Poetry and heart

Thanks to the folks at Copper Nickel! The new issue contains my essay on Robert Sullivan, “Uncanny Activisms”

I looked up “heart” and found definitions including feeling, courage, enthusiasm, vital part, “the condition of agricultural land as regards fertility,” personality, disposition, compassion, generosity, character, charity, humanity, and of course love. It has associations with memory, too (“by heart”) and deep concern (“to heart”). Obsolete: intellect, which is pretty much the opposite of what most people mean by “heart” now. My curiosity about the word is probably connected to valentine season, but I’ve also been reading a ton of poetry lately and thinking about what draws me to some poems more than others–a set of qualities I sometimes call heart.

My reading includes twelve finalist mss I’m musing over for a poetry prize as well as assignments for a course on documentary poetry: first Rukeyser’s sequence “The Book of the Dead,” then Forché’s The Country Between Us, then a sampling of poetic responses to Hurricane Katrina including some by Cynthia Hogue (interview poems), Raymond McDaniel (ethically problematic collage), and Patricia Smith (often persona poems). Most recently we finished Nicole Cooley’s Breach, a rewarding book to teach not least because it’s so various in forms and approaches. It was a student favorite and when I asked why, they said “authenticity.” When I asked what the signs or markers of authenticity were, the answers seem to boil down to vulnerability. Self-interrogation; courage; generosity; getting to the heart of things, even when exposure makes you look bad. In Cooley’s return to post-hurricane New Orleans, her childhood home, with her daughters, this sometimes means longing to be mothered rather than to mother, a taboo emotion for a woman to admit.

Extracurricularly, I just read Molly Spencer‘s recent If the House too, and it’s an open-hearted missive from the interior of a body, a marriage, and multiple houses. I love the porosity of Spencer’s containers, the flow of information inward and outward. You could call it circulation.

I’m in a receptive mode; I’m not writing much, except for an occasional blog post or tweet (and a bazillion emails). I often write little poetry in winter and then things turn in spring, partly because of the academic calendar and partly the natural one. My sweetheart and I just took a walk in the woods–every Saturday, we try to get out of our neighborhood, walk elsewhere, this time on trails a bit of a drive away–and it was so bright, cold, and still. Wild onions had sent up curling leaves and the moss was green, but otherwise it was just gray boles, brown mud, fallen branches, leaf duff. Inner and outer weather match.

In town, though, crocus and snowdrops are arriving, early omens of a busier season. I’m not sure I’m ready for spring and the associated book-launch madness, but at least I have the generous blurbs below to reassure me the book is worth at least some attention. That matters so much, when writers you admire will spend their time reading your work and saying thoughtful, encouraging words about it. It gives me heart.

Poetry, pickled

I spent a lot of 2017 thinking about what poetry can DO. I wish poems could stop inhumane deportations and government shutdowns, and I hope poets will keep trying to make the world more kind and fair. Mostly, though, my aims are smaller in scale: can writing this poem change ME for the better? The stories we tell about ourselves really matter, and I’ve been trying to tell hopeful ones. After all, that’s what I want to read–literature that acknowledges the complicated mess we live in but ultimately tilts towards love.

Now, two weeks into a new class on documentary poetics, I find myself thinking about poems, instead, as testimony, carrying some part of the past into our present attention. That’s not unrelated to poetry as spell, prayer, or action, but the emphasis is a little different. The poets we’ve been reading–Rukeyser and Forché at first, and a host of Katrina poets now, including Patricia Smith, Cynthia Hogue, and Nicole Cooley–are asking what we need to remember. Their poetries still look towards the future but are more explicitly grounded in history. We’ll be sailing even further in that direction soon with Kevin Young’s Ardency, a book I’ve never taught before. (I’m really excited about this class, but once again I’ve scheduled a lot of new labor for myself, as if destroying work-life balance is my explicit goal.)

Then these arrived in the mail. THANK YOU, SCOTT NICOLAY!

cans

There’s art just in the words on the stickers, right? I’m excited to taste what delicious parts of an apparently bad year my friend transformed and preserved for me. And I’m thinking , too, about poems boiling up in me that I can barely snatch time to can, these days. What surplus can I doctor up and put by for another time, when I or somebody else might need them more?

Well, not much, maybe. I’m working flat out right now just staying on top of tomorrow’s obligations. But I do have some jam from April 2014 to share this Wednesday: I’ll be reading from Propagationand my colleague in the History Department Roberta Senechal de la Roche will be reading from her poetry chapbook, at 4:30 pm on 1/24 in Northen Auditorium in Leyburn Library at W&L. There will be a fruit and cheese platter, coffee and tea service, and books for sale, and I will endeavor to keep the poetry tasty–but, selfishly, I won’t be sharing Scott’s plum-pluet-Asian pear jam with amontillado. Maybe visit me with a good baguette, and we’ll talk.

In the meantime, here’s a poem from a few years back. It’s about another government shutdown, with salsa verde on the side. My thanks to One for serving it up.

Urgent: curse for moonlight declamation

Two blessings and a curse–guess which one is the most fun to read aloud? My poxy poem, “All-purpose Spell for Banishment,” written last New Year’s Eve, just appeared in the new issue of SalamanderMaybe if we all chant it naked by moonlight on the solstice, inserting the name of our least favorite president, the new year will bring us more light. On the beneficent side, “Border Song,” from Ocean State Reviewis the way I remember the especially moving 2016 wedding of my friends Jenna and Lucy, bless them both. And check out my poem in the new Blackbirdif you have time, in which I try, through a slightly banged-up pantoum’s repetition, to turn a bad year around.

Benedictions to the editors of all those journals, including interns who slipped issues into the mail during the last sliver of fall term. Blessed be, too, the good people at Modernism/ modernity, who posted my column on archival frustrations last week: “Seeking Anne Spencer.” Blessed be Anne Spencer. Salutations to the gods who permitted me to finish my full-length essay on her and submit it by today’s deadline, as well as to my spouse, who suggested some timely edits at a very busy moment of the term. All hail Janet McAdams, micro review editor at Kenyon Review Online, for assembling such a mighty roster of smallnesses every other month, including, this December, my praise of Nicole Cooley’s Girl after Girl after Girl. 

I haven’t been writing poetry much, but I’m hoping to change energies now by reading voraciously and steaming a Christmas pudding. In the meantime, I hereby beam out good cheer to all my friends, and all poetry’s friends. It’s been a stupid, toxic, nasty year, but there are lots of good words left to utter, and sometimes they make a difference.

Failing that, please enjoy a gratuitous black cat, caught in the act of chewing my tree.

 

Heterocosmic

My mother divested herself of all kinds of things last year—furniture, dishes, adulterous husband. On one of my visits she loaded me up with a bin of old papers and photos. I quickly divided them into four piles: one each for me, my sister, and my brother, and one for disposal. Then I left my pile in a corner of my bedroom for two months, not knowing what to do with it.

I looked through it recently before putting the stack in the ultimate Place of Repression—our chaotic attic—but plucked out one item for my office. It’s an old black-and-white postcard of Calder High School in Liverpool. My mother attended it as a scholarship girl in the fifties. A few years ago, I wrote a book of poems about Liverpool in that era, published as Heterotopia (“other place”) in 2010. Because I grew up on family stories of Vronhill Street and the Calderstones, that place and time still feels vivid to me: not vanished, just not easily accessible, an otherworld you can sometimes enter through the back of the wardrobe. See? I brought home a postcard.

Stories, poems, photographs can be time-travel devices when they absorb you sufficiently, though like doors to Narnia, the mechanisms aren’t entirely dependable. I’m always hoping to enable that step-into-the-fairy-ring effect, but other contemporary poets can be ambivalent about soliciting reader immersion. I’m currently teaching a seminar on poetry and place and we began with books about the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. All of them conjure up the pre-storm world, the terrible nightmare universe of flooded New Orleans, and the damage remaining. At the moment we’re reading Nicole Cooley’s Breach, in which narrative (a strategy of absorption) oscillates with fragmentation (anti-absorptive, insisting on our awareness of the poems as self-conscious assemblages). There’s a lot to say about Cooley’s compelling collection but for now, a glimpse:

Old Gulf Coast Postcards

Between the already-over and the now-gone, on a corner of the wrecked
downtown, in the Gulfport Pharmacy, my daughter and I spin the black rack—

Broadwater Beach. Biloxi Harbor. Pass Christian where two girls
splash in a Technicolor ocean so blue it burns your eyes.

Last year turned historical: Welcome to Dauphin Island! Greetings
from Waveland! Climb aboard the red and white ship

SS Hurricane Camille, docked at a wooden pier no longer outside.
At The Real Southern Ante-Bellum House, the azaleas

gleam play-doh pink, bunched and bursting off the columned porch.
We spin the rack, and I remember driving to Gulfport with my mother,

beaches my daughter will never see. Harbor, coast, skyline all relic.
Between the gone and the not-recovered, no one

steps out of their house to wave. No porch lights gleam.
Cadaver dogs sniff the dirt. At the edge of downtown, an ancient, twisted oak

lies uprooted, on its side, a sign labeling it Alive.

(online at the Poets for Living Waters site)

“Old Gulf Coast Postcards” works hard to situate us, from title through subtitle to the pharmacy’s location to captioned postcards depicting sites that no longer exist. It also works hard to disorient us through paradox: “between the already-over and the now-gone…between the gone and the not-recovered.” Nobody inhabits this unlocatable heterocosmica (“other world”), she tells us (although heterocosmica is my favorite new word, not one that Cooley uses!). The postcards offer a “Technicolor” vision where flowers bloom in unnatural Play-doh hues. Though these details suggest a childish or idealized perspective, Cooley emphasizes the continuing validity of memory when she ends the poem with an uprooted old tree labeled “Alive.”

I have no idea whether uprooted old oaks—live oaks?—can survive and be replanted, but in any case, I don’t think the poem’s final gesture is quixotic. Cooley doesn’t finish this poem’s final couplet because all fictional or poetic worlds, no matter how vivid, are incomplete. Actual people can’t live there anymore. Its poetic invocation is not mere fantasy, though, because fantasy is never mere. Somebody has to imagine persistence or that tree will certainly die. There’s a reason Cooley alludes to so many fairy tales and fantasy universes in this book. They retain crucial resources when so much else seems to be lost.