetnesstunneling from its center, a gold
that sinks back into itself with age.To ripen a pear, wrap it in paper,lay it in cloth by an open window
or slip a rotten one beside iton a metal dish: dying cells call alwaysto the fresh ones, the body’s
siren song that, having heardit once, we can’t stop singing.This is not the fruit
 
that will send you to hellnor keep you there;it will not give you knowledge,
childbirth, power, or love:you won’t know more painfor having eaten one, or chokeon a bite to fall asleep
under glass. It has no usefor archer or hero, thoughanything you desire from an apple
you can do with the pear, like a dark sisterwith whom you might live outyour secret desires. Cook it
in wine, mull it with spices, roast itwith honey and cloves. Time sweetensand we taste it, so gather the fruit
weeks before ripeness,let summer and winter bothsimmer inside, for it is
a fall fruit whose name in Chinameans separation, though only the fearfulwon’t eat one with those they love.
To grow a tree from seed,you’ll need a gardenand a grafting quince, bees, a ladder,
shears, a jug; you’ll need waterand patience, sun and mud,a reverence for the elders
who told no true storiesof this fruit’s origin,wanting to give us the freedomof one thing that’s pleasure alone.
Cool and sweet, cellular and stony,this is the fruit I’ll never die for,nor come back from the dead
for a single taste.The juice of the pearshines on my cheeks.
There is no curse in it. I’ll eatwhat I like and throw the restto the grasses. The seeds
will find whatever soils they were meant for.

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

Must-Read Poetry: May 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in May.

Nightingale by Paisley Rekdal

Take a poem from Nightingale, and you have the whole
book. This is meant to be an expansive, not reductive, observation—Rekdal’s poems
have lush contours and routes without becoming labyrinthine; she offers
questions in her narratives that are less conversational than illuminating.
Take the grace and control of “Psalm,” the first poem in the collection. “Too
soon, perhaps, for fruit”—the pause of the central word in that first sentence
is like a sigh, the announcement that we must listen to the story about to be
told. The narrator’s neighbor, despite the “ice-sheathed” branches, “waits,
with her ladder and sack, for something to break.” She longs for growth, life:
a gift. “So much abundance,” Rekdal writes, “and the only cost / waiting.” The
narrator, present but not omnipresent (what control it takes to be there
without being overbearing!), watches: “I almost expect the sound of bells, / a
stone church, sheep in flocks.” This grand tree seems like it deserves a
cathedral, some rapt congregation; instead, “it is on a common / lot, beside a
road, apartment buildings, a dog / sleeping in its yard.” I love when a poet
lingers, patiently, perceptively, because if the lines are authentic enough,
then maybe we’ll do the same. Rekdal, the poet laureate of Utah, is skilled
enough to ask careful questions: “Who planted this tree? / How long has it
stood here? How many more years / can such a thing remain?” The tree almost
sounds impossible, and the narrator knows “the fruit is real. I have eaten it.”
She has “spooned it / over bread and meat. I have sucked it / from my husband’s
fingers.” Nightingale is one of the
best books of the year: a tale of transformation and tragedy, arriving in poems
a bit longer than other poets might dare—there’s a patience and persistence
here. Take the enigmatic “Four Marys,” a meditation on Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto (1460): “Are the
drapes drawn open or being closed?” This is everything that ekphrastic poetry
can be: “And even if I didn’t believe / the child would rise again, I would
believe the artist.” A poem-essay midway through the collection, “Nightingale:
A Gloss,” is alone worth the collection’s weight, but I hope readers are grateful
for this entire book.

Hybrida by Tina
Chang

“It feels like grace,” poet Tina Chang has said about her pregnancy. “Mercy. Deep down in darkness, I uncover it. Those spirits underground shake until I hold to the wall to keep still.” Her son was her past made present, “a strangeness of the future. The idea of a child is something so unreal, it can only be manifested by human hands. It’s like a ghost rummaging in your mind that says, Go ahead, imagine it.” Hybrida, the newest collection from Brooklyn’s poet laureate, is a beautiful meditation of home and hope and hurt. “In every definition of home, my son conjures / milk,” she writes: “In every memory / I have of him, his hands are outstretched / and he is asking for his last bottle.” She thinks of her son when she hears the news of Leiby Kletzky, a young boy killed; how his mother felt waiting for him, his life forever a story unfinished. Chang holds her son close: “I’m afraid of the world.” She tells him stories at home, a “place so safe,” where together they “are weightless, buoyant in its murky sweetness.” There’s an earned gentleness to these lines—call them inspirational (imagine it: a poem can make us love each other better!). Hybrida is a song of love, and creation myths; or perhaps they are our creation truths. From “Patience”: “I come from that too, from the indifference / of doors and keys, from the sonnet of the sewing machine / which wrestled my neck at the collar and all my words / caught at the throat, struggled to make one stitch, a straight line.” Chang’s talent in capturing how our past breathes in our present makes for poems that feel birthed over years. Her lines are realistic, cautious, and yet ultimately optimistic: “The future is an animal / waiting to pounce. It is that bestial. That patient.”

Is, Is Not by Tess
Gallagher

Tess Gallagher has described her poetry as an abiding, yet imperfect, spirituality—the feeling of “reaching” for some presence, and while she might feel unfulfilled, that “reaching is a grace, too, even when I don’t feel answered.” Gallagher writes of the dead and their heavy weight of memory, as with “In the Company of Flowers,” where, “as I dug into earth of my mother / who, when my youngest brother / died, was taken in / by beauty, not as consolation / but because she found him / there as she made the garden.” Her mode of elegy is one of transcendence, and it extends to even the changed lives of the living. “What does it say / that the only shoe repairman in town / has retired?” She “admired your Lazarus / revivals” because “it’s feet in failing shoes / that rule the world.” Is, Is Not is worth our attention for these pauses, as with the heartbreaking short poem, “Opening”: “I entered this world not wanting / to come. I’ll leave it not / wanting to go. All this while, / when it seemed there were two doors, / there was only one—this / passing through.”

Lima :: Limón by Natalie Scenters-Zapico

“I want you / to say my name like the word: lemon. / Say it like the word: limón. Undress me / in strands of rind.” Scenters-Zapico’s narrators are commanding, absolutely present, mystically intoxicating—each poem feels like a skillfully-recreated dream. She begins the collection with lines from Conchita Piquer’s song that serves as title and inspiration for the collection: “Que penita y que dolor, / La vecinita de enfrente soltera se quedó” (“What pain & what shame, / The little neighbor girl from in front ended up single.”). Lima :: Limón plays on that sharp tension between shame and sexuality, a tension Scenters-Zapico offers in several different incarnations. From “In the Age of Los Zetas”: “Men who only value // a woman for her extra rib, / that holy thing that breaks / & heals without a cast.” Juxtaposed on the next page with “Lima Limón :: Azahar”: “I lie on my back in the grass & let the weight / of a man on top of me. Out of breath, he searches / for a place on my body that hasn’t flooded.” Bodies abound: shamed, worked, desirous, preternaturally attracted to mouths (“Stop writing // about the mouth: the tongue, the holy / molars, the wear of grinding yourself / to bone. Stop writing about the mouth: / his mouth, your mouth, her mouth.”). At first, we might want to label Scenters-Zapico’s style surreal, but her palpable detail and narratives are better described as hyper-real. Lima :: Limón builds toward a confession of sorts, but whose penance is poetry: “My sins: / so many I lie in losing count.”

Time by Etel Adnan (translated by Sarah Riggs)

Adnan can’t help but paint, write, and breathe in philosophy, and we are all the better for it. Born in 1925 in Beirut, she attended Catholic schools—“we had religion around all the time”—but she was a “dissident without effort.” Uninterested in neither the catechism nor the lives of the saints, Adnan was compelled by how the nuns spoke “of revelation, even the word itself,” creating for her sense of light as our profound “definition of life.” Time feels charged by this revelatory sense. The book contains epigrammatic pieces written between 2003 and 2010, and started from a postcard she’d received by the Tunisian poet Khaled Najar. The postcard as medium and space is the perfect vessel for her poems. Her first sequence, dated when she received the note from Najar, ends powerfully: “streets lead to / illuminations, but never to peace / of the heart // watch your brothers die / on TV, and don’t move. / they are in a new world / although with no exit.” Although occasionally tagged by dates and times, the poems in this book feel eternal. “I love the rain when it / wraps me like a / river,” Adnan writes, “grafts me to the clouds. / I share in the properties / of the sky. I grow / like a tree.” A moving book of war: “We have cried enough / to wash your / body / but that body was dead.”

Some Unimaginable Animal by David Ebenbach

A funny, tender, inviting
collection, whose traits come from Ebenbach’s gifts of storytelling. In “Ghost
Stories,” Ebenbach begins: “I’m going to write a Jewish one, a ghost story /
without equilibrium. Because let’s face it: / most of those tales believe in a
God who keeps / a tally.” Those traditional ghost tales are balanced:
punishment metered to sin, no sense of surprise. “So in my story,” the narrator
explains, “there will be the haunting of the innocent. Floorboards will creak
their way / to people just eating breakfast.” He ends the poem: “The lights
tremble, / but in your house, too.” I like that second-person gesture at the
end; it is a nudge, a whisper, an invitation. “This year we spangle the place,
the door / wrapped like something we’re giving away” he starts “Hanukkah,” a
poem in which not much happens other than the struggle with a faulty braid of
lights. In the darkness, the collected family “let the candles / make their
quiet points.” As in this poem, as well as “Passover this Year,” Ebenbach’s narratives
are domestic sketches: unassuming, and yet spiritually revealing. This
particular Passover is painted by snow: “So anyway we sit down together / at a
table where everything’s renewal, / renewal, and under the table our boots /
slush the floor and leave salt footprints.” Ebenbach takes us into his poems,
and these are welcome journeys.

I Wait for the Sudden Sunset: Featured Poetry by Tyler Mills

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Tyler Mills from her new book, Hawk Parable, a fascinating verse consideration of the atomic age. From test to terror, Mills unfolds the dizzying destruction of a world, cindered and then forgotten. In this poem, laughter precedes the “sudden / sunset,” a pungent “tangerine” unleashed on the landscape. Connie Francis is the soundtrack to yet another test—which, like the others, remains surprising in its violence.

“Declassified Test Film”
They eat close to the surf,laughing as water un-combsplum threadsfrom a surface that flickersquickly in and out ofsunflowers.
I wait for the suddensunset, tangerine, sun-less as it blooms.One of the soldiers has a question.He rubs his nose with his thumb.Is it that silver
speck up there?He’s in the cotton whitet-shirt you like to wear.I fold your sleeves in a mess and press themto my face—your stinkin the boat
seam of fabric.|“Where the Boys Are” by Connie Francisdrones from a radio speaker, her breathmingling with the gold-painted mesh.They dig their feet in the sand
peaking here and there like buttercream.Suddenly, the songstupidly playingbreaks outof shape, and everyoneflinches
then staresright at the sky.

“Declassified Test Film,” from Hawk Parable by Tyler Mills. Copyright © 2019 by The University of Akron Press. Published and reprinted by permission of The University of Akron Press.

Drifting Toward Wonder: The Millions Interviews Lia Purpura

“Childhood’s a long training in never minding all you’re losing, everything that’s falling, crashing, being taken”—Lia Purpura’s essays unfold in rich, detail-driven vignettes, but every so often she stops me with a sentence of pure wisdom. I’ve got to take a second before moving on. All the Fierce Tethers, her new book of essays, is full of these moments. Yet when I read that line about childhood, I not only thought yes, she’s right, but also appreciated her essayistic skill in opening that place for imperfect conjecture. Her essays help readers drift toward wonder.  

In the collection’s title essay, she says that when she
watches people, “it’s exactly the boundedness of their lives, the precise
sizing down that moves me. How absorbed and unprotected they are.” In a twist
that might best be described as a bit of literary magic, Purpura’s essays make
me appreciate the contours of everyday life more: our “small moments, fixed in
their own tondos of light.”

Purpura is the author of nine collections of essays, poems, and translations. A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction, her awards include Guggenheim, NEA, and Fulbright Fellowships. Her work appears in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, The New Republic, Orion, and The Georgia Review. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, where she is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches in the Rainier Writing Workshop’s MFA program. We spoke about presence, absence, irony, and how writing can come from a “desire for repair.”

The Millions: You’re an essayist and poet, two forms of writing marked by an associative style. In the early pages of the first essay in your new book, All the Fierce Tethers, you move seamlessly across several subjects: screaming, the idea of “never minding,” Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” a tin of mints, a consideration of trash, and the paradoxical history of the term “bandwagon.” How do your essays and poems happen? Do you seek association and breadth in your sense of observing and perceiving the world?

Lia Purpura: Associative behavior is a form of relatedness, alignment, empathy even. Storytelling, caretaking, flashes of insight revealing wholeness, the recognition of what it feels like for a tree when the wind moves among its branches—because you’ve felt that in your body—all these are manifestations of the likenesses extant—abiding—in the world. So maybe it’s more that, rather than seeking association and breadth, I am aware of being a site at which intersections occur. I’m stunned by, (and often beset by) the ways so many different forces and beings are telling a part of the same story. Linking us up. And I see my work as a way of regarding and surfacing the interdependencies—the awe, the responsibility, the wounds incurred in recognizing the connectedness. The associative impulse confirms the deep systems holding us together even if we’re bent on ignoring or destroying those tethers.

TM: One essay in this collection, “Of Prayer,” has an early, imagined scene of a man buying a knife from Crate & Barrel. “Here, when you buy a knife, they wrap it securely in sturdy paper, which indicates they run a safe ship, no bows or gift wrap for the cutlery. They seal such things with a wide strip of tape and let it be your problem undoing it at home.” We learn that the knife was used by the man to kill his wife and daughters; his oldest daughter went to a university where you taught. In class, you ask your students to take a moment of silence: “What rattled me, though of course it shouldn’t have (this being a Catholic university), was that they had a prayer ready and knew what to say, while I had to make something up on the spot about breath and pennies and each of us being assumed into another’s day.” You write elsewhere in the book of being “given no church, no practice, no prayer (no under-the-breath rote anything to lean on).” Do you see your essays functioning as prayers? What does that mean for you as a writer—and perhaps your vision of what gives us comfort and transcendence?

LP: It’s not uncommon, I think, for many writers to consider their work a form of prayer. Writing’s practices—long, slow attentiveness (or sharp, incisive revelations), repeated sounds, words, phrases, a focused and set-aside time for work—are features of more traditional prayer practices for sure.  Prayer, at least in my practice, does not require language and often refuses it, works to thwart it, asks that I become an altered perceiver and communicator. Essays, for me, take on various modes that are found in prayer: self- interrogation and arguments with self and with fate, praise, a laying out of the vulnerability of places or beings that I’ve known intimately, a desire for repair and the wits and strength to carry it out, question-asking, direction-seeking.

TM: You quote John Donne mid-essay, mid-book: “All things that are, are equally removed from being nothing.” All the Fierce Tethers feels so aware, narrated by someone who is so observant and here in the world. As a writer, and even as a person, how do you feel most present in the world? When do you feel most absent?

LP: I love that quote because it so directly asserts a radical equivalence, a rock-bottom sense of sanctity shared by all beings. I suppose I am most absented from the world when I’m forced to interact with what I call “the systems”—by that I mean not the sustaining systems found in cloud formations or animal habits or planting cycles, but the human made-systems and apparatus that I’m afraid I have very little stomach for and am abraded by in chronic ways, and can’t fall in with: everything from phone menus to computerized steps-following, the constant noise that our systems of “upkeep” require (leafblowers, compressors, etc) all the dinging bells (microwaves)—all these requires our tacit assent, our not-minding the ways we’re forced to break peace, concentration, etc. These are smaller abrasions but the assumptions undergirding them extend out to the enormous and intractable forms of rote behaviors, land and climate destruction and so on. On the other end of things—my sense of presence is confirmed when I am able to confirm others’ presences, when I can behave in relationships of reciprocity and proximity with humans and other beings without much mediation. The essays in the collection manage two impulses: they write into these unmediated often joy/awe-filled experiences, and they also delineate forms of contemporary assault that fly under the radar.

TM: Have there been any particularly formative essays in your life? Ones that unlocked the genre for you, or that you might return to, as a reader?

LP: Oh—here are only two of many: James Baldwin whose essays scour and love simultaneously, are ferocious and moral and relentlessly seeking, that hold accountable both the writer himself and the systems into which he’s been born. C.D. Wright whose poems move through prose-realms and are unabashedly essay-ish even while she falls in so fully with image and speech and is awe-filled by the smallest gestures witnessed in the course of a day, a drive, a conversation.

TM: In a related vein to the previous question—are there particular essays (or essayists) who you love to give to students?

LP: Most recently, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen which offers such elegant, compact, formal ways to counter speechlessness in the face of injustice and angles by which to express chronic anger. Also—Jo Ann Beard’s ”Fourth State of Matter“ is an amazing work—one that describes and mirrors cosmology at large as it creates its own local cosmology, set in motion by the stupendous and tragic events of a single day.

TM: I absolutely loved the essay “Brief Treatise Against Irony.” It made me think of your wonderful poem “Belief,” and your words about that poem’s core feeling: “the seam that fuses doubt/faith, optimism/despair (whatever other binaries one comes up with)—that seam holds for me a kind of light, and a capaciousness. A way of living that seemed to clarify. The holding of opposing forces makes me feel like a catfish, looking off in both directions at once. It also keeps curiosity alive.” You begin this essay with the line “The opposite of irony is nakedness,” setting a binary contrast between the vulnerable nature of sincerity and the posed performance of irony. What do you think is the “seam” between irony and nakedness, between performance and honesty? What is the healthy space between them?

LP: Some states of being need protection because the language around them sags, drags the nuance down, threatens their fragility. Your question is actually an enormous and complex one—it speaks to the range of modes of expression we’re offered today, the idea of aesthetic “choices”—which aren’t actually choices for many writers but rather the act of coming to speak as one needs to, personally—and the methods for this vary tremendously—from the raw/confessional/exuberant (Ross Gay for instance) to the more enigmatic/suggestive (Merwin), to modes that agilely employ both (C.D. Wright). Amplified performance mode in no way indicates a lack of authenticity (see Tyehimba Jess’s Olio—which is an astonishing full-body experience that just keeps coming page after page with relentless force). On the other hand, some forms of self-proclaimed “honesty”—can come off as psychological reportage or emotional indulgence. One way or another, authenticity intensifies the heat, the light, the stakes. In my essay “On Being of Two Minds” in Rough Likeness, I work through being unable and unwilling to land on one “way”—spare or effusive—and having to live in that seam, that ecotonal space where both Dickinson and the winding perambulations of Whitman are equally meaningful. So I work with loving both, and don’t necessarily feel the drive to reconcile impulses or vocal registers or amplifications or sentence forms—as a reader and writer.

In terms of “irony”—the essay essentially works through the distancing that irony requires to sustain itself, critiques its protective features, the ways it creates hierarchies and keeps one from feeling directly and unabashedly—in fact, shames a person for feeling. I love work—poems and prose—that allows the blows the creator has sustained to make it to the page. No buffing, cooling, quieting, or intellectualizing.  

Must-Read Poetry: April 2019

Here are six notable books
of poetry publishing in April.

Honeyfish by
Lauren K. Alleyne

There’s not a page in Honeyfish untouched by grace and grief. In
“How to Watch Your Son Die”: “His name // will become a strange music / in the
foreign instrument of your voice.” The masterful “Killed Boy, Beautiful World”
sings and stings: “How ruthless with beauty / the world seems, clouds /
tumbling in streams of white, / the sky dappled, then clear, / then blotted
with rain; the news / of death and more death.” And yet: “you want to hold on
to it, / this life that breaks you again / and again.” Viscerally real poems
invoked to Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice live next to poems of metaphor, as
with “The Pain Fair”: “The opening act is breaking / all manner of things open:
/ wishes, bones, hearts, glass / eyes, brains.” The crowd applauds “politely:
we know / this is nothing impressive.” Next, the magician commands from the
crowd “first heartaches, first betrayals, / they resound like phantom /
symphonies, notes swelling / our chests like air into balloons.” A unique
talent, Alleyne’s skilled lines levitate with something more: passion, grace,
and a willingness to ask questions that linger. “Heaven?” ends with one such
unanswered question: “How many angels weep / when a black girl is torn / into
wings?” An excellent book.

The Tradition by Jericho Brown

“I mean, don’t you want
God / To want you? Don’t you dream / Of someone with wings taking you / Up?” Brown
has a preternatural sense of pacing, which I suspect is one reason why he’s one
of the most commanding of contemporary poets. Gravity in verse goes a long way,
and Brown’s lines feel well-worn, fully-thought, complete. From “As a Human
Being”: “There is the happiness you have / And the happiness you deserve. /
They sit apart from each other / The way you and your mother / Sat on opposite
sides of the sofa / After an ambulance came to take / Your father away.”
Effortless, we know, is never really without effort, but Brown’s flowing lines
are still worth commending—poems moving from God and gifts to the detritus of
our plans and pains. In “Foreday in the Morning,” the narrator thinks of his
mother, who “grew morning glories that spilled onto the walkway toward her
porch,” and told him “I could have whatever I worked for.” Her faith in the
world came from God, but the narrator is “ashamed of America / And confounded
by God.” Haunted by God, possibly, though Brown’s narrators often find faith
elsewhere: “Some people need religion. Me? / I’ve got my long black hair. I
twist / The roots and braid it tight.” A book pierced by a devotion to desire, The Tradition is a powerful
collection—an affirmation of love. “I thought then / Of holding you / As a
political act,” the narrator says in “Stand.” “I / May as well have / Held
myself.”

Hawk Parable by Tyler Mills

We really don’t spend a
lot of our lives looking up—the sun steals our sight, or we might trip over our
own feet—though Mills’s new book might send readers outside to stare and wonder
how bombs have soiled the sky. A rather ominous endnote, “My grandfather’s
possible involvement in the Nagasaki mission has remained a mystery,” helps
frame this book, stitched together by anecdote, folklore, blurry memory, rumor,
and archival reels. Many of Mills’s narrators are shocked by the sky; in “Exposure,”
“I was hanging the baby’s diapers on the balcony / when I noticed / a
multicolored parachute / floating in the sky.” Hell might burn below our feet,
but there’s a devilish tinge to what falls from above—and Hawk Parable tells a recursive story of how atomic tests reel on an
infinite loop. In one poem, the narrator thinks of the Enewetak Atoll tests: “I
swallow vomit after watching // the island wart into an orange bulb. Just
before, / birds glanced off the shimmering water.” Three-quarters of the way
through the collection, Mills detours into prose poems that are associative and
essayistic—another mode in her attempt at reconciliation with the past. Her
frequent return to test sites in the book is apt, as if we are asked to
consider the steps necessary toward destruction: methodical, meticulous, messy
steps.  

Brute by
Emily Skaja

“What I want is a permanent
figure / I want a marker here to separate / The Time Before from The Time Now.”
The first section of Skaja’s debut ends with a poem of exile: self-imposed,
absolutely necessary, freeing. She quotes a crisp line by Lucie Brock-Broido—“After
Pennsylvania, I couldn’t breathe”—concluding a first quarter of the book that
sketches Philadelphia in terms of struggle and suffocation. The narrator of
these poems is smothered by an abusive man and the city’s “hot pavement.” The
book’s second section, titled “Girl Saints,” is a scream of freedom. They’ve
had enough. “Our hands bled. We saw Rorschach blood in our wounds, Pietà in egg
yolks.” Women “bled on our white clothes—we bore them redly // to the table.” “Girl
Saints,” the lead and titular poem of the section, arrives like an anthem. Other
poems, like “Dear Emily,” are whispers to the past: “Easy to disown the girl
you were / at 23: fluffed dove-gray / & bridal, eyes up, prim bird claws /
pink on the brute arm / of your first wreck.” There’s everything in this strong
debut, including the occasional reminder: “I need to remember how to be a body,
more than a chalk outline filled in with cedar shavings, doubt.”

The Experiment of the Tropics by Lawrence Lacambra Ypil

Ypil’s observant poems are
direct and eye-opening. Often a single line creates a gap in the narrative that
allows us to step inside and wonder. “The nature of a city depends on the
direction its people are moving. In the morning, towards. By evening, away.”
Later in “The Nature of the City,” a profoundly lucid prose poem, he continues:
“It takes bringing something into the heart of a city then back out into its
tributaries, to raise the price of one’s possessions. This principle applies to
one’s hopes and desires as it does to chickens and vegetables.” A later poem
with the same title offers a new perspective: “The nature of a city depends on
the combination of views it could be seen from: by high noon or night, by
backstreet or avenue.” Ypil’s lines carry the authority of aphorism without
ever feeling pedantic. His stories are gentle and clear, as in “The History of
Towns”: “The history of towns is always / the history of looking back.” By the
time you’re done contemplating the truth of an early line, Ypil offers another
accuracy: “A family is only as good as the father / who is gone.”

Herod’s Dispensations by Harry Clifton

Dublin-born Clifton, who
has left and returned to his home country several times in his life, creates a
feeling of inevitability in this new collection. He has called form in poetry “emotional
mathematics—the need to resolve something inside that is chaotic before it does
damage,” and even his open lines in Herod’s
Dispensations feel gently tense. He is wracked, and wrecked, by God. “I
never belonged in my father’s house,” he writes in “Endgame,” “His unread Bible
on the shelf / My silent coming of age.” He thinks of the Beckett play as he
spends “a Sunday afternoon / Without God,” thinking about “Those who can never
do themselves in, / Those who can never pray.” He finds curious kin in the
Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, “who would hang by his own rope / of
Catholic heresy.” The narrator, himself a “soul-abandoned body,” thinks the
controversial priest a brother, who “died, a pastor without flock / In a New York
room—anathema, frozen out.” They are both “Gnostic, heretic.” Yet the narrator
can’t help but hum the tune of that old religion, in “Death’s Door”: “Christ,
the weight of that coffin.” He’s tired. “Please, can I die now? Tired, I
straighten up / The whole of life behind me.”  

I Do Not Wish to Sing: Featured Poetry by Jericho Brown

Our series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem by Jericho Brown from his new book, The Tradition. In one piece, Brown synthesizes everything I love about his poetry: tightly-rendered scenes, graceful yet smooth control over syntax and lines, and a spiritual sense that focuses on the struggles of faith. “Suffocated myself handsome” is such an original, claustrophobic line—Brown sells us on his first lines, and his storytelling talent reverberates throughout The Tradition. “We pray,” he writes, “Unaware of prayer.” Such is life.

“Deliverance”

Though I have not shined shoes for it,Have not suffocated myself handsomeIn a tight, bright tie, Sunday comesTo me again as it did in childhood.

We few left who listen to the radio leaveOurselves available to surprise. We prayUnaware of prayer. We are an ugly people.

Forgive me, I do not wish to singLike Tramaine Hawkins, but Lord if I couldBecome the note she belts halfway intoThe fifth minute of “The Potter’s House”

When black vocabulary heralds home-Made belief: For any kind of havoc, there isDeliverance! She means that even after I am

Not listening. I am not a saintBecause I keep trying to be a sound, something You will rememberOnce you’ve lived enough not to believe in heaven.

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

I Want to Remember This: Featured Poetry by Brenda Shaughnessy

Our new series of poetry excerpts continues with a poem from Brenda Shaughnessy’s fifth book, The Octopus Museum. Stacked with dexterous, inventive pieces that range from prose poetry to letters to dialogues, Shaughnessy also nestles heartfelt poems about the narrator’s children. One of these such poems, “Blueberries for Cal,” is gorgeous, controlled, and complex. When the narrator says “Sometimes I can’t bear // all the things Cal doesn’t get to do,” the stanza break does real work; this is both lamentation and confession. One of the finest poems you’ll read on the sacred strain of parenting, on the force of love.

“Blueberries for Cal”
Watching little Henry, six, scoop up blueberriesand shovel them into his mouth, possessed.
I’m so glad I brought blueberries—wish my kidscould/would eat them. Cal can’t; Simone won’t.
Henry’s sisters Lucy & Jane took turns feeding eachother goldfish crackers and sips of juice.
Arms around each other’s neck and back. Tiny things.I wish my daughter had a sister like that
and my son a nervous system that let him walkand munch berries. Sometimes I can’t bear
all the things Cal doesn’t get to do. I want to curseeverything I can’t give him.
Admire/compare/despair—that’s not the most realfeeling I’m feeling, is it? I feel joy in Henry’s joy.
Blueberries for the child who wants them.There’s all this energetic sweetness, enough to go around,
to give and taste and trust. More than enough.For Cal, too. I want to remember this.
My children seem to subsist on music and frosting.Where there’s frosting, there’s cake.
Where there’s music, someone chose to make a songover all other things on this earth. 


Excerpted from The Octopus Museum. Copyright © 2019 by Brenda Shaughnessy. All rights reserved. First appeared in The Paris Review, issue 223. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission from the publisher.

Noise Requires Poetry: The Millions Interviews Shane McCrae

“America I am unnameable.” Several poems in Shane McCrae’s new book, The Gilded Auction Block, begin with America: the idea, the myth, the collective body. The speakers of his poems are nearly ecstatic with frustration: tired and terrified, they are convinced “America you wouldn’t pardon me.”

Shane McCrae has many
gifts as a poet, but among his most hypnotizing is his ability to create poems
that simultaneously blare and beacon. Since his first book, Mule, in 2011, McCrae has been creating
ambitious work that demands—earns—our attention. I often feel out of time when
I am reading his words; they arrive with a Miltonic fury, and yet they are so
contemporary and critical for our present, strange world.

We spoke about our current
political fever, Hell, and how poems sometimes have to wait for the right
moment to arrive.

The Millions: I don’t know if there’s an ideal way to read a particular book of poetry, but I read The Gilded Auction Block after midnight, at my desk, in what seemed like phosphorescent light. I had the feeling of being consumed by the book—particularly “The Hell Poem”—and each time I turned back to the cover, Ulisse Aldrovandi’s monstrous image unnerved me further. It’s rare to experience a book that hits so hard on the levels of form and function and feeling, which leads me to wonder: How did this book come together for you? How did you go about structuring, ordering, arranging these pieces into their profluent whole?

Shane McCrae: Thank you so much for the kind words about the book. Well, “The Hell Poem” came first. In 2014, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a Dante-esque, Inferno-ish poem, which is a terrible thing to get into one’s head—although there is something to be said for going into the writing of a poem knowing it will be impossible for the end result to be anywhere near as good as its inspiration. So I wrote a few sections of “The Hell Poem,” got stuck, and then abandoned the poem. Not long after that, I wrote In the Language of My Captor. Then Trump was elected. And immediately I felt I had to write something in response to Trump’s election, and wrote “We’ll Go No More a Roving.” Maybe a month or so after that, I wrote “Everything I Know About Blackness I Learned from Donald Trump,” and poems along the lines of that poem followed. Eventually, I started thinking about “The Hell Poem” again, and realized there was a place for Trump in it—indeed, I think the reason I had gotten stuck was that the poem was waiting for Trump.

TM: In other interviews, you’ve spoken with illuminating complexity about confessional poetry, noting that “in some very actual ways the confessional mode, strictly speaking, is not possible for non-write writers” because the confessional condition “assumes a fall from grace, but only whites occupy the initial position vis-à-vis grace from which the confessional poet must fall.” Yet you’ve also described a simultaneous pull toward that space of confession in verse, and I think one of the many powerful modes of The Gilded Auction Block is that the book feels kenotic (both metaphorically and theologically)—an emptying on the way toward reception. Was there a kenotic sense for you in writing these poems—and if so, what has been emptied, and what might be received?

SM: Oh, I wouldn’t describe anything I’ve ever done as kenotic, not thoroughly—kenosis is something I think one works toward one’s entire life. But I also think I never manage to really empty myself when writing my autobiographical poems—that’s why I keep returning to certain figures, particularly my grandmother. I don’t ever—not that I can recall at the moment—feel satisfied by the writing of my more autobiographical poems. I can manage to get my non-autobiographical poems to seem finished to me, but my autobiographical poems always seem not quite right. They are the poems I consistently abandon.

TM: Your previous book, In the Language of My Captor, begins with the poem “His God,” which includes the lines “his    / God is a stranger // from no country he has seen.” The Gilded Auction Block begins with “The President Visits the Storm,” which includes a clever allusion to Mary’s Assumption and an ominous nod toward the Book of Revelation—both skillful touches that feel like transfigurations. I enter both books thinking about forms disembodied, and looking for the places of souls. Considering this book is peppered with quotations and permutations of Donald Trump, how have these past years had you thinking about bodies?

SM: Well now I simply do not have a good answer for this—not yet. Let’s see. The reason I initially felt like I didn’t, and wouldn’t, have a good answer for this question was that I don’t really sit around thinking about bodies—I don’t often think about the things it seems smart people think about. But I do think about the bodies of poems sometimes, and I have lately become intrigued by what seem to me to be the contradictory dominant impulses behind the forms of the poems of younger poets writing today—an impulse to expand, and an impulse to compress. Often one will see poems that open up a lot of space inside themselves by expanding across and down the page. But one also sees a lot of prose poems, which, even though they are written from margin to margin, seem very compressed to me—they’re very dense. And I think each of these impulses has to do with the ear rather than the eye. Each, I think, responds to a desire to make the music in poems more apparent than it would otherwise be—or, at least, to make the poet’s attitude toward music more apparent. The spread-out poem isn’t so certain readers will notice its music; the prose poem is more trustful. But I think the popularity of the prose poem is a holdover from life before Trump. Who feels confident their body will be recognized and acknowledged for what it is nowadays?

TM: We’re both editors for Image Journal, a magazine that publishes writing “informed by or grappling with religious faith.” One of your own poems for the magazine that appeared a few years ago ends with the lines “Lord forgive my torturers // Who hate my faults    as if my faults were theirs.” It makes me think of something you said upon publication of your first book, Mule, quipping “I wrote a bunch of poems about God.” I’m drawn to ambitious writers like yourself and Katie Ford, whose religious and theological grappling has a rich poetic lineage. What draws you toward God—in poetry, and in life? Who are poets of doubt and faith whose work has influenced or interested you?

SM: I believe God is; I have no doubts about the existence of God. And I think it’s God’s very being that draws me toward God. If one believes God is, how can one be otherwise but drawn toward God? That said, I find the mystery(ies) of God overpoweringly attractive—when thinking about God, one inhabits a space in which one can think forever. That’s nice. And with regard to thinking, I suspect I’ve been most profoundly influenced and interested by Jorie Graham and Susan Howe—both of them say deeply true things about how the mind works. As for poems that have more explicitly to do with God, I think I’ve been most influenced and interested by George Herbert.

TM: “And even in my dreams I’m in your dreams” ends one of your poems in this new book—a work, like several others, that includes Trumpian excerpts and exhortations. Your book feels like a lament for our age, or perhaps a catalog of spiritual exhaustion: “America I was driving when I heard you / Had died I swerved into a ditch and wept.” How does it feel to have a book publish now, when the murmurs of a coming election are nearing a crescendo? What might the place of poetry be in a world so full of noise?

SM: I think noise requires poetry, because I think poetry requires a retreat from noise. Although, you know, it’s a book of poetry, and so is unlikely to have a huge reach. I hope nonetheless that The Gilded Auction Block might make some positive contribution to the discourses about Trump and about America. When FSG took the book, there was some feeling that it needed to be published as quickly as possible—both because it was maybe timely, and because, at the time, it was thought that Trump’s presidency might be brief. I feel as if every moment of every day I am actively wishing Trump weren’t president; since he is president, I hope my book, in its small way, can work against him.

TM: I’ve already mentioned “The Hell Poem,” the masterful, long poem that anchors The Gilded Auction Block, but wanted to speak about it more. I’ve read other poets who are transformational with language—giving us new ways to see—but you also have a transfigurative sense, of creating, like Dante and Milton, a surreal world in a poem that still feels grounded in earthly suffering. I’m even reminded of Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony; I feel out-of-this-world, and yet reminded of my form: “At that a darkness like the darkness / Before the world was overtook me.” What route led you toward this Hell poem? What caused this poetic descent?

SM: Folly. Folly got me going, and folly kept me going. The poem came out of nowhere, and in retrospect I think if I had planned it out a little I could have saved myself a lot of work. After I got stuck writing “The Hell Poem” (as I mentioned above), I decided that I had gotten stuck because I didn’t want to write anybody into Hell. And the obvious—to me, at least—solution was to write a poem set in Purgatory instead. So I wrote a considerably longer poem set in Purgatory which I now think was a near-total failure. I say “near-total,” because I did manage to salvage a bit of it and plug that into “The Hell Poem.” But it wasn’t until I had written 60 pages of that Purgatory poem that I realized it was a failure. That failure aside, however, once I was a few sections deep in “The Hell Poem,” I asked Christine Sajecki, with whom I had worked previously, if she would be willing to make some paintings for it, and I still can’t believe she said yes. The paintings she made are wonderful. At bottom, I think I’ve always wanted to say something worthwhile about the world and the people in it, and the ascendance of Trump, because he is a caricature and makes all around him caricature, made the effort to say something a little easier. But, really, I’m still trying.