Wednesday, April 30, 2008

*The Crossbow

Yeah, I wrote this a while back after reading a series of Thomas Lux poems, so I was in a bit of an absurdest mindset. I don't know that this is one of my favorite things that I've written, but I wanted to try and emulate Lux's style. The publisher I met with liked it enough to request a copy, so it's here. If you've got any suggestions please tell me because it's definitely a work in progress.

The Crossbow
by me

I met a man who had been shot in the head with a crossbow.
He was out hunting with his friend,
a friend who was eventually the best man in his wedding.

They were out hunting and it was an accident.
Why anyone would choose to hunt is beyond me,
but to hunt with a crossbow would be like trying to swim the Pacific—
it’s possible, but there’s got to be an easier way.

So he was shot in the head.
I asked him if it still hurt and he said
it never hurt.
He never felt it.
He saw the blood,
heard the bone crack,
and watched as his friend looked at him with what he called
“suicide eyes.”
But he didn’t feel anything but a gentle shove on his skull.

At first, he told me, it felt like a painless kick from a mule;
When I pressed him further, he admitted that he had never actually been kicked by a mule, so the comparison may not have been valid.

The team of doctors took pictures and videos and still, eight years later,
give lectures about this man.
But for all their talk and all their study,
they never removed the bow from his head.
They told him that to do so would surely cause his brain to bleed and other such fun things to occur.
They just trimmed the arrow point down to a nub.
So he combed his hair over the smooth cut shaft and you really didn’t know it was there
unless you happened to catch him coming out of the shower,
which I never did.

But this man, whom I met during a particularly boring hockey game,
is dead now.
He was killed by an infection in his heart.
The infection started in his arm,
Traveled through his blood, and ruined his heart.
A mosquito bit him and gave him the infection.

That was three years after the arrow.

Citrus City

About a year ago, I brought some students to a poetry workshop sponsored by Dodge. While there, one of the poets read this poem that the entire audience loved (and anything that impresses a bunch of teenagers must be great!). I searched and searched online but was never able to find the poem or remember the poet's name, so I've had shades of this poem in my head since them but not been able to truly appreciate it. A few weekends ago, I was at a poetry reading and, sure enough, there was that poet again! So this time, I spoke to him briefly after the reading and got a copy of his book. The poet's name is Patrick Rosal, and this is the poem that I remember:

By Patrick Rosal

When I walk down Second Avenue
the first
sun-spent day of spring
and the scent of dropped
flowers spilled bottles of OE and mints
begins to burn from the asphalt and people
strip to the waist reminded of some first urge
to be naked against the city air
(eight million breaths
at any given moment)
I see a boy devour
the last slice of an orange
and my mouth waters
so I buy one for myself
at the closest stand The citrus drips
down my wrists
from the corners of my lips
and I realize it’s been some time
since I’ve seen anyone
eat an orange outside
I look into the eyes of Manhattanites who
look me in the mouth
and I think: perhaps she
tastes the same
tart under her tongue and maybe
she will head straight for a fruit stand and buy
a navel to eat on the street too
and someone
will see her or two people will see her love her skirt
sprayed with the minuscule burst of juice
so they buy lots of oranges
eat one on the bus heading
uptown (toward all those oranges
in the Bronx) and the person stepping off
at twenty-third walks crosstown to Chelsea
surrenders his organic nut bar
stops at a fruit stand
and maybe someone en route to Chinatown
bumps into the guy from Chelsea
and remembers his
first orange
at a picnic
as a child
on a beach—
in the Phillippines—
in August
So he buys two oranges
Goes home to his lover
whose drape of sweat
smells like the day
and since he’s already eaten one along the way
they sit across from each other
and share
the remaining one:
its packed flesh a brief but cool
reprieve from their apartment
steaming like an engine
and this is how a whole city’s
eating oranges:
the first sun-spent spring day—
an orgy of them

I'm really glad that I found this, because this really is a great poem. Usually, memory makes things better/worse than reality, but in this case I think I was completely justified to search for this poem. The idea that the entire city is connected by the eating of an orange is a truly beautiful one.... ah! It's so refreshing to read.

I can't say that I quite understand the spacing of the lines though. I don't know if the format is going to show up on this blog or not, but the lines are spaced out somewhat randomly. Random lines are indented to the right end of the previous lines, and that gives it a very wide-open feel. I like that it slows things down and leaves a lot of space, but I'm wondering what the reasoning is for Rosal to have chosen the specific lines to indent that he did.

I haven't had a chance to really digest the book, called Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive. I like to read something many times before deciding if I like it or not, so I'll reserve comment on the book as a whole; but I will say that I am definitely looking forward to finding out if there are any other poems as emotion-inducing as "Citrus City" in Rosal's collection.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How to Like It

By Stephen Dobyns

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving.
A man and a dog descend their front steps.
The dog says, Let’s go downtown and get crazy drunk.
Let’s tip over all the trash cans we can find.
This is how dogs deal with the prospect of change.
But in his sense of the season, the man is struck
by the oppressiveness of his past, how his memories
which were shifting and fluid have grown more solid
until it seems he can see remembered faces
caught up among the dark places in the trees.
The dog says, Let’s pick up some girls and just
rip off their clothes. Let’s dig holes everywhere.
Above his house, the man notices wisps of cloud
crossing the face of the moon. Like in a movie,
he says to himself, a movie about a person
leaving on a journey. He looks down the street
to the hills outside of town and finds the cut
where the road heads north. He thinks of driving
on that road and the dusty smell of the car
heater which hasn’t been used since last winter.
The dog says, Let’s go down to the diner and sniff
people’s legs. Let’s stuff ourselves on burgers.
In the man’s mind, the road is empty and dark.
Pine trees press down to the edge of the shoulder
where the eyes of animals fixed in his headlights
shine like small cautions against the night.
Sometimes a trailer truck lit up like Christmas
roars past and his whole car briefly shakes.
The dog says, Let’s go to sleep. Let’s lie down
by the fire and put our tails over our noses.
But the man wants to drive all night, crossing
one state line after another and never stop
until the sun creeps into his rearview mirror.
Then he’ll pull over and rest a while before
starting again, and at dusk he’ll crest a hill
and there, filling a valley, will be the lights
of a city entirely new to him.
But the dog says, Let’s just go back inside.
Let’s not do anything tonight. So they
walk back up the sidewalk to the front steps.
How is it possible to want so many things
and still want nothing? The man wants to sleep
and wants to hit his head again and again
against a wall. Why is it all so difficult?
But the dog says, Let’s go make a sandwich.
Let’s make the tallest sandwich anyone’s ever seen.
And that’s what they do and that’s where the man’s
wife finds him, staring into the refrigerator
as if into the place where the answers are kept—
the ones telling why you get up in the morning
and how it is possible to sleep at night,
answers to what comes next and how to like it.

I found this poem two weeks ago and I can honestly say that I have not had it out of my head for more than a very few minutes since then. This poem is an example of everything that is great about modern poetry.

First, there is a talking dog, and that’s just funny. The dog’s voice is used to reflect the man’s desires; what dog-lover doesn’t do that? I always think that my Tucker (a pit mix) must have the same thoughts that I do, and when I give him a voice, it always is simple and base, yet very “philosophical,” just like the speaker’s dog. The man wants to do something crazy? The dog wants to pick up girls and “rip their clothes off.” The man wants to go home? “Let’s just go back inside. Let’s not do anything tonight.”

Next, there is a deeper, more profound purpose to this poem. The last three lines are as beautiful and as powerful as any I’ve read in a very long time. How does a person just keep going when everything seems so hard? How can we continue living when it seems like there’s no point? Well, if you just stop looking, you never know where you may find the answer. For all we know, the answer is in the refrigerator.

The best part of this poem for me is the surprise. I read the first couple lines and fully expected this to be just another boring, nature-is-great kind of poem. I absolutely did not expect to like this poem at all, but as soon as the story of the man and his dog starts, I’m hooked. Finding beauty somewhere that you don’t expect it to be is as wonderful a human experience as there is.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

*The Poet

So one day, about two months ago, I was at my Dodge Poetry class, and there was another guy there whom I've known for a few years. He's slightly past middle age, plays guitar in an Irish band, and teaches at an inner-city school in Trenton. In other words, he's a guy that I respect very much. Well, we sat down and class started and I looked across the table and saw that Billy was writing his poetry notes using one of those small, eraser-less mini-golf pencils. That struck me-- for some unknown reason-- as very profound. How could someone as intelligent, as talented as Billy find it possible to construct anything coherent with such a primitive writing utensil? It later occurred to me that he was just doodling and writing a few notes, hardly trying to search for any deep philosophical truths of the universe.

But that image of a man, a poet, who writes like that... well, it was powerful to me. I really liked the possibility that something profound could be composed with something so simple. And I decided right there that I wanted to try to write something using that image. So, thanks Billy!

The Poet
(with thanks to Billy O'Neal)
by me

He composed his lines with grace
and eloquence and style.
His phrases were candy fresh from pop-pop’s sweater pockets,
crinkling as it’s unwrapped,
hard and sweet
as I slide it through my mouth against my teeth and
Tongue and lips.

Tasting the poems, I wonder how someone could so
perfectly capture any real truth
using nothing but the incompleteness of words.

Once, I saw him from a distance,
As he sat alone in a library
by a window.

He had books open on the table and papers spread around him,
franticly staring down at them,
hand on top of his thinly-topped head,
searching for the secret, the truth, the word.
He leaned over the books like a bird
guarding his young in the nest,
waiting to feed them and then push them off a bough
to fly or fall.

From the isle between Mystery and Biography,
I watched him, never
considering an approach.

He was scribbling on a pad with
a mini-golf pencil--
short, eraserless, permanent—
Mumbling quietly to the words on the page;
Barely visible over the crook of his fingers,
like a ghost leaving a thin lead trail.

As a teenager, I kept scores
On pocket-sized cards during first dates,
Usually flubbing the numbers to make things more fun.
At the end of the night, I put the half-pencil
back into the small box
next to the cash register, knowingly
grinning at the bored kid behind the counter,
winking or shrugging, depending
on how the night had gone.

I wonder if the poet ever keeps score.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Romantic Moment

So Tony Hoagland is every bit as fun to read as Billy Collins, but his style is very different. I’m not sure if I can quite put my hand on exactly why Hoagland is different than Collins, but I can always tell the poems of one from the other. With that said, both poets are absolutely amazing at turning the serious into the silly and then bringing it right back to serious.

I had the pleasure of meeting Tony Hoagland a few weeks back and I have to say that it was an eye-opening experience. He was the featured speaker at the Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain Common Gathering up at Drew University in Madison, NJ. He read some of his poems and some of his favorite poems, and then he spoke for a bit about “life as a poet.” What was really great, though, was that, after the presentation, he spoke to me like we were buddies at a card game. I was talking Doc Long, a friend and Dodge Poet who happened to know Tony Hoagland, when Tony came over to us and began chatting. He worked his way in to the conversation, asked me questions, laughed at my sad attempts at humor, and made me completely forget that I was talking to a poetical genius.

by Tony Hoagland

After seeing the nature documentary we walk down Canyon Road
into the place of art galleries and high end clothing stores

where the mock orange is fragrant in the summer night
and the smooth adobe walls glow fleshlike in the dark.

It is just our second date, and we sit down on a bench,
holding hands, not looking at each other,

and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over
and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved

and if I were a peacock I'd flex my gluteal muscles to
erect and spread the quills of my cinemax tail.

If she were a female walkingstick bug she might
insert her hypodermic proboscis delicately into my neck

and inject me with a rich hormonal sedative
before attaching her egg sac to my thoracic undercarriage,

and if I were a young chimpanzee I would break off a nearby treelimb
and smash all the windows in the plaza jewelry stores.

And if she were a Brazilian leopard frog she would wrap her impressive
tongue three times around my right thigh and

pummel me lightly against the surface of our pond
and I would know her feelings were sincere.

Instead we sit awhile in silence, until
she remarks that in the relative context of tortoises and iguanas,

human males seem to be actually rather expressive.
And I say that female crocodiles really don't receive

enough credit for their gentleness.
Then she suggests it is time for us to go

to get some ice cream cones and eat them.

This was one of the poems that he read, and it made an impression on the entire audience. We all laughed and clapped and have a great time while he was reading. He read the first six lines of the poem as though it were going to be serious and somber, and he totally set us up, having not read the poem before. When he read the line “and if I were a bull penguin right now I would lean over/and vomit softly into the mouth of my beloved,” the audience broke open and roared with laughter.

The poem is Hoagland’s take on the all-too-common topic of the poor communication between men and women. This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as my wife and I seem to have two differing views on communication. I am the typical male; I prefer to say little and only speak up when there’s something significant to say. My wife likes to talk, and talk she does. In the morning, while watching tv, in the shower, while laying in bed… she will talk wherever, whenever, about whatever. So poems like this… well, they usually make me smile.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Child Development

It's no secret that Billy Collins is an idol of mine. The man is consistently able to find a way to say something incredibly profound in a way that is comical and/or light-hearted. His style is very simple, very narrative, which is the only way that I know how to write. This poem is one of my favorite of his poems:

Child Development
by Billy Collins

As sure as prehistoric fish grew legs
and sauntered off the beaches into forests
working up some irregular verbs for their
first conversation, so three-year-old children
enter the phase of name-calling.

Every day a new one arrives and is added
to the repertoire. You Dumb Goopyhead,
You Big Sewerface, You Poop-on-the-Floor
(a kind of Navaho ring to that one)
they yell from knee level, their little mugs
flushed with challenge.
Nothing Samuel Johnson would bother tossing out
in a pub, but then the toddlers are not trying
to devastate some fatuous Enlightenment hack.

They are just tormenting their fellow squirts
or going after the attention of the giants
way up there with their cocktails and bad breath
talking baritone nonsense to other giants,
waiting to call them names after thanking
them for the lovely party and hearing the door close.
The mature save their hothead invective
for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,
or receding trains missed by seconds,
though they know in their adult hearts,
even as they threaten to banish Timmy to bed
for his appalling behavior,
that their bosses are Big Fatty Stupids,
their wives are Dopey Dopeheads
and that they themselves are Mr. Sillypants.

I am a somewhat immature person, but I've always prided myself on the fact that I can be mature when I need to be (but only when I need to be). But I can't tell you how many times during the course of a day that I want to call someone "bozo" or "dumbo." I'm not much for vulgarity, so my most creative names are generally along the lines of an angry toddler's rants. When I first read this poem, I'm pretty sure I laughed out loud.

I love the lines, "The mature save their hothead invective/for things: an errant hammer, tire chains,/or receding trains missed by seconds...." When I do something stupid (like forget my lunch at home, or stub my toe on the shower, or fall out of a chair--which I do pretty regularly) I usually yell "son of a monkey," which makes no sense at all. I don't know why I say it or where it came from, but I know that I'd prefer to yell one of the other such colorful obscenities, the ones that Collins so obviously want to say in his poem but avoids.

The truly great thing about this poem is the simple message that it contains: we're all just kids at heart, no matter what "mature" situation we find ourselves in. When we get angry, when we get frustrated, we think the same juvenile thoughts as the average 8-year-old; we just have learned to cover them up and hide or suppress our own negative thoughts. It's a very simple truth that the world forces us to be "mature" even when we would prefer to just stick out our tongue and laugh.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

*The Security System

Since my last post was a poem that reminded me about my father, I thought today I'd post a poem I wrote that ended up being about my father. Here it is:

The Security System
by me

The smell of the air just before the rain,
As the thunder gently rolls in the Jersey background,
Is the smell of my father when I was a kid.
He would lift open the wooden garage door and
Set up folding chairs.
As the thunder came closer and the rain fell, suddenly heavy,
That smell would get so strong that it was hardly noticeable
Sometimes he would click on the little radio and find a random station,
And in those moments, it seemed like the stations knew
The importance of the occasion, and they
Forgot all about DJs and commercials,
And played nothing but classic background favorites that made the rain
Sound that much more musical.
And when the breeze became a wind, and the wind became strong, that smell flooded the garage,
And the rain knew it was time to slow, to trickle, to stop.
A car would come down the narrow street and the tires on the wet road
Made a wet sound, and soon enough,
The smell was gone.

While my dad reached overhead to shut the garage door, I would fold the chairs and carry them,
One at a time (because that’s all my little arms could carry),
Back to their leaning spot against the opposite wall.
There was an old ten speed bike that never had air in the tires
--And seemed to me to be nothing but a gross home for spider webs--
That my dad would use as a security system.
He would lean the handle of the bike over the top of the metal bracket
Of the door and then take a rotten wood block and jam it from the top of the door to a nail he had long ago hammered into the ceiling.
There was no actual lock on the door,
But my father made do.
That was him:
That lock, that garage, that smell.
I love that smell.

I wrote this about a year ago because I had recently read a number of poems about rain, and one day decided to think about that smell. This is what came out. It's simple narrative poetry, lacking any rhyme or meter-- I like to say that's because rhyme and meter don't fit the poem, but it's probably because I'm not very good at those things.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Blog Title

If anyone would believe me, I would start this entry with "So people ask me all the time...." But nobody reads this blog, and nobody has ever asked me (and nobody probably ever will ask me) where the blog gets its name. Well, heck, I'll tell you anyway.

Sentimental Moment or Why Did the Baguette Cross the Road?
By Robert Hershon

Don't fill up on bread
I say absent-mindedly
The servings here are huge

My son, whose hair may be
receding a bit, says
Did you really just
say that to me?

What he doesn't know
is that when we're walking
together, when we get
to the curb
I sometimes start to reach
for his hand

I came across this poem a couple years back in Poetry magazine. I think it was in the annual humor issue, though I'm not sure of that. The poem struck me immediately because it instantly made me smile. Just look at the title? It goes from something serious (or at least neutral) with "Sentimental Moment" to something that is the set-up to a joke ("Why did the baguette cross the road?"). What a great juxtaposition of two different mindsets. I truly want to know where the title came from, but alas, I have no idea. And why did the author use the word "baguette" instead of just "bread" or "loaf" or something else more common? I can only assume that it's to sound more French, which, in our wonderful American version of life, automatically injects a sense of formality.

I also can't help thinking about my father when I read this poem. I'm half-a-year short of my thirtieth birthday, I'm married happily, I've held down a good job since graduating near the top of my college class, and yet my father still feels the need to delude himself into believing that I'm a teenager. "Call your grandparents," he tells me. "Save your money." These are the stalwarts. But then he tells me things like, "you should make reservations when you go to busy restaurants because they can get crowded." Thanks, Dad. Don't get me wrong; I love my dad. He's at the top of my favorite people list, behind only my wife and tied with my brother and mother (I may have a more specific ranking system, but I'm not dumb enough to put it in writing). Anyway, when I read this poem, I think that this is something that, if he were more poetical, my dad would think or say to me. I know that he tries to see me as an adult, but something tells me that he'll always want to pay for dinner, and he'll randomly give me $20 from his wallet when he thinks I need it.

The other thing about this poem is its simplicity. If I ever get around to posting my own poems, you'll see that I prefer a very simply, prose style. This poem is short but it is very clear in the picture that is being painted. There's a father who loves his son, and this is what he thinks. It doesn't need to be made more complex, more "literary," than this poem, and I appreciate that.

I'm part of a poetry appreciators group that meets on Saturday mornings during the spring, and for our first meeting of 2008 I brought this poem to share with the others. It was one of four pieces I had with me that day, and it was the one I chose to read aloud. At the end of that first session, we shared copies of all our poems, and, oddly enough, another member of the group (a bear of a man named Wilber-- whom I just love) also brought this one. When we discussed it, I again was struck by the power of poetry. I brought this poem because it made me think of my dad; Wilber brought the poem because it made him think of his kids. And we both love it.

Wow! I've got a blog!

So I'm not sure if this is lame or if this this is great... I'll let you know when I decide.

I'm also not sure who "you" are or if I'll ever actually publish this online, but for now, I thought I'd at least start something different.

I've been writing a lot of poetry lately, and I'm quite sure most if it isn't that good, so I figured now would be a great time to make my contribution to the great pointless mass of information on the internet. The world will always need some fake-intellectual's crappy poetry! I also thought that I would start posting some poems that have an impact. I'm always reading something and thinking, "wow, I'd like to share this with someone," but too few people actually seem to care about poetry.

So I guess the point of this blog will be to share poetry, be it mine or someone else's. I won't go so far as to assume that anyone will ever actually care about this blog, but if you stop by, feel free to comment. Just know that I'll probably make fun of you because you're reading some jerk's blog and that's just weird!