Thursday, May 29, 2008

Purple Bathing Suit

A couple days ago, I posted Robert Bly’s “It’s Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences”; today in class we read “Home Burial” by Robert Frost. So it seems that the subject of poor husband/wife relations is here in force. With that in mind, I remembered this Louise Gluck piece that makes me either want to laugh, cry, or sigh (I don’t know which from one reading to the next).

by Louise Gluck

I like watching you garden
with your back to me in your purple bathing suit:
your back is my favorite part of you,
the part furthest away from your mouth.

You might give some thought to that mouth.
Also to the way you weed, breaking
the grass off the ground level
when you should pull it up by the roots.

How many times do I have to tell you
how the grass spreads, your little
pile notwithstanding, in a dark mass which
by smoothing over the surface you have finally
fully obscured? Watching you

stare into space in the tidy
rows of the vegetable garden, ostensibly
working hard while actually
doing the worst job possible, I think

you are a small irritating purple thing
and I would like to see you walk off the face of the earth
because you are all that's wrong with my life
and I need you and I claim you.

It looks like it’s just a simple clichéd idea that men are dumb and women are smarter. I’m not really going to argue that point (I’d lose) but I am going to say that this poem is so much deeper than that. The man is weeded and doing it wrong, but at least he’s not facing the speaker. She loves his back, because seeing his back means that he’s not talking to her. So she’s either married to a really annoying man, or Gluck is making a statement that all men (or all lovers?) get annoying after a long enough time.

It’s a funny idea, this older, larger man sweaty as he weeds while wearing an absurd purple bathing suit. And she has so much scorn for him, which is comical and makes me laugh. But is it meant to be funny or sad? I can never tell which. What I do know is that the last line changes everything. She’s spent all the previous lines letting her audience know that her husband is a bit of a fool, and yet in the end she says simply “and I need you and I claim you.” Is that love? Needing someone even if he/she isn’t perfect? Or is that selfish; she wants to possess someone that she doesn’t “like” maybe just because she wants to possess something? It’s not clear, and I think that may be why I like it so much.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

*Dinner, Again

I was reading Billy Collins' Questions About Angels a few days ago (thanks Holly, for reminding me how great this book is!), and I noticed just how many poems in that book are about his dog. This struck me, because it seems so simple, such an easy thing, to write a poem about your own dog. And yet, I've never done it, and that's weird. So I started toying with this. It's a first draft, and I'm sure I'll revise the crap out of it soon enough, but for now, I thought I'd post it here.

Dinner, Again
by me

When she calls you to dinner
do you sigh,
think, oh… good… dryly?
Pork chops… again.
Just what I wanted. More pasta
and meatballs
Do you put down your newspaper,
your cell phone, your iPod,
and plod to the table,
sit casually, raise fork to mouth,
chew mathematically, and then,
full and filled, return to your more
important drudgery?

But when you call him to dinner,
does he awaken from slumber
like a demon at night,
barrel through the yard or the house,
knowing that this is the most
exciting moment of his life… again?
Does he wonder what is on the menu,
think, oh… I hope it’s re-processed
organic meat byproducts!

Does he wag his tail and spread his drool
on the couch and your pant legs, eager
to see onto the counter as you open the can,
scoop from the bag?

Or does he know that he’ll be eating
today what he ate yesterday, and yesterday,
and yesterday? Is he tired of routine?
Maybe he only runs for his bowl on the floor
because he knows that seeing him
this happy for his dinner
makes you just a bit jealous of
his passion.

Either way,
when he finishes his palatial feast and
returns to the yard or his little cozy bed,
he looks through the fence or the window
at the neighbor kid on his bike,
and he lets out one loud bark!—his own
barbaric yawp—to tell the world
that he—like you—like me—
is satisfied.

Monday, May 26, 2008

It's Hard for Some Men to Finish Sentences

by Robert Bly

Sometimes a man can't say
What he . . . A wind comes
And his doors don't rattle. Rain
Comes and his hair is dry.

There's a lot to keep inside
And a lot to . . . Sometimes shame
Means we. . . Children are cruel,
He's six and his hands. . .

Even Hamlet kept passing
The king praying
And the king said,
"There was something. . . ."

Oh boy. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever read a poem that contains more simple truth that this short free verse gem by Robert Bly.

Sometimes there is so much to say and yet there is nothing that can be said. Generally, we men are the ones who can’t express ourselves; I know that most days I am content to sit back and just listen to my wife and my mostly-female coworkers and my mother, without adding much to the “conversation.” When my wife gets home from work, she gives me a long recap of her day’s events. When I get home from work, I’ve usually forgotten most of what has already happened that day.

The allusion to Hamlet is a great one. There have been Shakespeare references all over poetry for the last two-hundred years, but I’ve not seen one that uses Claudius’ inability to ask for forgiveness as a connecting device. I’ve not seen Hamlet portrayed as such a… “man.”

We (men) are told from birth that emotional expression is best left to the fairer sex, and I generally agree with that. But I wonder why we have also lost our ability to effectively communicate our lack of emotion as well. Are we so detached from the rest of the world? Are we best fit to live as Tarzan, romping through the jungle with our primate bretheren, communicating with a series of grunts and snorts? Maybe… But the part that really gets me is that I honestly don’t know if I want to be able to communicate better. I am content being self-contained, isolated without my own mind. Is that wrong? Is that what it means to be “a man”?

For such a short poem, this one has a very heavy weight.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


Enough with the dark poetry. It’s time for some light-hearted fun. And who better to shed some humor onto this blog than the master of sarcasm, Billy Collins?

by Billy Collins

Smokey the Bear heads
into the autumn woods
with a red can of gasoline
and a box of wooden matches.

His ranger's hat is cocked
at a disturbing angle.

His brown fur gleams
under the high sun
as his paws, the size
of catcher's mitts,
crackle into the distance.

He is sick of dispensing
warnings to the careless,
the half-wit camper,
the dumbbell hiker.

He is going to show them
how a professional does it.

The first time I read this poem was a few years ago. I had assigned one of my sophomore classes to create a journal of contemporary poetry. (Let’s just say that that was not one of the easier assignments I’ve ever given.) Most of the journals contained things that were less than impressive, things from the poetry books and websites that make kids hate poetry. But one student found this poem, and oh, how I laughed.

Collins is a true genius when it comes to creating images that stay with you in a comical way, and this poem is a great example of that. Smokey the Bear, angry, carrying a can of gasoline and some matches, determined to set a fire and get some revenge… well that’s just good clean fun for everyone!

But as is common with Collins’ work, I do think that there is a deeper meaning to this poem, something along the lines of “we all get tired of the routines of life.” Maybe I’m just reading into this too much, looking for something unintentional so I can justify my love of this one on a moral level. Ah, who cares. I love it anyway!

Saturday, May 24, 2008

"Apostrophe to Man"

Yesterday’s post made me remember this poem by Millay. It’s older than most of the things that I like to post, but I think it’s worth the exception.

"Apostrophe to Man"
(on reflecting that the world is ready to go to war again)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Detestable race, continue to expunge yourself, die out.
Breed faster, crowd, encroach, sing hymns, build bombing planes;
Make speeches, unveil statues, issue bonds, parade;
Convert again into explosives the bewildered ammonia and distracted cellulose;
Convert again into putrescent matter drawing flies
The hopeful bodies of the young, exhort,
Pray, pull long faces, be earnest, be all but overcome, be photographed;
Confer, perfect your formulae, commercialize
Bacteria harmful to human tissue,
Put death on the market;
Breed, crowd, encroach, expand, expunge yourself, die out,
Homo called sapiens.

I read this and I feel like Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart. I want to go out and fight! I want to yell at the world and argue about stupid people doing stupid things. I want to make people stop being selfish and ignorant and frivolous. That last line is as wonderful a judgment to the human race as I’ve ever seen.

This poem compares to “In The Mourning Time” very well. I can see the two of them making up the body of a college undergrad’s paper on the poetry of human criticism. “Detestable race,” this poem starts, “continue to expunge yourself, die out.” Ouch. Compare that to the final two lines of Hayden’s poem (“but man / permitted to be man”). Millay wants us to die out; Hayden wants us to utterly change ourselves. I wonder who would win in a fistfight.

Friday, May 23, 2008

In the Mourning Time

I thought I’d post a poem that’s a little darker, a little heavier, than my recent posts. Not that I’m feeling morbid or anything on this lovely holiday weekend; I just thought I’d do something different. And it doesn’t get any heavier than this Robert Hayden gem.

"In the Mourning Time"
by Robert Hayden

As the gook woman howls
for her boy in the smouldering,
as the expendable Clean-Cut Boys
From Decent American Homes
are slashing off enemy ears for keepsakes;

as the victories are tallied up
with flag-draped coffins, plastic bodybags,
what can I say
but this, this:

We must not be frightened nor cajoled
into accepting evil as deliverance from evil.
We must go on struggling to be human,
though monsters of abstraction
police and threaten us.

Reclaim now, now renew the vision of
a human world where godliness
is possible and man
is neither gook nigger honkey wop nor kike

but man

permitted to be man.

I don’t normally like poems that preach. I especially don’t normally like poems that “hurt” to read. But this hurts in a way that reminds me of the power of words. “We must go on struggling to be human.” What a powerful thought. Why should be have to “struggle” to be human? Why should we have to fight to be our true selves?

Wouldn’t it be paradise to live in a “world where godliness is possible”? Wouldn’t it be amazing to completely ignore the stereotyped identities we have thrust upon us (and that we invariably thrust upon others, though we don’t admit it even to ourselves)?

To start the poem with the reference to Vietnam establishes a very dark tone. “As the gook woman howls” is a deadly first line. Very dangerous. He makes this uncomfortable to read, and he doesn’t pull any punches as he progresses through the poem (just look at that last line in the 4th stanza). Yet to be made “uncomfortable” means that I have been affected, in some way, which is to say that I have been impacted. It makes me think of Brokeback Mountain. That movie, especially the end, hurt to watch. When Jake G’s character is beaten to death at the end… breathless. I remember leaving the theater and not even wanting to talk. That’s what this poem does to me, too. It hurts to read, but that in turn makes me want to read it more.

There are too few poems like this. And those to do exist should be known to the more mainstream public. It would do the world some good to feel something every now and again.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Break the Mirror

I don’t really remember where I came across this poem, but in my head I’ve known it for years. The last stanza is as prophetic and truthful as they come. And I couldn’t agree with it more.

“Break The Mirror”
by Nanao Sakaki

In the morning
After taking a cold shower
_________What a mistake_________
I look at the mirror.

There, a funny guy
Grey hair, white beard, wrinkled skin
_________What a pity_________
Poor, dirty, old man!
He is not me, absolutely not.

Land and life
Fishing in the ocean
Sleeping in the desert with stars
Building a shelter in the mountains
Farming the ancient way
Singing with coyotes
Singing against nuclear war –
I’ll never be tired of life.
Now I’m seventeen years old,
Very charming, young man.

I sit down quietly in lotus position,
Meditating, meditating for nothing.
Suddenly a voice comes to me:

“To stay young,
To save the world,
Break the mirror.”

This poem has always “spoken to me” (I’m in a cliché mood, sorry). The speaker is so upset after realizing that he has aged that he feels compelled to imagine himself living the life of the transcendental wanderer (i.e. my brother). He pictures himself in the mountains, singing, living with nature. But what makes this poem—for me—is the final three lines. “To stay young,/ to save the world,/ Break the mirror.” What great advice for all of us.

I suppose this poem is relevant to everyone, but to me, it makes me think of my wife. Without sounding too much like a sap, I really do believe that my wife is the most beautiful woman that I have ever met. She can make me laugh with giddy happiness just by smiling, and I can’t imagine her being any different. Yet for years, she has been convinced (like most crazy females) that she needs to keep losing weight. She always complains about her legs being too fat or something as ridiculous as that. I used to try to convince her that she doesn’t need to work out twice a day and she can sometimes eat some extra dessert, but I gave up on that after years of being told “you don’t understand.” But recently, she’s been easing up on the exercise for various reasons, and she told me just yesterday about how happy she’s been with the change. I really couldn’t be happier about that myself, and so I thought this particular poem would be a fitting tribute to my wife and her relaxed attitudes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now

I would like to dedicate today’s post to my best friend, Tucker.

“To a Stranger Born in Some Distant Country Hundreds of Years from Now”
By Billy Collins

Nobody here likes a wet dog.
No one wants anything to do with a dog
that is wet from being out in the rain
or retrieving a stick from a lake.
Look how she wanders around the crowded pub tonight
going from one person to another
hoping for a pat on the head, a rub behind the ears,
something that could be given with one hand
without even wrinkling the conversation.

But everyone pushes her away,
some with a knee, others with the sole of a boot.
Even the children, who don't realize she is wet
until they go to pet her,
push her away,
then wipe their hands on their clothes.
And whenever she heads toward me,
I show her my palm, and she turns aside.

O stranger of the future!
O inconceivable being!
whatever the shape of your house,
however you scoot from place to place,
no matter how strange and colorless the clothes you
may wear,
I bet nobody there likes a wet dog either.
I bet everybody in your pub,
even the children, pushes her away.

Oh, how Tucker can create a stink. Nobody anywhere in the world can create a foul odor with such little effort as my dog. When he is wet, dumpsters bow down humbly before him. When he is gassy (which is most days) sewer pipes sing his name. So when I read this Billy Collins gem a few weeks ago, my first thought was, poor dog; he’s so mistreated.

My favorite of Tucker’s many endearing habits is when he farts. (Forgive the crassness, but sometimes it’s necessary to fully embrace the human condition.) When he is sitting, looking aloof and forlorn in that woe-is-me manner that only dogs can successfully project, sometimes he lets one fly. It’s generally a squeaky fart, one that is reminiscent of a balloon that is losing its air. Well, I just fall to pieces laughing every time because when he does it, he turns his head and looks back down at his own backside. I can just hear his thoughts; where did that noise come from? Oh, how I laugh! Every time, like a baby with a newly-discovered plush toy, I laugh. The look on his face is just priceless, and imagining him puzzled by the sound just puts me over the edge.

So what does any of this have to do with this poem? Well, not too much other than the fact that the smell of the wet dog that is ignored makes me think of Tucker. The poems works on that dry-humored level that only a few poets have mastered. There are some real universal truths, Collins seems to say, and one of them is that nobody likes the smell of a wet dog.

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Feet Man

So today I was driving home, listening to the radio, and some random line of some background song struck some cord in my head that sparked a memory of a poem that I remember loving. The song had nothing to do with anything other than the fact that I was too lazy to change the station, but the poem it reminded me of (for absolutely no good reason) is below:

The Feet Man
by Philip Dacey

The worst job I ever had was nailing
Jesus’ feet to the cross on the
assembly line at the crucifix factory.
Jesus! I’d never thought of myself
as religious before that, but when
I had to strike those nails—I figured
it up once—more than two thousands times
a day, my mind began seeing things:
little tremors along the skin, jerks of
those legs that were bonier than
models’ legs, his eyes imploring,
forgiving. I swear, if a tiny drop of blood
had oozed out of that wood at my pounding,
I wouldn’t have been surprised at all.
I was ripe for a miracle, or a vacation.
All I got was worse: with each blow
of the hammer, I flinched, as if I
were the one getting pierced. Doing
that job day after day was bad enough,
but doing it to myself—my arms
spread out from one end of my paycheck
to the other—was crazy. I began
to sweat constantly, though the place
was air-conditioned. It wasn’t long before
the foreman took me aside and told me
I was taking my job too seriously, that
if I wanted to keep it I had better calm down.
He was right. I pulled myself together
like a man and put all pointless thoughts
out of my head. Or tried to. It wasn’t easy:
imagine Jesus after Jesus coming down
at you along that line, and you with
your hammer poised, you knowing
what you have to do to make a living.

Having just typed this (because I couldn’t find it online anywhere), I realize that it’s way too good for me to have almost forgotten. My Doge Poetry group read it a few years ago and it’s been in a dusty binder ever since. I really should have taken it out and let it breathe a long time ago.

The images in this poem are both haunting and comical at the same time, a rare combination that is a bit disturbing in and of itself. “Imagine Jesus after Jesus coming down/ at you along that line, and you with/ your hammer poised….” Wow. For an agnostic like me, that’s a very foreboding picture. The poet (does anyone know anything else by him?) couples that striking image with the very funny “I was ripe for a miracle, or a vacation.” Ha!!!

The worst job I ever had was working for ETS, hand scoring AP tests for the arrogant and the ignorant who insisted that there must have been a mistake and they couldn’t possibly have done as poorly as the machine-scored test report said. That was mind-numbing work, especially considering that the whole summer I spent doing it, we (the entire group of us—maybe 15 people?) only found ONE mistake. But my boring job was nothing compared to some of the things that other people have to do ever day. I can’t imagine having to work in a crucifix factory, though in my head I picture it being very poorly lit and musty, with dark wood walls and a loud train whistle that blows at lunch time.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Voice You Hear When You Read Silently

This is one of those poems that I can read over and over and find new lines to love each time.

by Thomas Lux

is not silent, it is a speaking-
out-loud voice in your head: is it spoken,
a voice is saying it
as you read. It's the writer's words,
of course, in a literary sense
his or her voice, but the sound
of that voice is the sound of your voice.
Not the sound your friends know
or the sound of a tape played back
but your voice
caught in the dark cathedral
of your skull, your voice heard
by an internal ear informed by internal abstracts
and what you know by feeling,
having felt. It is your voice
saying, for example, the word barn
that the writer wrote
but the barn you say
is a barn you know or knew. The voice
in your head, speaking as you read,
never says anything neutrally — some people
hated the barn they knew,
some people love the barn they know
so you hear the word loaded
and a sensory constellation
is lit: horse-gnawed stalls,
hayloft, black heat tape wrapping
a water pipe, a slippery
spilled chirr of oats from a split sack,
the bony, filthy haunches of cows. . . .
And barn is only a noun — no verb
or subject has entered into the sentence yet!
The voice you hear when you read to yourself
is the clearest voice: you speak it
speaking to you.

First, I was taken by the simple title and message: we all bring a whole slew of baggage with us when we do anything, including read a poem. Lux uses the randomly simple example of a barn. When I think of that word, the first thing that comes to mind is my mother-in-law’s shed. She bought it a few years back and painted it bright barn red. We’ve spent a lot of time in that yard; our dogs playing, cookouts, gossiping, etc. It’s a nice association that I have with the word. So if the narrator of a poem only says the word “barn” without any more description, it already has a positive connotation to me.

Then the poem goes a bit further. The voice that you hear when you read to yourself is you “true” voice, the one that really is who you are at your deepest level. That’s an interesting idea, especially when you consider that some people don’t read a whole lot! So when you make those subconscious associations, like with the word barn, the voice that tells you to be positive or negative (without using any words to tell you) is the voice of you. So to find out who you really are inside, you simply must read and see what your inner voice makes you feel.

Thomas Lux is my idol.

Friday, May 16, 2008

*Mozart's Mistakes

I had this concept in my head and wanted to so something with it.

Mozart's Mistakes
by me

Michael Jackson never would have had to write
“Heal the World”
so I would never have to get that clichéd, horrible song
stuck in my head—though I’ll never
admit that I have all the lyrics dancing in my head.

But no, he did. He had do.
What choice did he have?

Ted Kazinski, nine-eleven, Oklahoma City
just names and dates
rather than chapters in history books.
The Middle East would just be a dusty
spot on the map that school kids would learn and then
forget after the test.

Stupid Mozart.
He never made a mistake.
His music is beautiful and timeless,
the tones linger in opera houses and
movie soundtracks,
elevator muzak and department store backgrounds.
The man never made a mistake!
Or did he?
Think about it:
maybe he did make a mistake or two along the way,
but his pride didn’t let him fix them, so he settled for
“The Magic Flute” and “Cossi fan tutti.”
Or maybe he was great when he was young, and by the
time he aged, he just didn’t care anymore.
Or maybe, just maybe, he knew he was missing an occasional note,
a minor chord here, a dulcet melody there—
and he didn’t want to risk being too perfect,
more perfect than he already was.

He was great—no question.
Dead for 200 years and he’s still the best.
But could he have been better?
If he had fixed those mistakes that he insisted were not mistakes—
the mistakes that we don’t know are mistakes
because we’re not smart enough to see them—
think of what he could have accomplished.
Instead of becoming a legend, Mozart could have been a god.
He could have fixed the world,
not just entertained it.

I wouldn’t have to double-check the locks on my car door when I
drive by a group of dark-looking young men
in the city.

I may even have rolled down my window and waved.

I love the concept, but I'm not sure I like the way it came out. I'm just trying to prove the point that it's absurd to say that the man never made a mistake. EVERYONE makes mistakes and to believe that someone was perfect at his craft is absolutely rediculous. The greatest minds throughout history were not perfect people, I'm sure. I'll bet if you talked to Mrs. Gandhi she'd tell us that her hubby snored in his sleep. I'm sure that Mrs. Plato hated her husband's foot odor. To think that Mozart was perfect just shows that we forget the truth and only remember the fictionalized version of history.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


So I’ve spent the last two days sorting through boxes of old pictures of my grandparents. My dad’s dad is going to be 90 in June and we’re having a big party for him, and my contribution is to create a “This is Your Life” sort of film for him. With that in mind, I thought a poem about nostalgia would be appropriate.

By Tony Gloeggler

My brother enlisted
in the winter. I pitched
for the sixth grade Indians
and coach said
I was almost as good
as Johnny. My mother
fingered rosary beads,
watched Cronkite say
and that's the way it is.
I smoked my first
and last cigarette. My father
kept his promise,
washed Johnny's Mustang
every weekend. Brenda Whitson
taught me how to French kiss
in her basement. Sundays
we went to ten o'clock Mass,
dipped hands in holy water,
genuflected, walked down
the aisle and received
Communion. Cleon Jones
got down on one knee, caught
the last out and the Mets
won the World Series.
Two white-gloved Marines
rang the bell, stood
on our stoop. My father
watched their car
pull away, then locked
the wooden door. I went
to our room, climbed
into the top bunk,
pounded a hardball
into his pillow. My mother
found her Bible, took
out my brother's letters,
put them in the pocket
of her blue robe. My father
started Johnny's car,
revved the engine
until every tool
hanging in the garage

The speaker tells the story of receiving the news that his brother died in Vietnam. Each member of the family reacts in a different way. Mom prayed, Dad started brother’s car, and speaker passive-aggressively pounded a baseball into his glove. All three are logical and understandable reactions, though I would hold that there are no real “inappropriate” reactions to getting such news.

The reason that I chose this poem is the great number of war pictures that I saw this weekend. My grandfather has never been a particularly vocal man, at least not when it comes to his time in the army. Seeing him in his uniforms, holding his guns, drinking with his buddies, really threw me for a loop. How do I react to seeing pictures of a man in the midst of a war when there is nobody in my life whom I can less easily picture fighting a war? He is calm, laid back, forgetful, and as passive as any human who has ever lived. Today, we met for brunch, which has been planed for a few weeks. He spoke to his daughter (and my aunt) on the phone before we left and told her that he was going to a wedding today. Where he got that idea I have no idea, and when we arrived at the restaurant, I wonder what was going through his head; was he expecting a wedding ceremony?

The point that I’m trying to make is that there is a whole world, a whole life, that was lived by my grandfather that I just don’t know about. He’s told me the story of why he joined the Army (he was sixteen and broke so he lied about his age and enlisted) and he told me about the places he traveled to (Japan, Italy, Hawaii, Alaska), but he never talks about what he went through or the people he knew. Poems like this make me think about that life he lived, and the nostalgia he must feel, even though he never talks about it.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Wife Hits Moose

I couldn’t let the heavy tone of the last poem that I posted sit at the top of my blog for too long. It’s too depressing. So here’s another gem from Thomas Lux to lighten things up a bit.

By Thomas Lux

Sometime around dusk moose lifts
his heavy, primordial jaw, dripping, from pondwater
and, without psychic struggle,
decides the day, for him, is done: time
to go somewhere else. Meanwhile, wife
drives one of those roads that cut straight north,
a highway dividing the forests

not yet fat enough for the paper companies.
This time of year full dark falls
about eight o'clock -- pineforest and blacktop
blend. Moose reaches road, fails
to look both ways, steps
deliberately, ponderously . . . Wife
hits moose, hard,

at slight angle (brakes slammed, car
spinning) and moose rolls over hood, antlers --
as if diamond-tipped -- scratch windshield, car
damaged: rib of moose imprint
on fender, hoof shatters headlight.
Annoyed moose lands on feet and walks away.
Wife is shaken, unhurt, amazed.

-- Does moose believe in a Supreme Intelligence?
Speaker does not know.
-- Does wife believe in a Supreme Intelligence?
Speaker assumes as much: spiritual intimacies
being between the spirit and the human.
Does speaker believe in a Supreme Intelligence?
Yes. Thank You.

Do I really need to say anything at all?

The simple story-telling narrative is funny enough, but when Lux adds the last stanza, he takes this poem to a whole new level. “Does the moose believe in a Supreme Intelligence?” Ha! As far as the story goes, the moose is simply “annoyed” so I doubt he “thinks” about too much at all. And I just love that Lux chose to have his wife hit a moose rather than a deer or a dog or something more “swift”; moose are generally portrayed as slower, less intelligent then other wildlife, so to hit one generally means you’re a bad driver. So he’s saying in a less-than-subtle way that his wife is a bad driver. Does it make me a bad person that I picture my wife every single time that I read this?

How We Danced

By Anne Sexton

The night of my cousin’s wedding
I wore blue.
I was nineteen
and we danced, Father, we orbited.
We moved like angels washing themselves.
We moved like two birds on fire.
Then we moved like the sea in a jar,
slower and slower.
The orchestra played
‘Oh how we danced on the night we were wed.’
And you waltzed me like a lazy Susan
and we were dear,
very dear.
Now that you are laid out,
useless as a blind dog,
now that you no longer lurk,
the song rings in my head.
Pure oxygen was the champagne we drank
and clicked our glasses, one to one.
The champagne breathed like a skin diver
and the glasses were crystal and the bride
and groom gripped each other in sleep
like nineteen-thirty marathon dancers.
Mother was a belle and danced with twenty men.
You danced with me never saying a word.
Instead the serpent spoke as you held me close.
The serpent, that mocker, woke up and pressed against me
like a great god and we bent together
like two lonely swans.

When I first read this poem, I did not know it was Anne Sexton. I read through the first half and thought it was a lovely portrait of a beautiful moment between a father and a daughter. I thought the speaker, a young woman, saw her father as the stereotypical patriarchal archetype and that was all. Daddy’s little girl. Then “the serpent” woke up.

I felt sick. I was shocked. I was convinced I had read it wrong and that I must have missed something or maybe I just have a dirty mind. I felt so disturbed by it that I literally was uncomfortable reading it. Unfortunately for me (and for the speaker), I didn’t read it wrong. The girl’s father “loves” her. Horrible.

When I read things like this I am again reminded how naive and how sheltered I’ve been in my life. I just didn’t want to believe this poem. I remember seeing 8mm, a Nicholas Cage movie from 1999, which caused me a similar reaction. The main character is a private investigator who is hired to investigate the disappearance of a teenage girl. After following her trail all over the country, he finds himself searching through the darkest areas of human existence: child pornography and snuff films. Suffice to say, the outcome of the film was so incredibly disturbing that I still, nearly 10 years later, think about it very regularly. I have a feeling this poem has affected me in the same manner.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Asking for My Younger Brother

This is a poem that touches me for a reason that I can’t explain at all. The raw emotion is simply overwhelming.

By Franz Wright

I never did find you.
I later heard how you'd wandered the streets
for weeks, washing dishes before you got fired;
taking occasional meals at the Salvation Army
with the other diagnosed. How on one particular night
you won four hundred dollars at cards:
how some men followed you and beat you up,
leaving you unconscious in an alley
where you were wakened by police
and arrested for vagrancy, for being tired
of getting beaten up at home.
I'd dreamed you were dead,
and started to cry.
I couldn't exactly phone Dad.
I bought a pint of bourbon
and asked for you all afternoon in a blizzard.
In hell
Dante had words with the dead,
they had no bodies
and he could not touch them, nor they him.
A man behind the ticket counter
in the Greyhound terminal
pointed to one of the empty seats, where
someone who looked like me sometimes sat down
among the people waiting to depart.
I don't know why I write this.
With it comes the irrepressible desire
to write nothing, to remember nothing;
there is even the desire
to walk out in some field and bury it
along with all my other so-called
poems, which help no one--
where each word will blur
into earth finally,
where the mind that voiced them
and the hand that took them down will.
So what. I left
the bus fare back
to Sacramento with this man,
and asked him
to give it to you.

I guess this poem is so great (to me) because it really touches a nerve. The speaker so obviously feels a pain that he cannot explain, a pain that haunts him enough to leave bus fare for a younger brother that he doesn’t even know. And the apostrophe, the fact that he’s speaking directly to his brother—the impact that has is incalculable. If this were a story about his brother, that’d be one thing; but the fact that this is a letter to his brother makes this so much more personal and, thus, more powerful.

My brother is my best friend (besides my wife). We have a great relationship despite the fact that he is as opposite from me as a person gets. To put it mildly, I’m a long, straight, gray line while he’s a curvy, crooked flash of a thousand colors. I’m married, have a steady job, a nice house, three pets, and am hoping for kids relatively soon. He’s… loving life. And because we’re so different, I worry about him not being happy. I’m a very empathetic person (though I try my best not to let it show), and it makes me sad to think that someone that I care about (and there aren’t that many of those people running around) could be sad. So this poem, this speaker, really hits a nerve with me. He loves his brother though the brother is long lost.

I hope I never know that feeling of loss and sadness, though I’m sure I will at some point in my life. Everyone does. I’ve just been very lucky so far. And poems like this remind me of that.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Tonight at Noon

Today I thought I’d share a poem that have a very strong memory attached for me.

By Adrian Henri

Tonight at noon
Supermarkets will advertise 3p extra on everything
Tonight at noon
Children from happy families will be sent to live in a home
Elephants will tell each other human jokes
America will declare peace on Russia
World War I generals will sell poppies on the street on November 11th
The first daffodils of autumn will appear
When the leaves fall upwards to the trees

Tonight at noon
Pigeons will hunt cats through city backyards
Hitler will tell us to fight on the beaches and on the landing fields
A tunnel full of water will be built under Liverpool
Pigs will be sighted flying in formation over Woolton
And Nelson will not only get his eye back but his arm as well
White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights
In front of the Black house
And the monster has just created Dr. Frankenstein

Girls in bikinis are moonbathing
Folksongs are being sung by real folk
Art galleries are closed to people over 21
Poets get their poems in the Top 20
There's jobs for everybody and nobody wants them
In back alleys everywhere teenage lovers are kissing in broad daylight
In forgotten graveyards everywhere the dead will quietly bury the living
You will tell me you love me
Tonight at noon

The first time I heard this, it was being read by a man who is a fellow teacher and poetry-lover. He has the same basic taste in poetry as me and tends to like the humorous side of things; so when he started reading this poem and the first few paradoxes were in my ears, I started to chuckle. As the poem progressed, and I heard them continue, and some were funny (“and the monster has just created Dr. Frankenstein”) and some were more social commentary (“white Americans will demonstrate for equal rights/ in front of the Black house).

But than that last couple lines. Oh my. It hit me like the proverbial ton of proverbial bricks. “Oh,” I yelled in my brain. “Oh, it’s a love poem!” I absolutely did NOT see it coming, but now, looking back, it all makes perfect sense. The speaker is talking about all of these things because he/she knows that there is no chance that his/her love will ever return. So it’s the whole “when pigs fly” cliché coming back in a new, original way. How great!

The whole theme of unrequited love is everywhere in poetry, but it’s rare for it come be told in such a surprising way. It’s difficult to write a love poem, and I always say that it’s the hardest topic to write about because it’s so personal yet so universal, so when I find one that is as innovative and powerful as this I tend to like it all that much more.

Sunday, May 4, 2008


I have been working on this poem for a few months now. It's had many different incarnations and I don't know if this is the best, but it's certainly the most honest.

Untitled so far
by me

In bed. At night. The quiet.
You breathe in, soft, through your nose,
rhythmic and smooth.
I turn off my light,
cover my legs, my shoulders.
I turn on my side.
My eyes adjust to the dark and
I see your hair, your shoulders,
the sheets rise and fall.

I want to reach out,
to touch your back,
to feel your heart on my arm
as I wrap myself around you.
I want to finger your hair,
let my breath rise and fall
with your breath.

Instead, I reach for a pillow,
wrap it in my arms—cold, soft, silent.
Close my eyes.
But I don’t touch.
I don’t touch.
But I feel. I feel the slight press of your body
on bed, the slight tilt
of the mattress as it bends underneath you,
the quiet rap of your heart when I—
pillow in hand—
lay my ear flat to the cold sheet.

And that is enough.
That is enough.

I have been trying for the last few weeks to find the title. Someone suggested to me that "Lust" was appropriate, but I'm not sure. I wanted something that emphasises the desire, which "Lust" does, but I don't want it to be confused with a sexual desire, because it's absolutely not sexual. It's about the love, the longing. I'll keep trying and repost when I come up with something.

You and I are Disappearing

by Yusef Komunyakaa

The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper.
She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
at dusk.
We stand with our hands
hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice.
She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker’s cigar,
silent as quicksilver.
A tiger under a rainbow
at nightfall.
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like a dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.

How is it possible for a poem to contain so many similes without sounding repetitive? There are ten versions of “she burns like…” and every single one of them sounds necessary. The desperation in the speaker’s voice as he recalls a lost love is sad and tragic, and the constant fire images lead me to believe that he is in pain remembering her.

I’ve not read too many of Komunyakaa’s poems, but I just might have to pick up one of his chapbooks or something because I just love this poem. I know he is local, from Trenton originally, and I’m pretty sure that he teaches at NYU; other than that, I know very little about him.

The Expulsion

Anyone who knows me knows that my favorite brand of humor tends to be a bit on the sexist side. Every chance I get I mock the fairer sex, knowing all the while that it’s only out of complete and utter admiration that I do so.

So when I read this poem, one that starts with the image of Adam being happy because he can now blame Eve for everything that is wrong in the world, I can’t help smiling at the absurdity.

by Katha Pollitt

Adam was happy - now he had someone to blame
for everything - shipwrecks, Troy,
the gray face in the mirror.
Eve was happy: now he would always need her.
She walked on boldly, swaying her beautiful hips.
The serpent admired his emerald coat,
the Angel burst into flames
(he'd never approved of them, and he was right).

Even God was secretly pleased: Let
History Begin!

The dog had no regrets, trotting by Adam's side
self-importantly, glad to be rid
of the lion, the toad, the basilisk, the white-footed mouse,
who were also happy and forgot their names immediately.

Only the Tree of Knowledge stood forlorn,
its small hard bitter crab apples
glinting high up, in a twilight of black leaves:
how pleasant it had been, how unexpected
to have been, however briefly,
the center of attention.

This poet, Katha Pollitt (whom I’ve never heard of other than this one poem), manages to capture all the different perspectives on “the expulsion” from Eden. Adam was happy because he could blame women, God was happy because it marked the start of history, the dog was happy because it is now Man’s favorite, etc… each perspective could be a story unto itself. But Pollitt combines them all to make one, simple tale. What a wonderful piece.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note

by Amiri Baraka

Lately, I’ve become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelops me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for a bus…

Things have come to that.

And now, each night I count the stars.
And each night I get the same number.
And when they will not come to be counted,
I count the holes they leave.

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed up
To my daughter’s room and heard her
Talking to someone, and when I opened
The door, there was no one there…
Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands

This was the second Amiri Baraka poem I ever heard (we all know the first, don’t we?), and it was enough to convince me that the man is more than just an angry anarchist who likes to cause a stir.

“Nobody sings anymore.” Wow. The emptiness and sorrow in that line alone is enough to make me pause when I read. And the visual of a depressed older man creeping into his daughters room, only to find her praying… wow. There are so many small, powerful images in this short, compact poem that it’s a wonder more people don’t read Baraka’s poems.

The title is extremely powerful, which is rare. Most of the time, a title on a poem seems like an arbitrary thing, something thrown in after the fact that summarizes what’s written, In this case, the title gives the poem a whole new depth. The speaker’s thoughts, as they are presented in the poem, seem to be the thoughts of a man on the footsteps of his own mortality. But would I have thought “suicide” when reading if the title wasn’t there? I don’t know. But why is the suicide note 20 volumes? Why so long? Is there a significance to the number?

You, Reader

For Christmas last year, someone bought me Billy Collins' newest book, The Trouble with Poetry. Unfortunately, it got lost in a pile of books, tools, bills, and other such dross that I completely forgot that I had it. Last night, after countless "debates" with my wife about the pile of junk in my office, I finally decided to attempt to tackle the beast and clean up (just a bit). Well low and behold, what do I find? The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins! It was like finding a crisp new twenty dollar bill blowing in the wind on a city street.

The only thing that I knew about the book was that it was not very well received by the masses. The reviews on Amazon are uncharacteristically negative and a quick Google search of the book's title will result in a lot of negative comments from dissatisfied poetry enthusiasts. But to me, it was definitely worth the risk of disappointment because-- hey, this is Billy Collins.

This is the first poem in the book:

by Billy Collins

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you,

that it was I who got up early
to sit in the kitchen
and mention with a pen

the rain-soaked windows,
the ivy wallpaper,
and the goldfish circling in its bowl.

Go ahead and turn aside,
bit your lip and tear out the page,
but, listen—it was just a matter of time

before one of us happened
to notice the unlit candles
and the clock humming on the wall.

Plus, nothing happened that morning—
a song on the radio,
a car whistling along the road outside—

and I was only thinking
about the shakers of salt and pepper
that were standing side by side on a place mat.

I wondered if they had become friends
after all these years
or if they were still strangers to one another

like you and I
who manage to be known and unknown
to each other at the same time—

me at this table with a bowl of pears,
you leaning in a doorway somewhere
near some blue hydrangeas, reading this.

This is the only poem in the book that I've read so far, and I'm more than happy with it. It reminds me so much of my students and their simple, innocent arrogance. Whenever I teach a poet like William Carlos Williams or E.E. Cummings, they always say, "I could have written this," or "What's the big deal? This doesn't say anything poetic." They see the world and the poems quite literally, forgetting to take into account the simple beauty of observation. I am sometimes able to convince them than those poets are better than they (the students) seem to realize, that the poems contain more than a simple statement about a bowl of plums or a man who sells balloons.

In this poem, Collins answers the all-too-common argument of "I could have written that." His simple reply: I wrote it first, sorry. This will not go down as one of his most lasting or artistic pieces, but to me, this poem is absolutely perfect.

It's Raining in Love

This is a poem that always makes me smile. Since yesterday's post was a bit of a downer, I thought today I'd go for something more humorous.

By Richard Brautigan
I don't know what it is,
but I distrust myself
when I start to like a girl
a lot.
It makes me nervous.
I don't say the right things
or perhaps I start
to examine,
what I am saying.
If I say, "Do you think it's going to rain?"
and she says, "I don't know,"
I start thinking: Does she really like me?
In other words
I get a little creepy.
A friend of mine once said,
"It's twenty times better to be friends
with someone
than it is to be in love with them."
I think he's right and besides,
it's raining somewhere, programming flowers
and keeping snails happy.
That's all taken care of.
if a girl likes me a lot
and starts getting real nervous
and suddenly begins asking me funny questions
and looks sad if I give the wrong answers
and she says things like,
"Do you think it's going to rain?"
and I say, "It beats me,"
and she says, "Oh,"
and looks a little sad
at the clear blue California sky,
I think: Thank God, it's you, baby, this time
instead of me.

To make being in love a bad thing (though tongue-in-check, of course) is hard to do, but Brautigan manages to do it with seeming ease. We've all felt that sickness, the ache of unrequited "like" and so it's easy to relate to the speaker. When the turn comes, and the speaker looks at a woman who in "in like" with him, he's just happy it's not himself that's feeling the pain. Genius.

This is just another poem that emphasizes the story-telling aspect of contemporary poetry that I find so appealing for some reason. It doesn't try to do anything but narrate a man's thoughts on being in love; there are no poetic devices, no overt rhymes or meters, nothing to make it a textbook poem. But I challenge anyone to tell me that this isn't brilliant. Go ahead. I'll bet you can't do it.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


The May issue of Poetry came in the mail yesterday. As has been the case in recent months, I find myself more excited to receive the magazine then I am when I'm reading it. There just hasn't been much in it lately to make me glad I'm a subscriber. The poetry all seems to... well, I guess "boring" is the only word for it. It's filled with the sort of self-possessed drivel that makes it easy to understand why most people we meet can't name any living poets.

The only real exception to this is "Infidelity," by Philip White, whom I've never heard of:

by Philip White

“Talking only makes me feel more alone,”
you said once in the car outside the clinic.
Two years later, you spoke the same sentence
word for word one night after friends had gone.
Within a month, you’d erased yourself…
Erased? “To absent oneself,” I found scribbled on
a wrapper a year later…

Now sunlight and tree
shadow rush over the windshield of the car:
I’m talking with my new wife—then gone, absented.
“Sometimes I feel almost too much joy,”
you wrote from the balcony of your cheap
hotel in Paris. “What are you thinking?” she asks.
Light shutters across us. Wherever you are
in me I’m there, though it’s not what you wanted.

I read this three times and was, every time, deeply impacted. The way in which he describes the moving on process, the pain, the self-doubt... heart-breaking stuff. And the word "absented" is just different enough yet understandable enough to be the perfect word, which is something that I love to see. When a poet finds that one word, the only word, that can truly capture the meaning, it makes a huge difference.

What I love most about this poem is the fact that I can really put in that rarest of the rare classes: the poem that I can't relate to but makes me feel something emotionally anyway. Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar" is the best example of this (it's a religious poem in which the speaker addresses his own afterlife and hopes that he'll meet God upon his death- most days, I don't believe in God at all). Bruce Springsteen's "Racing in the Street" is another (a song about car racing, a subject that has absolutely no meaning to me whatsoever). This poem is about moving on after a divorce, something I hope never to know. But the way that the speaker is so obviously haunted is very compelling to me.