Some sparklers on a dark, hot night

I was advising a writer-friend lately to celebrate small wins. Then I thought, hey, I should do that, too. Since my last couple of posts explored self-doubt, and a lot of people in my orbit are having rough summers (for example, catch up with Jeannine Hall Gailey’s inspiring posts), I thought I’d share some shine.

I’m getting ready for more visibility in 2020-2021 by applying for conferences, festivals, etc., and making lists of opportunities to apply for later. For instance, I’ll be attending the C.D. Wright Women Writers Conference this November for the first time. I organized a panel, recently accepted, called Uncanny Activisms, about poems that resemble spells, prayers, and curses. My co-panelists include writers I know as well as writers I’ve never met but have been admiring from a distance: Cynthia Hogue, Anna Maria Hong, Hyejung Kook, Ashley M. Jones, and Anna Lena Phillips Bell. I’m very excited to hear what these smart women have to say about a poetic mode I’ve found indispensable these last few years.

On that note: two of my poems just appeared in the new issue of Ecotone. “State Song,” pictured above, is the shorter piece, and I’m SO delighted it’s placed near an essay called “Erasing the Border” by artist Ana Teresa Fernández (the image above is hers). “State Song,” from my forthcoming collection, is in that spiritual-political zone my panel will be addressing, and I hope it speaks against borders and fences, too. (The other poem of mine is “Turning Fifty in the Confederacy”–yikes.) Do read the whole issue if you can, for it’s full of challenging, beautiful writing. I love Ecotone‘s new department, “Various Instructions,” plus I found a new menopause-themed poem there for my growing collection: “Elegy for Estrogen,” by V. Penelope Pelizzon.

More fireworks: Amy Lemmon just published an essay in Diane Lockward’s July Poetry Newsletter about how to mine another poet’s book for writing prompts–and then revise out traces of the other writer’s words to create poems fully your own. The nicest part: the book that inspired her was my last one, Radioland! Lemmon’s piece is inspiring and accessible–check it out.

Cider Press Review has just announced the judge for their 2019 book prize–and it’s me! See the rules here but in short, poets at any career stage can enter mss between Sept. 1 and Nov. 15. The press winnows down the entrants to a manageable dozen or so, which I’ll read during the winter and report on in spring. When the Cider Press editors came knocking, I had just admiringly read the book by their previous winner, Jeanne Larsen’s What Penelope Chooses (judged by Lauren K. Alleyne, who is visiting W&L this fall), so it was a nice convergence. Note that this press has a strong track record of supporting women writers.

In between revising/ developing other mss, I’ve also just handled some anthology proofs, one for an essay in Deep Beauty, coedited by Catherine Lee and Rosemary Winslow, and the other for a poem in Choice Words, edited by Annie Finch. In short, there’s a lot of goodness happening in which I play some role even though I, like a lot of people, am too prone to underplay gifts and exaggerate losses.

A patriotic holiday in the middle of the humanitarian crisis at U.S. borders–well, I’m not waving flags and eating cotton candy this week. But all the artists and writers mentioned above are producing powerful work, American an an open-minded, open-bordered way, and I’m in their party. That’s worth singing about.

Poetry at the Border: Jane Satterfield

I hereby launch an intermittent feature of this blog–“Poetry at the Border.” Each post in this series will focus on a poet who worries some kind of threshold. Borders of various kinds are always relevant to poetry–crossings in genre, sound, language, and psychological states as well as of national/ cultural identities and traditions–but this topic has assumed so much political urgency lately that it never leaves my mind.

satterfield bookI chose Jane Satterfield to kick off this feature because I’m reading her excellent new collection, Apocalypse Mix, available now from Autumn House. I’ve been following Jane’s work for years, admiring not only her verse collections but her inventive prose in Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond (Demeter Press). (Jane and I share similar transatlantic family connections and semiformalist lyric dress sense, plus she writes about motherhood and rock’n’roll–what’s not to love?) Apocalypse Mix is a book about tricky proximities, the foremost probably being the author’s childhood near Andrews Air Force base, as the daughter of a British mother and an American air force reservist. Many poems address war and migrancy head-on. The porous boundary between past and present is also of urgent interest and, more surprisingly, between human and other-than human animals, in an arresting sequence about the military use of dogs, pigeons, horses, and other creatures during the Great War (“Bestiary for a Centenary”).

I asked Jane to describe a border that’s important to her and to her writing, and explain why. Here’s her response and a poem.

Years before the current travel ban that continues to play out in the courts and in the IMG_2289.JPGnews, I drafted an early version of this poem. I couldn’t shake the memory of the summer day in London in 1995 when I filed for an American passport for my UK-born daughter, and a stranger—a Muslim woman whose command of English was limited—reached across the cultural divide with a kindness that shows what unites us as women, daughters, mothers. As a dual US/UK citizen myself—I’m the daughter of an American service man and British mother of Irish descent—I often look at ways that this legacy plays out in the maternal body and in the larger body politic.

The borders we draw on maps and carry in our minds can empower us or forge division.

Although we gravitate toward tribes that signal safety and belonging, the human story is the story of migration—one where crossing borders both real and metaphorical reshapes our collective destiny.

Triptych

I had a day’s Underground pass, forms
to be filed for your passport. Soon,
we’d fly back to the States
if your paperwork was in order.
Your father stood watch in the embassy, ready
to call us in when needed, while I wheeled
you ‘round the garden in summer’s
equatorial heat. I shifted the sunshade
over your face.
Down the path, a stranger neared,
shopping bags in her hand, head scarf
adorned with flowers, petals scattering,
light and dark.

In this time before fear was everywhere,
what was the reason she caught my gaze?

§

Nearly two decades on, my screen flickers with images
of crowds and crusades, flags set aflame,
placards facing off outside the same American embassy:
“Afghanistan’s the graveyard of soldiers!” “If you want
Sharia, move to Saudi!” Rage tilts toward
extremes. Citizens are advised to review
the Worldwide Caution, stay current
with media coverage. The camera pans across
the roiling crowd, one side against the other: Londoners
who’d banish all immigrants, Muslim protesters
garbed in white.
                                   How to speak
of what we share, what separates us?

If there’s a woman in that crowd,
I don’t see her,

§
but I remember the day
I waited with the pram, how you blinked
as I pulled back the sunshade and you tugged
your tiny bonnet, fist clenched unfurling.
In time’s reflecting pool,
water gathers, builds to spill . . . That stranger,
alone, hesitant, reached in to touch your face—
What was her past? A dream of mosquito nets,
acoustic flashings of rain? The cardamom pods
she’d bought for her mother?
She saw
a mum with a pram and neared, touching
the face of a stranger’s baby, smiling
as she said beautiful,
as she said blessed.

*There are some indented half-lines in this poem that WordPress won’t indent–apologies for the vagaries of blog formatting–but I trust this poem’s acoustic flashings still scintillate.

Jane Satterfield has published five books, including Apocalypse Mix, winner of the 2016 Autumn House Poetry Prize. She is the recipient of an NEA poetry fellowship, the 49th Parallel Poetry Prize, Ledbury Festival Poetry Prize, and more. With Laurie Kruk, she is co-editor of the multigenre anthology Borderlands and Crossroads: Writing the Motherland (Demeter Press). Satterfield is married to poet Ned Balbo and lives in Baltimore where she is an associate professor at Loyola University Maryland.

Spirals, inspirations

I’m returning to a beloved book this week, Paula Meehan’s Painting Rain (2009), for a class on place, borders, and migration in contemporary poetry. Meehan’s collection inspired a lot of my thinking about place in verse. I suddenly remembered, as I wandered among the poems again, that Meehan has inspired some rockin’ visual art, too. Here’s a meditation I wrote last April-ish about Meehan and painter David Harrison–originally for another source, but since it was never granted residency, I’m giving it asylum here.

david-harrisonFor the “Poem in a Landscape” feature of Ecotone 19, I contributed an essay on place, time, and loss inspired by Paula Meehan’s “Death of a Field.” It turns out I’m not the only artist galvanized by Meehan’s incantatory poem. David Harrison’s recent exhibition “Flowers of Evil” at London’s Victoria Miro Gallery featured an oil painting responding to her verses. A book containing the painting’s image found its way to me this winter—from London via Dublin to Virginia.

I love the way Harrison reimagines Meehan’s pocket universe. The poet powerfully conjures a literary afterlife for a field about to be lost to development, but the painter’s translation of the field possesses its own strong magic. Further, Harrison is, like Meehan, preoccupied with the porous borders between worlds.

In the Flowers of Evil book, Harrison tells interviewer Peter Doig that the exhibition as a whole was inspired by a childhood copy of Cicely Barker’s 1923 book Flower Fairies. Nowadays, he observes, the toxic flowers that preoccupy him are “called weeds—vilified. I thought of doing a modern version of flower fairies, using flowers that are ultra poisonous but also beneficial to mankind. People talk about the spread of these plants as if they are a threat, well, I thought I’d juxtapose them with the spread of these horrific modern housing estates and executive developments that are destroying the world.”

Meehan’s poem in particular influenced a painting called “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy).” It features a central stalk of blooming nightshade—a plant not even mentioned among Meehan’s lists of wild herbs. The upper left part of the painting shows a field under a bit of blue sky, but that peacefulness quickly leads down, past a gate, to a sign declaring some developer’s construction plans. From there, things get hallucinogenic. A dizzy spiral emanates from the belladonna plant, and an entity with gauzy pink wings presides over the painting’s right half. Multiple perspectives jostle for dominance.

Harrison walks an interesting line between realism and abstraction. His flower fairy—a mediating spirit—has a realistic head but an abstracted torso, her circular breasts overwritten by five-pointed stars. While some botanical detail, too, is naturalistic, Harrison has painted in an allegorical cartoon of the wrong kind of progress: a businessman’s silhouette rushes past a spider-web towards a death’s head skull.

Harrison also draws our attention to the medium itself. Every creation, he hints, is built over its own dark underworld. “Death of a Field (Belladonna Fairy)” is painted in oil on cardboard, with some of the surface torn away, leaving a crimson seam. “It’s a nod to Dada,” Harrison says. “I love the idea of cheap, throwaway objects and materials…I love the fact that underneath there’s a rib cage, almost. It’s like you’re working with a living material.” It’s not that the ribbed cardboard world is more real than the surface fantasy conjured in brilliant oils. Instead, they coexist, interdependent, enriching each other.

For me, the spiral in the painting’s center just keeps radiating out with new associations, the way Meehan’s original poem does. I think of the triple spiral from prehistoric Irish art, such as in the Newgrange tomb not far from Dublin. The spiral is a natural shape associated with curling ferns and other signs of vitality. Yet it’s also the painting’s most cartoonish element, reminiscent of those squiggles Mort Walker christened “spurls”—comic-strip shorthand for intoxication or disorientation. The fairy’s head and eyes repeat in the arms of the spiral, as if consciousness is dispersed through the plant’s hallucinogenic action. Where am I? the painting asks. Is there a more important question? ∞

Where you are now, by the way, is a redesigned “Taking Poetry Personally.” The header photograph is a retaining wall in my Virginian backyard, to represent my current obsession with boundaries and borders. More on that soon, closer to winter’s finish line and the cool edge of a North American spring.