Apr 162014

dms 2

Where is poetry? the poet asks at the beginning of this poem/essay — call it an epode, call it an extended epigram, a form that somehow contains balanced contraries in dynamic tension, the heart of metaphor, of art. Written in response to an essay by Ralph Angel that we published in January last year, D. M. Spitzer’s “Mythology” oscillates between monster and marvel, labyrinth and sanctuary, fragment and whole, tapping ahead with his words for solid ground and offering, yes, a mythology of the poem, of the imagination (dangerous, contained within a force field — form). Beautiful to read, surging and lapidary in its rhythms, erudite and cunning in  its weaving together of legend, text, word play and reference.

Also one of the best author photos in ages.



part 1:  (muthos) labyrinth & sanctuary

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

—Ralph Angel, “The Exile and Return of Poetry:  Essay
Numéro Cinq vol. vi, 1 (January, 2013).

Unspool the thread given by Ariadne, in whom the ecstasy of oblivion awaits the coming of Dionysos. The end precedes the beginning and a certain movement of form collects both. Dionysos already presents himself in the form of desire. Unspool the thread down narrowing and widening passages. Daidalos, poet-exemplar, modulates light and darkness, clarity and obscurity in the labyrinth. To isolate the final cause of this structure, peel away at the Minotaur: Minos and shame, Pasiphaë and desire, desire and the god of translation (Zeus). Dionysos stands at the threshold of the labyrinth and in the mind of the poet-architect. Into the sacred labyrinth let thread follow. Thread protects against loss and wandering and a hungry monster inhabits the structure.  Monster is monstrum, something that elicits wonder, a marvel.

Risk:  to be consumed by the hunger and isolation that motivates wonder.

Where is poetry?

A poet designs a sanctuary into which imagination—a genuine monstrum—is led.  Fear of the creative imagination in the full range of license, and a shame, rooted in modality, of the creative imagination’s potency, force the creative imagination into the sanctuary—that is, a world-making creativity will also be world-devouring. Shelter it within sanctuary. Labyrinth is sanctuary.

Sanctuary:  a forbidden vein of dark blood writing the holy secrets across its innermost holy place, a place of healing.

Into the labyrinth unwind thread. Poetry is labyrinth, but a poem takes flight from the surrounding walls. Ikaros too with wings of syllables and breath lifts himself out of the sanctuary’s enclosure unto the bright morning air, the island’s craggy shoreline diminishing. Into the open.

Or sing the poem from the open place near the labyrinth’s center. Write poems on papyrus scraps and send them to the skies on wings of smoke and flame. Too near the sun they have already burned to ash and their flight continues. Poem needs no ground save the whole of things; air discloses the whole.

Unwinding thread towards the interior of labyrinth, find the shield of Achilles blazing in midday light. Everything reflects there. It burns the eye and the mind falls to its knees.  A fire-god rends the metal earth into folds that look just like earth and the poet’s god is the god of fire. There on the shield read one’s own face in bronze embossed where the surface is whole. Everything there terrifies. None dares to look.  Begins the fire-god a poetry of metal fragged from deep veins beneath the surface of earth. Tear open the surface of things and make beginnings in the dark material hidden there. A whole rent down to the interior of fragments stripped and reshaped in time-present’s forge where everything else collapses into forgetting. Unmake whole make fragment into whole in which a face echoed recalls its fragmentation. Tragedy builds its shield from the shield of fire given from god to man. Poet beneath it all, blindness shielding from the tragedy of wholeness. Where whole forms itself into stability there loses all into unself. Whole will encapsulate in its message of bronze the perishing of what you want:  the city of gold, walled with lapis tesserae and medallions of everything precious, gods’ hands pressing stone towards the sun into a wall impenetrable. Down tumbles wall and the quiet household gods into flame of the poet’s limping god. A fierce jaw breaks spear after spear into the torso of a warrior who is also a son, a father watching unable to look away. Down tumbles what the whole speaks in its ekphrastic visioning. Down.

At the labyrinth’s center, Minotaur shakes loose his must-covered voice:

mind sleeps and wakes and stirs and rests and poetry cycles

turning & turning the spirit moves as it cycles once more into itself[i]

Fragmentary remains in the manner of the cycling going-under of things.  Take it up from the ruins, or from the labyrinth where it was found lying in midday sun.  Out of a ruined whole brings forth the poet a second world that looks out upon another contained within itself.  The thread leads deeper into labyrinth’s ordered chasm.  Light is channeled into momentany into dark by the architect of moving-images[ii] and prisons.  The poet chains everything in artifice, released in the mouth and ear of the reader.

Back to sanctuary only ever half-finished, abandoned when tyranny fell. Footsteps glish in blood and stain the foundation.  The wonder is, after all, only half human.  The rest is untranslatable.  Leave the traces of holiness along the eastern wall where temple and labyrinth are one.


part 2:  (logos)  literary dynamism

“And if I can make a sanctuary of reading, of poems and stories complete unto themselves and, therefore, whole, I must make that which is not whole my sanctuary—its traces and glimmers, its countless fragments.”

This sentence traces the belonging-together of whole and not whole. The sentence says:  if a subject is able to produce a sanctuary out of literary wholeness, that subject must produce a sanctuary of the fragmentary.  It says, in fact, nothing about the making of a literary sanctuary, but rather about the power to make such a sanctuary and the necessity, because of that power, to create a sanctuary for the fragmentary.  Accordingly, the fragmentary involves a dynamism that exceeds and excludes the whole.

However, wholeness comes first.[iii] Only after the presencing of wholes to consciousness do the fragments begin to appear, light-catching as glass-shards. To be sure, wholeness as a concept both precedes and precipitates a notion of the fragmentary; coming across a potsherd on the island of Delos, for instance, one immediately recognizes the fragment of pottery as having been a part of a now ruined whole.  The sentence above, the starting point of this brief inquiry, on one level simply asserts that, since the production of a sanctuary for wholeness can be carried out, wholeness exists in some way, and then what applies to the whole applies necessarily to the parts.  Yet, this assertion is complicated by the idea that the sanctuary produced for wholeness exists in modality, while that produced for fragmentariness exists as a dynamic and necessary movement towards a whole.  It is further complicated by the notion that such a whole, as the sanctuary seems to describe, takes place as not only whole, but also fragmentary.  For, a sanctuary marks off an area that is described by its boundaries and is a kind of whole, yet one which also explicitly does not contain the wholeness for whose praise and worship it has been created.  In principle, that which is limited, while perhaps whole in itself, is nevertheless fragmentary insofar as it has been segregated from all else.  Emerson communicates something like this principle in the essay “Circles,” writing that “around every circle another can be drawn.”[iv]

Fragments exemplify the coexistence and belonging together of whole and fragmentary while also pointing to different ways in which the fragmentary is related to the whole.  A literary fragment, such as those attributed to Sappho, leans toward the imagination as a medium in which the dynamism of fragmentariness delivers itself and raises itself and exceeds itself into a poetically engaged wholeness.  This entails a dialectic, an inter-activity, a potent engagement of the imagination with the poetic fragment. “[N]ot everything can be given straight away to the understanding through the work of art,” as Schopenhauer noted, “but only what is needed to set the imagination on the right path; it must always leave out something—indeed, the final thing—for the imagination to produce for itself.”[v] Out of this engagement the fragmentary poem overcomes itself and reaches its latent wholeness, which consists in the belonging-together of literary art and the thoughtful auditor or reader.  All strives for wholeness.[vi] Imagination reaches out for the dynamism inherent to phenomena, as phenomena strive towards an outside-of-themselves that completes them. The ancient Greek epic phrase kluthi moi…ophr’ eipo (listen so that I might speak) expresses this cycle.[vii] Without the correlative of an outside-of-self listening, speaking cannot take place; the being of each depends on the other.

The Sapphic fragments also reach in the direction of the lost whole; splintered from that whole, the fragments bear an enhanced attitude of longing.  This raises the relation of fragments within a context of wholeness.  In complete works lines, phrases, and episodes exhibit a kind of ecstasy of their own whereby each part as a fragment overcomes itself by semantically stepping beyond and outside itself when taken independently, which is how the reader or hearer initially perceives them while also assembling these, by means of the memory and imagination, into and towards a wholeness.  Each phrase can be experienced both in its fragmentariness and in its condition of literary ecstasy:  a stance thrust beyond the self into and towards the self—the whole—it has power to become. The outside-of-self, however, can only emerge into being from the self’s unfolding, such that the outside-of-self towards which a thing strives consists within the self itself as a power to be that which the self not yet is.  A work’s literary dynamism in this sense takes place as its movement towards itself—its latent wholeness—through continuing its self-overcoming.  That is, the whole gains itself through each phrase-as-fragment overcoming itself, gathering and overflowing into the next and the next.  Each fragment inheres to the literary dynamism and does so because of a work’s wholeness.[viii]

Ecstasy—standing beyond self—shows itself as an essential feature of the relationship between wholeness and fragmentariness. This is at the center of literary dynamism, at once ecstatic in its reach for the ever-outside-itself and rootedly inward, inherent.  The shadow of this thought also comes forward:  in striving towards wholeness, fragments move away from a previous condition, fragmenting themselves in the very moment of overcoming themselves into wholeness. Herakleitos speaks this movement:

out from the teeming plenitude of all things one

out from the quietus of unity all things[ix]

The Herakleiteian double-move takes place in the manner of Angel’s articulation of the belonging-together of whole and fragment.

In the end, Angel’s “exile and return of poetry” traces the movement of entities coming-forth from wholeness into fragmentation and returning, in their time and by means of dynamism, from fragmentation into wholeness.  Relations with other entities provide the context and ground for the actuation of this dynamism and may point to an underlying unity of those related entities.[x]

n.b.  All ‘translations’ given above are original by the author.

— D. M. Spitzer


After undertaking graduate studies in liberal arts, philosophy, and classics (each at different institutions), D. M. Spitzer completed a Master of Fine Arts in writing (poetry) at Vermont College of Fine Arts.  He is currently working on a number of poetic projects:  eurydike relapse, a performance-poetry event that will incorporate choreography, large-scale mask/puppetry, and transfigurations of poems by Rilke, Goethe, and Ovid; a hybrid literary work tentatively titled Genealogy of the First Person; and another performance-poetry piece that transfigures the ancient philosophical poem of Parmenides.  In addition, Mr. Spitzer is developing an essay that explores the use of hyphenation in the work of the late American poet Gustaf Sobin.  Some of his work can be heard at exaudes.wordpress.com.  Mr. Spitzer lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and their three children.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Transfiguration of Ecclesiastes 1:6.
  2. Plato uses as a simile the moving statues of Daidelos in the Meno [97d.6-10].
  3. Aristotle likewise observes, at the outset of Physics, that “for the most part to our sight and taste first arise things in a mixed-together state, and then later, from things of that sort, the elements and the sources (arkhai) that set things apart are discernable.  In light of this, inquiry should proceed from the wholeness of things (to katholou) towards each separate thing, since, aesthetically, the whole is more knowable and the wholeness of things is a kind of whole” [184a.21-25].  
  4. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Circles,” in Ralph Waldo Emerson:  Essays and Poems, ed. Tony Tanner & Christopher Bigsby (J. M. Dent:  London; Charles E. Tuttle:  Vermont, 1995), 146.
  5. Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 2, ch. 34 (Stuttgart, Frankfurt am Main:  Cotta-Insel, 1960), 523:  “…durch das Kunstwerk nicht alles geradezu den Sinnen gegeben werden darf, vielmehr nur soviel, als erfordert ist, die Phantasie auf den rechten Weg zu leiten:  ihr muß immer noch etwas, und zwar das letzte zu tun übrigbleiben.”  
  6. Compare Aristotle’s thought at Physics A.9 [192a.16-25] that hule (typically translated as “material”) yearns for eidos (“form”).
  7. See, for example, Hesiod, Theogony, 644-645:  keklute meu…ophr’ eipo ta me thumos eni stethessi keleuei.  The last part of the expression emphasizes the impulse to reach beyond the self.
  8. For example, Robert Creeley’s poem “Fragment,” in Echoes (New York:  New Directions, 1993), 67 achieves its art through appealing to the reader’s sense and expectation of wholeness, even if it intends to show the radical absence of a whole.  Similarly, Sappho’s poems are so alluring on one level because they never attain themselves, they leave in play the desire for wholeness, a taut bow never released.  
  9. This is a transfiguration of the last section of Herakleitos, fragment 10 (Deils-Kranz).
  10. The image of literary dynamism may work to understand the more practical problem of “writer’s block,” which I take to be at issue in Angel’s “exile and return.”  If the practice of what is called “writing” can be thought in terms of a dynamic interplay of fragmentariness (or silence, or a period without writing) and wholeness (productivity, writing), we might make a sanctuary of the whole process that includes periods of speaking and hearing, of writing and reading, of reading and quiet, a process that is inherently fragmentary in its wholeness.
Apr 142014


Numéro Cinq has a thing for hybrid art, for cross-genre art, for parody and mixed form, more Menippean satire and art made out of books and in that vein we offer here encaustic paintings by the Boulder, Colorado, artist Marco Montanari along with poems by Elaine Handley from Saratoga Springs, New York. The poems and the paintings combine; the paintings inspired the poems. They are ekphrastic and hybrid. Ekphrasis is the Greek rhetorical device of inserting the description of a work of art into a text as a way of creating meaning (by analogy or parallel). Coincidentally, the standard classical example of ekphrasis is Homer’s description of the shield of Achilles in the Iliad (also Hesiod’s description of the shield of Hercules). It’s a device with an ancient tradition, never abandoned. For example, here’s a stanza from W. H. Auden’s “The Shield of Achilles.”

She looked over his shoulder
For athletes at their games,
Men and women in a dance
Moving their sweet limbs
Quick, quick, to music,
But there on the shining shield
His hands had set no dancing-floor
But a weed-choked field.

And so it’s delightfully literal that Handley and Montanari have chosen warriors and shields as their central motif, adding to an ancient tradition that in this instance they have reanimated with more recent wars and warriors. Gorgeous, sad, dignified, violent images and words, given yet another twist by the poet’s particularly female point of view.



4 My Father’s Helping HandMy Father’s Helping Hand – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 21×42 inches, 2013

Out of Hand


Their fluttery needs, their choking
insistence, too powerful for words,
gestures of desire, insatiable.


The fingers more nimble than the brain,
they take flight or become nests on a lap:
their instincts all their own
to seize a pen write a poem
cradle an egg pluck a weed
brush back hair stir a cake,
slap a cheek smash a plate
tear a hole poke an eye
mend a sock button a shirt
clutch grab snatch grip
trace the boundaries of a kiss
hang dumbly from the wrists.


Like mouths they are always
hungry, and sometimes the palms
are lonely as the sky, fingers as fast
and nervous as moths.


neatly folded, quiet,
like the still wings
of a shot bird.


6 Dark Merging to light IDark Merging to Light – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 30×36 inches, 2012.


When war ends ghosts rise up
to blossom white against
the world gone black,
color like hope, bled out.

How can we stand such times
and live? What we have destroyed blinding
as bright snow. Self‐righteousness
hatching into responsibility; guilt
flies around like wild birds.

More hauntings will come from those
who were there, who ate the landscape
and try to live with its poison in their craws.

Like snow, death covers everyone,
everything with its sameness. Grief,
white breath in cold air, last words
and all expectations stilled
with your heartbeat.
But annihilation is another matter.

Can light emanate from darkest deeds
the way opposites love each other:
now we speak of the pearly cell
of peace. The arithmetic
of possibility. Its labyrinth.

War ending:
door closing or opening
darkness light,
the grayness of promise.


7 Entering a Contrary Moon IEntering a Contrary Moon – Phase I.  Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 17×25 inches, 2011.

Entering a Contrary Moon

Enter the contrary moon.
See how it tumbles,
bright scrape in the sky
turning and turning
its measured dervish way.
Its silvered light
milk we drink.
Its circles
what we are made of,
how we live.

To be contrary is to be truest
to ourselves, all clash and remedy:
harlot, saint, demon, beggar.
What you are Sunday is not
what you are Tuesday. Impulses
flick like leaves in wind;
what you see gets clouded
and then emerges
bright and clean again.

Let the moon tumble
in its wanton way
and let us live our contrary lives
confused and laughing
at how we contradict
the alchemy of light and dark,
belief and action, thinking
we confound the ellipse of life,
but we cannot, no more
than the gold stain
of moon can erase
its corona from the sky.


8 Open CircleMaiden, Mother, Matriarch of the Spiritual Warrior Woman – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 28×31 inches.

Open Circle

After every war
someone’s got to tidy up.
Things won’t pick
themselves up, after all.
From “The End and The Beginning” by Wislawa Symborska

Women have done it for generations,
for centuries, in fact, throughout all time.
Quietly, they set about making repairs.
First they must solder together
what has been broken
in themselves. Hard to do
and clumsy. Sometimes they give
up and make do. Jagged fragments
float in the bloodstream,
lodging close to the skin.

Next, they have to cauterize time.
When he returns it must be as if
no one has changed, feelings have not
clotted, he is the beloved returning.
She still knows him even though
he is now a stranger.

And so they colonize; it is not
spoken of, this new life
as aliens, exiles living
in the wreckage of the familiar.

He is looking for the secret passage
from war to the present, from war to her.
She sees his shadow from the mouth
of the cave, but to look back means
losing him forever, and who
will she see him with?

It is the bottom of the morning
in their lives, scarred compatriots,
lonelier than they have ever been,
subsisting on memories and dreams
they wrote each other, what fed them before.

She has tried to tidy up, she knows things now
she didn’t know before about cost.
They have children who feel amputated
and are yet whole. They live like ghosts.
The truth is not hers to utter,
but there is no one else to say it.


9 Dismantled-to-the-Blood-MoonDismantled to the Blood Moon – I. Encaustic paint on board with gold, bronze washes and dustings, 23×27 inches, 2013.

Securing the Perimeter


Once I loved a man
who secured only
his own perimeter,
heart razor-wired shut
wandering eye on patrol.

I waited for him, hoping to dismantle
what ticked inside him
trying to navigate
the concussion of his moods,
to ignore his dereliction
of duty.

What did I know of war,
but what I tasted
on his lips?


If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t see it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t feel it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you didn’t do it.
If you don’t tell it, maybe you can forget.

Maybe the war will stop some day
festering in your gut, marching
to the flat knock of your heart.


Who counts the bodies
after war is over?
How long does friendly
fire last? Who listens
to children crying in their beds
missing fathers
already home?


He wears memories like skin
so close we are heartbeats
away from the flash.


The dead should not sit at table with us;
They have their own places to be.
We might then stop feeding the children
annihilation with every meal. And no, dear, no
wine for me, the color of blood.


He lives in no woman’s land, a boundary
between dying and dying. Between the war
torn raggedness of us now and what we planned.


Were Adam and Eve this lonely?

Did they make love in the light
Of the blood moon?
Did she lie awake listening to
his breathing, patrolling the shadowlands
of his dreams?

Did Adam stalk the perimeter
of the garden while Eve watched,
brushing away the scorpions
crawling toward her
in the unforgiving sun?

—Images by Marco Montanari; Poems by Elaine Handley


Born in 1952, Marco Montanari was raised in Buffalo N.Y. His art education includes a minor in Fine Arts at Erie Community College and classes at the State University of N.Y., as well as ongoing study in sculpture, life drawing and painting throughout the years. In 1993, while living in Saratoga Springs N.Y., Marco developed a process of sculpting wax on a wood lathe and then painting the sculpted surfaces with paraffin wax. These sculptures were designed as luminaries with the painted surfaces glowing when lit. In 2000 Marco began to experiment with translating these techniques into encaustic painting. He developed his alternative to traditional encaustic and as a result has produced a distinctive body of work that has been exhibited throughout the country. In 2003 Marco and wife, Kathy Zilbermann, relocated to Boulder Colorado where he is currently working exclusively in encaustic painting.

Elaine Handley is Professor of Writing and Literature at SUNY Empire State College.  She has published poetry and fiction in a variety of magazines and anthologies, and has won the Adirondack Center for Writing Best Book of Poetry Award, with writing partners Marilyn McCabe and Mary Sanders Shartle, in 2005  2006 and 2010. Their latest book of poetry Tear of the Clouds was released by Ra Press in 2011. Handley’s most recent chapbook of poetry is Letters to My Migraine and she is completing a novel, Deep River, about race relations during the Civil War.


Apr 132014

Heaney paintingCatherine Edmunds’ 2013 sketch of Seamus Heaney painted by Patrick J. Keane

Today would have been Seamus Heaney’s 75th birthday and to celebrate that celebrated absence we offer an essay by Patrick J. Keane who does what the best critics do: he goes straight to the heart of the man through the poems and thence to the poems again. In 1972, Heaney famously and controversially moved from the bloody ground of Northern Ireland to Wicklow in the Republic, abandoning outright political action and commitment for a more contemplative and poetic life. He did not make this decision easily, and out of his personal struggle came the poems in North, what Keane calls his “most powerful and controversial collection.” Keane takes us through Heaney’s discovery of the famous “bog people” and the mythic method of poetic argument, his identification with the dispossessed peoples and the people of the earth, into the complex battle between Hercules and Antaeus (whose strength was always renewed by contact with mother earth) and finally to crucial culminating poem “Exposure,” a poem that begins

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.





ad he lived, Seamus Heaney would have been 75 on April 13, 2014. For poetry lovers and, even more, for those who came to know him as a warm and generous human being, it’s hard to believe that that magnanimous presence is gone. Hard to believe, too, that it is almost 40 years since the publication of his most powerful and most controversial collection. When North appeared, in 1975, it was greeted enthusiastically by major critics as varied as Helen Vendler, Conor Cruise O’Brien, John Jordan, and Christopher Ricks. But strong reservations, politically-related and having to do with Heaney’s use or alleged misuse of archeology and myth, were expressed by Ulster writers Edna Longley and Ciaran Carson, among others. The hostility of some poets and critics in Northern Ireland was influenced, or at least complicated, by the fact that Heaney had left his native province in 1972, just as the sectarian conflict was intensifying.

In the wake of Bloody Sunday, in January 1972, when British paratroopers fired into a crowd of Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, killing twelve and wounding thirteen, a consensus had understandably solidified among the Catholic minority in the North. In one of their sustained interviews, conducted over a half-dozen years, Heaney told Dennis O’Driscoll that one of the reasons he moved from Belfast to Wicklow in the Republic was precisely to “get away from the consensus culture that had built up among us.” That culture would be reflected a few years later in the response from the North to North. “I’d left the party,” as Heaney put it to O’Driscoll, “and that complicates things for everybody, for the one who goes as well as the ones who stay. You get my side of that in the last poem of the book, ‘Exposure’.” [1]

The present essay takes its thematic and structural cue from Heaney’s specific response to a question. Asked about the “new direction” his poetry had taken after the “archeological and mythological” emphases in North, Heaney observed that such a “new direction is already being followed in North, in poems like ‘Hercules and Antaeus’ and ‘Exposure’” (SS, 162). The former, which closes Part I of North, revisits and revises “Antaeus,” the poem that had opened Part I; and the reconsiderations, or second thoughts, implicit in that revision prepare us for “Exposure,” which brings to a close the volume as a whole, including the more discursive and directly political poems of Part II. In Heaney’s canon, from the beginning through his death in August 2013, there is no more crucial text, personally and politically, than “Exposure,” not only the final poem in North, but the one poem he chose to stress—quoting it almost in full (OG, 419-20)—in “Crediting Poetry,” his 1995 Nobel Prize Acceptance speech.[2]

Heaney was very conscious of “the artistic doubleness,” the “double aspect,” of North.  He continued, in the Stepping Stones interview, to say that “the Hercules poem” is, “for all its mythy content” (characteristic of Part I), expressed in “plain speech”—the language of Part II. (SS, 160, 162). Yet “Hercules and Antaeus,” a literally pivotal poem, remains “mythy.” Like “Antaeus,” the poem it echoes in order to alter, it derives, obviously, from Greek mythology. In general, however, Heaney famously drew in North on a mythology and archeology rooted in Northern Europe. In order to address the horrors unfolding in his native province in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Heaney in effect played a variation on what T. S. Eliot had called, in his cogent 1923 Dial review of Ulysses, “the mythical method.” Joyce had paralleled Homer’s Odyssey with the events of his own pedestrian epic of Leopold Bloom, and so taken, said Eliot, “a step toward making the modern world possible for art,” a step toward “order and form.”

In using “myth,” Eliot went on, “in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity,” Joyce was “pursuing a method which others must pursue after him,” not as “imitators,” but as “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.”  Eliot was keenly aware (as was Joyce himself) of his debt to Ulysses in The Waste Land. He was also aware that Yeats had reanimated Cuchulain, made his Maud Gonne a modern Helen of Troy, set his apocalyptic rough beast slouching toward an anything-but Christian rebirth in Bethlehem, and had, in his great poetic sequence “Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen,” juxtaposed the Persian destruction of the “ingenious lovely things” of Athenian civilization with the eruption of modern barbarism. Eliot was right to note: “It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious….Instead of a narrative method, we may now use the mythical method.”[3]

In North, Heaney uses the mythical method to engage the anarchic panorama presented by the sectarian, political, and deep-rooted cultural conflict in Northern Ireland that erupted in the late sixties and continued well beyond the publication of North in 1975. Though a lapsed Catholic, Heaney continued to identify with those in his tradition, “my wronged people.” But he realized, as he says in the second half of North, in the poem “Whatever You Say Say Nothing,” that the “liberal papist note sounds hollow,” and that “the ‘voice of sanity’ is getting hoarse” (OG, 123). Clichéd rhetoric at the journalistic level of daily reportage, or echoing (or bemoaning) the simplifications imposed by rival sectarian ideologies, was inadequate to the atrocities occurring on the ground. In a dramatic move, Heaney set the contemporary Troubles in the deep historical context provided by P. V. Glob’s text and “unforgettable photographs” in The Bog People, a book that deeply moved Heaney as a man and creatively galvanized him as a poet.


Attracted by its title, he’d bought The Bog People as a Christmas present for himself in 1969, the year the book was published. A “line was crossed,” he told O’Driscoll (SS, 157), with “The Tollund Man,” published in Wintering Out (1972), the collection immediately preceding North. When he wrote that poem’s first line, “Some day I will go to Aarhus” (OG, 62), he felt that he was in “a new field of force.” He compared Glob’s book to a gate. “The minute I opened it and saw the photographs, and read the text, I knew there was going to be yield from it.” Even, he insisted, if there had been no Northern Troubles, he would still have been drawn to the stunning pictures and descriptions of the Iron Age bodies exhumed from the peat. There was a hiatus, but he knew that he was not finished with The Bog People. “I didn’t really ‘go back’ to the book,” he said in 2006 or so, “because it never left me. And still hasn’t” (SS, 157-58).


Heaney later wished that, in public readings, he had played down his application of the bog material to the political situation in the North. It “would have been better…for me and for everybody else if I had left [the poems] without that sort of commentary.” Above all, it “would have been better for the poems,” which had their own “biological right to life.” That was the “point and remains the point and I never had the slightest doubt about them in that regard” (SS, 159). Nevertheless, Heaney obviously saw current atrocities mirrored in the preserved bodies of those murdered Iron Age victims (the Bog Queen, Tollund Man, Grauballe Man): all part of the blood-saturated, “skull-capped ground” of the “old man-killing parishes” of the Scandinavian and Irish North; while the adulteress of “Punishment,” unearthed from a bog in Germany, was even more controversially identified by Heaney with his tribe-betraying sisters, heads shaved and “cauled in tar” for fraternizing with British soldiers in contemporary Belfast. (OG, 62, 113)

Tollund Man

As deployed in North, Heaney’s archeological-mythical method was unquestionably powerful and attention-getting. But the primary challenge remained: to concentrate on getting things right, not in deeds, but in words and images—befitting emblems of adversity that would record what happened, bear witness without exploiting the tragedy of the Troubles, and remain true to oneself. This demanding task, confronted in the bog poems and in the more immediately political poems of the “Singing School” sequence in North, culminates in “Exposure.” But the trajectory begins (once we are past the two exquisite dedicatory lyrics) with the first of the two poems centering on the mythic and symbolic combat between Antaeus and Hercules.



Some familiarity with these titular figures from Greek mythology is required to grasp what Heaney retrospectively came to regret in the case of the bog poems: the application to the political situation in Northern Ireland at the time. The Hercules-Antaeus conflict is also relevant to his own position at the time, which was anything but static. During the Troubles, quoting Czelaw Milosz’s Native Realm, Heaney said of himself, in his poem “Away From It All”:

I was stretched between contemplation
of a motionless point
and the command to participate
actively in history.[4]

It was a variation on an old theme. As Henry Hart has observed, “at the root” of the work of this “poet of contrary progressions” is a “multifaceted argument with himself, with others, with sectarian Northern Ireland, with his Anglo-Irish [poetic] heritage, and with his Roman Catholic, nationalist upbringing on a farm in County Derry.”[5]  In that dialectical context, the perennial combat embodied in the mythic wrestling match between Hercules and Antaeus becomes emblematic of the dynamic between the first and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney himself, “stretched between” contemplation and the pressure to participate actively, a man of “two minds” both poetically and politically. In “Terminus” (from The Haw Lantern, 1987), Heaney, graphically illustrating his double-mindedness, says he “grew up in between,” describing himself in Part 1 of the poem as suspended between past and present, between the native earth of the Derry farm of his childhood, and the machinery of the modern world:

When I hoked there, I would find
An acorn and a rusted bolt.

If I lifted my eyes, a factory chimney
And a dormant mountain.

If I listened, an engine shunting
And a trotting horse.

Is it any wonder when I thought
I would have second thoughts? (OG, 272)

Both in her 1998 book, Seamus Heaney, and in her not-yet-published 2014 obituary, Helen Vendler emphasizes these “second thoughts,” even going so far, in the book, as to have a “Second Thoughts” section as a sort of postscript or coda to each chapter. The theme of reconsideration is embodied in Heaney’s two treatments of the Hercules-Antaeus story, and their placement. Readers of Opened Ground, the poet’s own selection of verse from 1966-1996, will be misled by the Contents page, which indicates that “Antaeus” (the only poem in Opened Ground parenthetically dated) appeared in his first collection, Death of a Naturalist. It didn’t. Though it was written in the year that inaugural volume was published (1966), it first appeared in print in 1975 in North, immediately following “Mossbawn,” incorporating the two introductory ut pictura poeisis (Vermeer and Brueghel, respectively) poems dedicated to his Aunt Mary.

That warm domestic and pastoral preamble (OG, 93-94), twinned poems of love (“like a tinsmith’s scoop/ sunk past its gleam/ in the meal-bin”) and benign communal activity (potato seed-cutters in a Brueghel-like “frieze/ with all of us there, our anonymities”) is in striking contrast to the violent subject-matter of most of North: violence introduced by the poem that opens Part I of North, “Antaeus.” Heaney’s second poem on the struggle between the two Greek heroes, “Hercules and Antaeus,” closes Part 1. In Opened Ground, Heaney evidently wanted to put some distance between “Antaeus” and the poems he selected in 1998 to represent his work in North—understandably, since there had indeed been second thoughts. “Hercules and Antaeus,” in which the poet grudgingly recognizes the inevitable triumph of the Hercules figures of the world, not only revisits but in part reverses the 1966 poem in which he clearly identified with “Antaeus.” Before proceeding, we should pause for a backward glance at both Greek heroes.

Hercules and Antaeus

The son of Zeus and Alcmene, a mortal woman, Heracles (Hercules is the Latin form of the name) was intended by his father to lord it over all others. Though he became the greatest and most popular hero in Greek mythology, renowned for both brawn and brains, he had obstacles to overcome from the outset. The jealous wife of Zeus, Hera, unsuccessful in preventing Heracles’ birth, tried (Pindar tells us) to destroy him as an infant, sending two snakes to strangle him in his cradle. Little Heracles strangled the snakes instead. Hera later contrived to have the destiny Zeus intended for his son conferred instead on the king of Argos, Eurystheus, to whom Heracles would eventually become subject, forced (as punishment for the murder of his wife and children during a Hera-inflicted fit of madness) to perform the famous Twelve Labors.[6] In Book 11 of the Odyssey, the ghost of Heracles tells Homer’s hero of his suffering: “Son of Zeus that I was, my torments never ended,/ forced to slave for a man not half the man I was:/ he saddled me with the worst heartbreaking labors.” Those labors included, among others, killing the Nemean Lion, cleansing the Augean stables, and (the task he specifically mentions to Odysseus), retrieving the three-headed hound Cerberus from Hades; “no harder task for me, he thought,/ but I dragged the great beast up from the underworld to earth.”[7]

Prior to hauling Cerberus up from Hell, Heracles had been tasked by Eurystheus to find and bring to him the golden apples originally given (by Ge, mother of Antaeus) to Hera to celebrate her marriage to Zeus. The apples were secreted in the distant Garden of the daughters of Atlas, the Hesperides, where they grew from a Tree guarded not only by these three singing nymphs, but by the hundred-eyed serpent Ladon, coiled protectively about the trunk. In the most prominent variation on the legend, Heracles, wandering about seeking advice on the location of the Garden, encounters Prometheus, chained to the rock in the Caucasus, waiting by night for the eagle that returned daily to feed on his liver. When Heracles shoots and kills the eagle with his bow, a grateful Prometheus advises his savior to enlist his brother Atlas, who knows the location of the Garden. Atlas was also being punished by Zeus, condemned to support the sky on his back forever in order to keep heaven and earth apart. When he finally finds cloud-mantled Atlas, Heracles asks for his help in getting the apples. The Titan agrees, providing that Heracles, in exchange, will shoulder his burden. Heracles agrees. But when Atlas returns with the apples, clever Heracles tricks him into resuming his burden and departs with his prize.

In his long and meandering journey to the remote Garden of the Hesperides, Heracles, in addition to helping Prometheus, engaged and conquered two dangerous enemies in Northern Africa: the king of Egypt, Busiris, and the less tyrannical but even more formidable king of Libya. This was the invincible wrestler, the giant Antaeus, son of the Earth-goddess Ge and the sea-god Poseidon. Antaeus was always victorious in his matches because, when he was thrown to the ground, the Earth, his mother, renewed his strength. In their famous match, Heracles, unaware at first of that special relationship, started by wrestling Antaeus in the normal way. But, smart as he was powerful, he quickly realized what was going on. Lifting the giant up, Heracles held Antaeus aloft in the air, weakened him, and slowly crushed him to death with his bare hands. In his two poems on the subject, double-minded Seamus Heaney identifies in the first with with the earthy Antaeus, then, reluctantly, acknowledges the power and intelligence of Hercules.



The 1966 “Antaeus” begins with a probable echo (one among several, to which I’ll return) of Heaney’s predecessor and fellow Irishman and Nobel laureate, W. B. Yeats. Heaney would seem to have in mind as well lines from Robert Frost—his “favorite poet,” he later confided to a surprised Helen Vendler. In the two concluding quatrains of “To Earthward” (1923), Frost yearns for an Antaeus-like relationship with the earth, a joyous contact so intense as to include pain and tears, “the aftermark/ Of almost too much love.”

When stiff and sore and scarred
I take away my hand
From leaning on it hard
In grass and sand,

The hurt is not enough:
I long for weight and strength
To feel the earth as rough
To all my length. [8]

And here are the opening lines of Heaney’s gravitational poem, also written in quatrains:

           When I lie on the ground
I rise flushed as a rose in the morning,
In fights I arrange a fall on the ring
………..To rub myself with sand

           That is operative
As an elixir.

Antaeus’ earth-connection is chthonic and natal. “I cannot be weaned/ Off the earth’s long contour, her river-veins,/ Down here in my cave,” he says. “Girdered with root and rock/ I am cradled in the dark that wombed me,/ And nurtured in every artery.” The final two quatrains introduce Heracles—supposedly just one of many challengers (“Let each new hero come…”), but identified by the references to the golden apples, to Atlas, and to the fatal wrestling match:

           Let each new hero come
Seeking the golden apples and Atlas.
He must wrestle with me before he pass
………..Into that realm of fame

           Among the sky-born and royal:
He may well throw me and renew my birth
But let him not plan, lifting me off the earth,
………..My elevation, my fall.  (OG, 15)

It is hard to gauge the tone (pride, bravado, fear, petition?) in the punning and paradoxical final lines, in which Antaeus envisages and yet resists Heracles’ victorious strategy in the received myth. Let my opponent “not plan,” says Antaeus, even in elevating me off the earth, “my fall.”

Renewal in descent is a Yeatsian theme as well. In his late, summing-up poem, “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” the “foul” heart in which the ladderless Yeats at last “must lie down” is the fecund source of the artist’s creativity, enabling him to be, as Heaney’s Antaeus puts it, “nurtured in every artery.” But the closer Yeatsian parallel to Heaney’s “Antaeus” occurs in a related summing-up poem, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited” (also written in 1938). Yeats had identified (in the Preface to A Vision) with another Greek hero, terrestrial Oedipus, who “descended into an earth riven by love,” rather than with celestial Christ, who ascended into the abstract heaven. (Yeats is recalling his “translation” of the Messenger’s speech in Oedipus at Colonus; Heaney has described as one of “the things I’ve done with most relish,” his own version of the Messenger’s account of Oedipus disappearing, “assumed into earth rather than into heaven” [SS, 472]). In the Municipal Gallery poem, Yeats, asserting the gravitational pull of his art and cultural nationality alike, alludes directly to the Antaeus myth, applying it to himself and his principal Abbey-Theatre co-workers. Along with that earthy aristocrat and collector of Irish folklore, Lady Augusta Gregory, and “that rooted man” John Millington Synge, Yeats thought

All that we did, all that we said or sang
Must come from contact with the soil, from that
Contact everything Antaeus-like grew strong.[9]

Early Heaney would agree. Like Antaeus, son of Mother Earth, the poet of Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969) seemed an instinctual and earth-centered child of the natal soil. In an essay published in 1980, five years after North, he, too, like Yeats, described Synge as one who, Antaeus-like grew strong, having discovered in his experience on the Aran Islands a tangible “power-point.” Like Heaney himself in his archeological digging into the remote pre-Christian past in North, Synge, “grafted to a tree that had roots touching the rock bottom, …had put on the armour of authentic pre-Christian vision which was a salvation from the fallen world of Unionism and Nationalism, Catholicism and Protestantism, Anglo and Irish, Celtic and Saxon—all those bedevilling abstractions and circumstances.”[10]



But, however bedeviling and abstract, those antithetical forces could not be ignored or wholly transcended, and Heaney’s proclivity toward “second thoughts” would not allow him to rest with a too-easy “salvation” in the form of empathetic alliance with one side of the agon. As his cherished Robert Frost acknowledged, “I have been pulled two ways and torn in two all my life.”[11]At the time he wrote that, in a 1915 letter, Frost was just five years older than the author of North. Though Heaney was similarly torn, Antaeus—his alter ego in the 1966 poem—was, for all his myth-defying insistence or petition, still a defeated figure. When he takes up the theme again, in the wake of the renewed violence in Northern Ireland beginning with Bloody Sunday in January 1972, Heaney concedes in advance the defeat of Antaeus at the hands, and head, of Heracles, a figure of superior strength and “intelligence.”

In the earlier poem, Antaeus had boasted that the challenger must wrestle with him before he could “pass/ Into that realm of fame//Among sky-born and royal.” That successful passage is acknowledged (repeating the very phrase) at the outset of the new poem—which is written in the third person and whose opening lines go on to allude to Heracles’ feats: from the precocious choking of the snakes sent to strangle him in his cradle, through his ingenious cleansing of the accumulated cattle-dung in the Augean stables, and his successful quest for the golden apples, culminating in his apotheosis, laden with earned prizes:

Sky-born and royal,
Snake-choker, dung heaver,
His mind big with golden apples,
his future hung with trophies,

Hercules has the measure
of resistance and black powers
feeding off the territory.

The forces of resistance whose “measure” has been taken—doubly “grasped”—by intelligent Hercules, a violent light-bringer, are primordial, instinctual “black powers/ feeding” off the nurturing soil, the native “territory.” Antaeus himself is introduced as “the mould-hugger.” In the earlier poem he had claimed, “I cannot be weaned off” the earth and its “cradling dark.” Now he is described as “weaned at last” from his Mother-Earth. In the past,

a fall was a renewal
but now he is raised up—
the challenger’s intelligence

is a spur of light,
a blue prong graiping him
out of his element
into a dream of loss

and origins—the cradling dark,
the river-veins, the secret gullies
of his strength
the hatching grounds

of cave and souterrain,
he has bequeathed it all
to elegists. Balor will die,
and Byrthnoth and Sitting Bull.

“Light”—masculine and intellectual—defeats the cradling “dark” that had, in the earlier poem, “wombed” and “nurtured” Antaeus. Now the intelligent but phallic and brutal “spur” and “prong” of Hercules has succeeded in “graiping” (an obscure but forceful Scots verb for lifting, perhaps derived from William Dunbar) Antaeus “out of his element” into a dream of “loss” and nostalgia for his chthonic “origins” in the mothering soil: the hidden river-veins, gullies, caves and underground networks that once nourished his strength, and over which Heaney lingers.

Heaney’s lingering identification with Antaeus and the poetic, cultural, and nationalist dimension of this poem are confirmed by a 1979 interview, in which he recalled a conversation with a “fine” British poet, but one with a “kind of Presbyterian light” about him, “essentially different from the kind of poet I am.” The “image” that came into Heaney’s mind after the conversation “was of me being a dark soil and him being a kind of bright-pronged fork that was digging it up and going through it.” In “Hercules and Antaeus,” he continued, “Hercules represents the possibility of the play of intelligence,” resembling the “satisfaction you get from Borges,” so “different from the pleasures of Neruda, who’s more of an Antaeus figure.” Such thinking, he says, “led into the poetry of the second half of North, which was an attempt at some kind of declarative voice.” In that voice, the victory of the trophy-laden conqueror, his “light” too Protestant and “Anglo” for Heaney to ever endorse, is registered, but with reluctance.[12]

Forcefully severed from contact with the dark soil that is the source of his strength, Antaeus must lose, bequeathing his legacy to “elegists” lamenting the death of other indigenous fighters defeated and dispossessed by invaders. Heaney singles out mythic and historical losers, united by fate and alliteration: the one-eyed Irish god-king Balor, killed by the Tuatha de Danaan, the legendary invaders of Ireland; the Anglo-Saxon earl Byrthnoth, slain by Vikings in the massacre of his forces at the Battle of Maldon (991); and the chief of the Lakota Sioux, Sitting Bull, victor at Little Big Horn in 1876, but shot and killed by Indian police when, a decade and a half later, his followers tried to rescue him from reservation captivity. Transatlantic, but emblematic of all the native peoples overwhelmed in the inexorable advance of whites colonizing the American continent, Sitting Bull belongs in this trinity of the dispossessed and defeated—principal among whom are Heaney’s own “wronged people,” driven out or subjugated by the English invaders and planters, and still subject to violence and discrimination.

The final two stanzas present the victor in an iconic pose (archaic, but repeated from Churchill to “Rocky”), along with the transformation of the defeated into the topography and mythology of resurrection so often resorted to by the vanquished: arrogant “Hercules lifts his arms/ In a remorseless V,” his “triumph unassailed/ By the powers he has shaken,”

And lifts and banks Antaeus
High as a profiled ridge,
A sleeping giant,
Pap for the dispossessed.  (OG, 121-22)

The defeated Antaeus is lifted, crushed to death, and banked, his profiled corpse becoming part of the ridged landscape. In both Native American (Ojibway) and Celtic mythology and popular legend, a Sleeping Giant will one day awaken to lead his defeated and disinherited people to triumph. This desperate cultural-political wish-fulfillment, applied to his own tribe in Northern Ireland, is spurned by Heaney, brutally and caustically, as “Pap for the dispossessed”: the sentimental mythology of false hope that simultaneously sustains and deludes an uprooted and oppressed people. Later, in Station Island, the ghost of James Joyce himself will advise Heaney to stop “raking at dead fires” and “rehearsing the old whinges at your age./ That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,/ infantile” (OG, 245).  Though Heaney is not dismissing the reality either of oppression or of the need to rectify injustice, he is harshly critical of what Neil Corcoran succinctly describes as a subject people’s “hopeful but puerile” mythology. Yeats, too, in Celtic fin-de-siècle poems like “The Secret Rose” and “The Valley of the Black Pig, and, more obliquely in “The Second Coming,” had reminded us that oppressed people always dream apocalyptic dreams of deliverance, of what the distinguished Quaker philosopher Rufus M. Jones has memorably called “the fierce comfort of a relief expedition from the skies.”[13]

In that climactic line, “Pap for the dispossessed,” Heaney, conceding victory to Hercules, refuses to dwell on either the nostalgic “dream of loss/ and origins,” or the apocalyptic pipedream of the projected awakening of a “sleeping giant.” In Greek myth, Heracles will himself eventually be defeated, poisoned by the toxic shirt of the centaur Nessus. Though that dark future offers no comfort in this poem, it is also true that the combat between what is antithetically represented by Heaney’s Hercules and Antaeus (a spur of light/earthy darkness, “male” reason/ “female” instinct, victory/defeat) is itself a transitional phase, a “stepping stone” in a larger and more complex dialectic, both poetic and political. The forces symbolized in “Hercules and Antaeus” will wrestle again, and on a far more nuanced level, in the culminating poem in North, “Exposure.” By “bidding farewell to the chthonic elegiac myth of Antaeus, by finding something to praise in the ‘spur of light’ in ‘the challenger’s intelligence,’ Heaney,” writes Helen Vendler, “opened himself to the more authentic—if more dubious and shifting—figures animating “Exposure”—figures of exile, of flight, of sequestration and, above all, of second thoughts, ‘weighing and weighing,’ as he says, ‘my responsible tristia’.”[14]



Seamus Heaney began his Nobel Prize Acceptance speech, just as he had begun “Terminus” eight years earlier, by presenting himself as having grown up “in between”; “in suspension,” he says in the speech, “between the archaic and the modern.” His life as a “pre-reflective” child safely insulated from the outside world in a crowded traditional thatched farmstead was “an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled” with other sounds—“rain in the trees,…a steam train rumbling along a railway line one field back from the house.” This was during World War II, and so, conveyed by the wind-stirred wire leading from atop a chestnut tree to the family radio, the sounds included the voice of a BBC newsreader announcing in “resonant English tones…the names of bombers and of cities bombed, of war fronts and army divisions,” and intoning as well “those other solemn and oddly bracing words, ‘the enemy’ and ‘the allies’.” (OG, 416)

That child in the bedroom listening simultaneously to sounds of the pastoral and modern worlds was “already being schooled for the complexities of his adult predicament”: a future involving the conflict between the Provisional IRA, British troops, and loyalist paramilitaries during the renewed Troubles, centered in Northern Ireland but radiating out to bombings in Dublin and London. A no-longer “pre-reflective” child, Heaney was now an adult who would, as he told his audience in Stockholm, have to “adjudicate” among “promptings” that were

variously ethical, aesthetical, moral, political, metrical, skeptical, cultural, topical, typical, post-colonial and, taken all together, quite impossible. So it was that I found myself in the mid-nineteen-seventies in another small house, this time in County Wicklow south of Dublin, with a young family of my own and a slightly less imposing radio set, listening to the rain in the trees and to the news of bombings closer to home…feeling challenged yet steadfast in my non-combatant status when I heard, for example, that one particularly sweet-natured school friend had been interned because he was suspected of having been involved in a political killing. (OG, 418)

In August 1972, the year that had begun with the second Bloody Sunday, when British paratroopers killed and wounded the Catholic civil rights marchers in Derry, Heaney resigned his teaching post at Queens University in Belfast, moving with his wife and two young sons to Wicklow in the Republic. It was, he has acknowledged, the “most intense phase” of his life, “and not just of the writing life.” Referring to his family as well as himself, he told O’Driscoll, “we were at a turning point,…exposed and ready in a new way.” He had “no more alibis. That much was clear the first morning I took the children” to their new school “and the headmaster wrote ‘file’ [poet] in the column of the rollbook where he had to enter ‘Occupation of Parent.’ No more of your ‘lecturer’ or ‘teacher’” (SS, 156).  They settled in “Glanmore,” a cottage (formerly the gatekeeper’s on the Synge estate) rented to them by their friend, the Synge scholar Anne Saddlemeyer. As noted earlier, the decision, much commented on in the media, was criticized by some Northern Catholics, including fellow writers, who felt that the poet best equipped to be an engaged spokesman for “their side” had abandoned them. In these circumstances, says Heaney in the Nobel Prize speech, what “I was longing for was…a way of crediting poetry without anxiety or apology.” It was then, he says (OG, 419), that “I wrote a poem called ‘Exposure’.”

Aside from “Punishment,” in which he accuses himself of complicity and passivity in the tribal vengeance exacted against his “sisters” brutally punished for fraternizing with British soldiers, “Exposure,” the sixth and final poem in the sequence “Singing School” in North, is the most controversial poem in Heaney’s most controversial and powerful collection. Epitomizing the rival claims of the private and public voice, of art and action, of poetry and political engagement, “Exposure” traces several “exposings.” The first is to the natural elements in a rural environment. The poem, written, like “Hercules and Antaeus,” in unrhymed quatrains, begins:

It is December in Wicklow:
Alders dripping, birches
Inheriting the last light,
The ash tree cold to look at.

In this damp, darkening, low-wicked end of the year, there were other cold looks. The second “exposing” was to the unaccustomed criticism already mentioned, both private and in terms of the media publicity occasioned by the decision to move to the Republic. The poet is critical himself—at least, as in the case of Horatio on the battlements in Hamlet, “a part of him.” In an image that will recur in the poem’s final line, he refers to the opportunity to possibly make a difference at home as “A comet that was lost,” and should at least

                             be visible at sunset,
Those million tons of light
Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips,

And I sometimes see a falling star.
If I could come on meteorite!
Instead I walk through damp leaves,
Husks, the spent flukes of autumn,

Imagining a hero
On some muddy compound,
His gift like a slingstone
Whirled for the desperate.

Instead of a wrestling Antaeus, we have a stone-slinging potential Cuchulain or David defending his people against physically superior (Goliath-like) strength. Heaney’s “gift,” though weapon-like, would be (as in his canon-opening poem, “Digging”) that “pen” mightier than sword or gun (or slingshot). But the “desperate” here are the same “dispossessed” battening on “pap” in “Hercules and Antaeus.” In any case, it is all a fantasy. The million-tonned luminous comet is already “lost,” its glimmering roseate track not even “visible at sunset”; the lesser “falling star” is glimpsed only “sometimes”; and the recluse self-exiled in the Wicklow woods is, in this declension, reduced to hoping for the diminished excitement of coming upon “meteorite.”

Walking through “damp leaves,” the husks of an “autumn” as “spent” as the meteorite, and merely “imagining” himself a potentially salvific “hero,” Heaney sounds remarkably like the middle-aged Yeats of The Wild Swans at Coole, shuffling among the littering autumnal leaves and burning “damp faggots” while, in contrast, a man of action—Irish Airman Robert Gregory, driven by a lethal and “lonely impulse” to hurl himself into combat—“may consume/ The entire combustible world” in the “flare” of a single courageous if reckless decision. Like Heaney, who presents himself in this poem “weighing and weighing” options, Yeats’s Airman claims to have “balanced all, brought all to mind.”  But the fighter-pilot impulsively leaps into his “tumult in the clouds,” while Heaney and Yeats “sit,” or walk through “damp leaves.” And yet one senses, at the deepest level, that for both poets, however they may momentarily envy and even glorify it, the role of the combustible “hero” is, in the final weighing, just more infantile pap.[15]

In the next two stanzas, the media exposure attending Heaney’s controversial move to the seclusion and safety of the Republic is made more intimate by the many-faceted “counseling” of friends  (whether well-intentioned or the equivalent of Job’s comforters) and the more blunt hatred of ideological enemies, whose “anvil brains” generate more heat than sparks of light:

How did I end up like this?
I often think of my friends’
Beautiful prismatic counselling
And the anvil brains of some who hate me

As I sit weighing and weighing
My responsible tristia.
For what? For the ear? For the people?
For what is said behind backs?

The Latin word signals a double-echo: an allusion to another internal émigré, Osip Mandelstam in the Stalinist Soviet Union, whose poems in exile, titled Tristia, in turn echoed the Tristia of Ovid, exiled by Augustus from Rome. But “for what,” Heaney asks himself, does he sit weighing and weighing incompatible responsibilities? He momentarily casts doubt even on the claims of poetry, in terms both of its adequacy in the face of the atrocities in the North and in purely aesthetic terms: the artistic labor required to create sounds to please a discerning “ear.” Feeling, as he said in the Nobel Prize speech, “challenged yet steadfast,” he implicitly resists as well civic responsibility in the form of politically engaged labor on behalf of “the people,” and spurns, though acutely sensitive to it, the sniping of those who talk behind one’s back.

But there remains self-criticism and the final and most important “exposure”: the revelation of his own deeply-conflicted feelings and thoughts. He hears, in the symbolic utterance of the rain through the alders (the familiar rain-in-the-trees image with which the poem had opened), self-accusation and a nagging fear—since each raindrop recalls the “diamond absolutes” beyond endless weighing of alternatives—that he may be a less-than-noble escapist whose quietist quest has caused him to dodge the violence and miss a momentous chance:

Rain comes down through the alders,
Its low conducive voices
Mutter about let-downs and erosions
And yet each drop recalls

The diamond absolutes.
I am neither internee nor informer;
An inner émigré, grown long-haired
And thoughtful; a wood-kerne

Escaped from the massacre,
Taking protective colouring
From bole and bark, feeling
Every wind that blows;

Who, blowing up these sparks
For their meagre heat, have missed
The once-in-a-lifetime portent,
The comet’s pulsing rose.  (OG, 135-36)



“Exposure,” in which Heaney puts extraordinary pressure on himself, is an intimate self-examination and meditation on what Robert Frost famously called “the road not taken.” But against the vacillation and conflicted thoughts that led him both to self-protectively escape “the massacre” and to miss the not-taken and once-only opportunity to stay in the North and perhaps even make a difference politically, we have to weigh, as Heaney may well have, not only the nuanced subtext of sedentary Yeats’s ostensibly unflattering contrast of himself to heroic Robert Gregory, but the older poet’s insistence, in “The Second Coming,” that it is the “best” who lack conviction, while “the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity” (YP, 235). In addition, though they give off but “meagre heat” compared to the comet’s “million tons of light,” the “sparks” to which Heaney refers in the final stanza are poetic sparks.

According to Heaney in a 1997 interview with fellow poet Henri Cole, what he was asking, with “anxiety,” in “Exposure” was: “what am I doing striking a few little sparks when what the occasion demands is a comet?”[16] But those little sparks were still inspired sparks, blown by the “wind” Heaney  feels as a “wood-kerne” hidden and camouflaged—like the Irish soldiers Spenser had described in A View of the Present State of Ireland (1596)—by protective bole and bark, the autumnal woods surrounding Glanmore Cottage. To my ear, “these sparks” evoke Shelley’s final petition to that “breath of autumn’s being” in the “Ode to the West Wind”:

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like withered leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse,

Scatter, as from an unextinguished hearth,
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!

In the end, Heaney, neither informer nor internee, confirms (though not without misgivings) his decision to become an internal émigré and noncombatant. In moving to Glanmore Cottage, a secluded retreat and place of writing he came to love and eventually to purchase, Heaney committed himself full-time to poetry, recognizing—as had Wordsworth, in an earlier time of political “catastrophe” and with the support of his sister Dorothy—his “true self” as “Poet,” file. In the third of the “Glanmore Sonnets” (in Field Work, 1979), Heaney starts to compare himself and his wife to “William and Dorothy,” only to be interrupted by Marie (OG, 158)—who may, however, have played a role not unlike that of Dorothy. Asked by Helen Vendler about separations and other difficulties, Marie insisted that “all I want is for Seamus to be able to write his poems.” That was what mattered as well to Dorothy, that “belovéd woman” and “companion” who had, in a time of political and emotional turmoil, Wordsworth insisted,

Maintained for me a saving intercourse
With my true self…preserved me still
A Poet, made me seek beneath that name,
And that alone, my office upon earth.[17]

But “poetry,” as Auden famously insisted in his elegy for Yeats, “makes nothing happen.” Even (OG, 102, 103) lying “down/ in the word-horde” and “jumping in graves” (as Heaney, a self-mocking “Hamlet the Dane” does in the “skull-capped ground” of North) cannot effect political change any more than the imaginative “flames” of Yeats’s “Byzantium” (YP, 298) can “singe a sleeve” in the material world.  As Heaney says, echoing Auden and Yeats: though poetry is “unlimited” in its capacity for “pure concentration,” “no lyric has ever stopped a tank.” [18] Nor, in “Exposure,” can “meagre sparks” outweigh the comet’s million tons of light.

As man and poet, Heaney had to acknowledge the passionate intensity and terrible beauty of that climactic comet’s “pulsing rose.” But there is an implicit caveat in that very image, a reservation taking the form of repetition and rondure. For this final image in the final poem of North—the “comet’s pulsing rose”—not only echoes the absent afterglow of the comet’s tail,  imagined resembling the fruit of the rose, the ripe seed-receptacles that remain after the petals have been removed (“Like a glimmer of haws and rose-hips”); it also curves back to “Antaeus,” the opening (post-Dedication) poem in the volume, and to what proved to be the earth-renewed wrestler’s over-confident and punning assertion: “When I die on the ground,/ I rise flushed as a rose.” The internal “rose”-echo is obvious, and I take the oblique allusion to “Antaeus” also to be deliberate, an echo adding to the undermining of the pulsing comet’s combustible political force.

For in the trajectory of North, atavistic Antaeus had been forced to yield. Not, finally, to the strength and spurred light of hubristic Hercules, but to the responsibility-weighing tristia and “second thoughts” of Seamus Heaney, acting in his true office upon earth: that of Poet. A poet may make, as Heaney often has, public statements; but a poet’s resistance to pressure to become overtly “committed” is usually accompanied, as in the case of Wordsworth and Coleridge (disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution), by a belief that the authentic agent of change is not political activism but the creative imagination, with its implicit assertion of the essential autonomy of poetry. This is a claim certain, in a time of troubles, to frustrate readers who want their poets to “engage” rather than fiddle. And yet we find, at the end of “Exposure,” a poet, or file, scattering, not the spent ashes of partisan politics and sectarian hatred, but those vestigial yet undying “sparks”—his inspired words—among us all. Seamus Heaney’s four decades of creativity following North, defending and reaffirming the central value of poetry, have amply vindicated the pivotal decision publicly wrestled over in “Exposure.”

— Patrick J. Keane


Patrick J Keane 2

Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College and Contributing Editor at Numéro Cinq. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).






Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. O’Driscoll, Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 159-60. (Henceforth cited parenthetically as SS).
  2. “Crediting Poetry,” in Seamus Heaney, Opened Ground: Selected Poems 1966-1996 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 415-30. Opened Ground is cited parenthetically throughout as OG.
  3. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” The Dial 75 (November 1923); cited from Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975), 175-78 (177).
  4. Station Island (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984), 17.
  5. Hart, Seamus Heaney: Poet of Contrary Progressions (Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1992), 2.
  6. Among his many heroic exploits, Heracles led the Theban army to victory in battle, and was rewarded by the king, Creon—the tyrant who has rebellious Antigone buried alive (Heaney would later publish a version of Sophocles’ great tragedy Antigone under the title The Burial at Thebes). In gratitude, Creon gave Heracles in marriage his daughter Megara, with whom he had three children. When he regained his senses after killing his family, Heracles was commanded by the priestess of Apollo to obey Eurystheus, who assigned him the Twelve Labors (athloi: contests undertaken for a prize).
  7. Homer: The Odyssey, trans. Robert Fagles (NY: Viking, 1996), 269-70. Book 11: 621-24.
  8. The Poetry of Robert Frost (NY: Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 227.
  9. W. B. Yeats: The Poems [henceforth, YP], ed. Daniel Albright (London: Everyman’s Library, 1992), 367-68, and  395, for “The Circus Animal’ Desertion”);   A Vision (London: Macmillan, 1962 [1937]), 27-28.
  10. Heaney, “A Tale of Two Islands: Reflections on the Irish Literary Revival,” in Irish Studies 1, ed. P. J. Drudy (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1980), 1-20 (9).
  11. The Letters of Robert Frost, vol. 1 (of a projected 3), 1886-1920, ed. Robert Sheehy, Mark Richardson, and Robert Faggen (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2013).
  12. John Haffendon, “Meeting Seamus Heaney,” reprinted in Viewpoints: Poets in Conversation. (London, 1981), 57-75. My colleague David Lloyd rightly insists that Hercules is “too Angloish for Heaney to get too near.”
  13. Corcoran, Seamus Heaney (London and Boston: Faber & Faber, 1986), 100. Jones, The Eternal Gospel (NY: Macmillan, 1938), 5. For the Yeats poems, see YP, 87, 83, 235.
  14. Vendler, Seamus Heaney (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1998), 89-90.
  15. Ostensibly pure hero worship, both “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” and “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” (YP, 181-85) hint at subversive caveats.
  16. Cole, “Seamus Heaney: The Art of Poetry No. 75.” The Paris Review 144 (Fall, 1997).
  17. For Marie’s comment, see Vendler, “Seamus Justin Heaney 13 April 1939-30 August 2013” (2014), p. 2. Wordsworth, The Prelude (1850), XI. 340-47. In North, in the sequence “Singing School” (its title taken from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium”), Wordsworth figures as well as Yeats.
  18. Heaney, The Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose 1978-1987 (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1989), 107-8. “In one sense, the efficacy of poetry is nil—no lyric has ever stopped a tank. In another sense, it is unlimited.” Though not politically “instrumental,” it functions “as pure concentration.
Apr 112014

john lee portrait

In poetry, the local is the universal. As William Blake wrote:  ”To see a World in a Grain of Sand / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand / And Eternity in an hour.” John B. Lee is an old friend, published many times in Numéro Cinq, who lives in Port Dover, Ontario, just down the road from the farm where I grew up. We both have a special affection for Norfolk County, to me, always both local and an epic ground, filtered with blood of ancestors (see my anthology of Norfolk County history “A Geography of the Soul“). And in these poems, he remembers a relative of his, Ida Wright, born in Waterford, the farming town, where I went to high school. Ida went to China as a missionary — the rest I will let John tell. But notice, yes, how these poems rise by degrees to compass all life (and beyond), from a southwestern Ontario schoolroom to eternity.

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine

We have also translations of the poems into Spanish (we’ve done this before as well), courtesy of John B. Lee’s Cuban friend and colleague Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon.


The poems in this document are taken from a manuscript in progress called Into a Land of Strangers. The central figure in the poems is my great-aunt Ida Wight née Emerick, born in Waterford, Ontario, and raised by her father and mother in Bothwell, Ontario. After a brief stint as an elementary school teacher in Highgate, she joined the Mission to China and she became a missionary in China in the late 1800′s where she married a fellow missionary. Widowed during the Boxer Rebellion, she and her baby daughter fled on foot along with other westerners, surviving by eating boiled cotton and shoe leather. She spent two years in Canada before returning to China where she became superintendent of missionary schools. During the Second World War, she fled  to Hong Kong where she was eventually placed in an internment camp by the Japanese. Liberated by the Americans in late 1944, she traveled to Durban, South Africa, where she remained until her death on January 1, 1952. Her grandchildren were also interned in a camp for the duration of the war. The book Into a Land of Strangers tells the story of three generations of the Emerick family beginning with the German-American late-come Loyalist Francis Emerick who served on the Canadian side in the Lincoln militia during the War of 1812 after which he farmed a farm in what is now Middlesex County in southern Ontario. 

—John B. Lee


A Person on Business from Porlock

There is an imam
mosqued in the empire of the west
who preaches
that the greatest sin
in the land of the golden mountain
is the American lawn
even the burning earth
of south Texas, even there
on the torpid border of old Spain
that stolen-water-green thing thrives
with a great thickening
of wide-bladed
low-growth St. Augustine grass
even there
in the blue boil
of the unusable summer pools
of suburbia
in that necessary evaporate cool
all along the arroyos
the dry brown rivers
of parched clay
thirsty mud cracking open
like oil on old canvas
in the brilliant mirror of an unreflecting sky
the monolithic malady of modern paradise
insists itself
between the dream houses
of every middleclass mind

if one thinks of Cathay
and the Khan’s palace
in the city of Chandu
where mare’s milk spills
like moonlight on marble
and light falls in chords through cracks
like strands of silk that brace the bamboo palace
where leopards slip the saddle
in let-loose leaps
and the jessed hawks fly
over the claw shade of a shadow-measured wall

as I think now
of my own neighbour
mowing his yard for
the fourth time today

or as it was
with the woman next door
who plucked cut blades
one by one
from the sweet fragrance
of her wet-sock work with a similar care
one might use to pull stray thread
from a new garment

and I also recall
the mad lady nursing lost leaves
at midnight
in the candle-glow under star-dark heaven
when the world is otherwise laudanum black

and behind the forehead
like stones in a deep stream
something sleeps
turning green


Una persona de Porlock en negocios

Hay un imam
en una mezquita del imperio del oeste
que predica
que el pecado más grande
en la tierra de la montaña áurea
es el césped estadounidense
incluso la tierra ardiente
del sur de Texas, incluso allí
en la frontera letárgica de la vieja España
esa cosa verde del agua robada prospera
con un gran espesamiento
yerba de San Agustín
de anchas hojas
incluso allí
en el corral azul
de inservibles piscinas de verano
de los suburbios
en ese fresco necesario que se evapora
a lo largo de los arroyos
los secos ríos pardos
de árido barro
fango sediento que se resquebraja
como el óleo en el lienzo viejo
en el espejo brillante de un cielo sin reflejos
el mal monolítico del paraíso moderno
entre las casas de sueños
de cada mente de clase media

si uno piensa en Catay
y el palacio del Kan
en la ciudad de Chandu
donde la leche de yegua chorrea
como luz de luna sobre el mármol
y la luz cae en acordes a través de las grietas
como hebras de seda que apuntalan el palacio de bambú
donde los leopardos se deslizan de la montura
en saltos sueltos
y los halcones encorreados vuelan
sobre la penumbra desgarrada de una pared medida por su sombra

mientras pienso ahora
en mi propio vecino
cortando el césped de su patio por
cuarta vez hoy

o como fue
con la mujer de la casa de al lado
que recogió las briznas cortadas
una a una
desde la fragancia dulce
de su trabajo de medias mojadas con cuidado similar
al que pondríamos para sacar hilos extraviados
de una nueva prenda de vestir

y también recuerdo
la señora loca cuidando hojas perdidas
a medianoche
al fulgor de una vela bajo un cielo oscuro de estrellas
cuando el mundo está por otra parte negro como el láudano

y detrás de la frente
como piedras en una corriente profunda
algo duerme
tornándose verde


The Superintendent

looking at the comfortable room
in the luxurious home
she had built for herself
in the orient
my cousin said
of our late aunt
posing like widowed gentry
lolling amongst her precious things
“I thought missionaries
were supposed to be poor …”
her silk pillows
gilt upholsteries, silver
tea service, fine cloth
painted vase, and
dress, the tats
and flounces—doyen
of the wealthy classes
mistress of a private school
privy to
the Sino-Victoriana
of a distant land that changed the mind
like the slow conversion of green
in slanting shade
where everything greys
in the lonesome lamentation of a solitary light
growing older
in a homeland no longer home
in the piano parlour silence
with that deep-toned quiet
of untouched ivory, each key
yellow as a smoker’s tooth

who does not fear
or loathe to hear
the superintendent of schools
with her disapproving
and ultra-grammatical
crepitation, clearing her throat
with a phlegmy “ahem”
from the back of the room
her spine as stiff as a pointer
she strides
her heels cracking the floor
as she seizes the chalk of the day
and with white streak

is it a sin or is it a dream of sin
to see through the third eye
how the children tremble
shading their work
for a smudge of errors
the grand failures
we feel
in the pedagogical squint
of the once-a-term stranger
in a classroom smelling of spilled ink
and the bass notes of old plasticine
fragrant in bent fingers
and multi-coloured snakes of clay
rolled flat on the modeling board
one name carved deep
in the cave of every desk

for we are the bullied, the shy
the wild, the plump
the brilliant, the lost
the bratty, the eager-to-please
the quiet, the pimpled
the unclean, the poor
the criminal, the crippled, the maimed
the doomed-to-die young
the bad seed, the sniffling, sniveling
easy-to-hate tattle tale
the pampered
the beaten, the bewildered
the too-stupid-for words
learning one lesson in a tall cone-shaped hat
under tousled hair

and one in the tasseled

we all share our nature with the dead
one name carved deep in the cave
of every empty desk is yours
and one name there is mine


La superintendente

mirando el aposento confortable
en la casa lujosa
que ella construyó para sí
en el oriente
mi primo dijo
de nuestra tía difunta
posando como viuda aristocrática
reclinada entre sus objetos preciosos

“creía que los misioneros
se suponía que fueran pobres…”

sus almohadas de seda
dorada tapicerías acolchadas, servicio de
té de plata, finas ropas
jarrones pintados, y
vestido abotonado hasta arriba
con corpiño
ajustado, los encajes
y cenefas—decana
de clases acaudaladas
maestra de una escuela privada
consejera en
la Sino-Victoriana
de una tierra distante que cambió la mente
como una lenta conversión del verde
en matices sesgados
en los que todo se torna gris
en la triste lamentación de la luz solitaria

en una patria que ya no es hogar
en el silencio del salón del piano
con ese silencioso tono profundo
de marfil intacto, cada tecla
amarilla como los dientes de un fumador

que no teme
o detesta escuchar
la superintendente de escuelas
con su traqueteo reprobador
y ultra-gramatical,
aclarándose la garganta
con flema “ejem”
desde el fondo del cuarto
su espalda tan tiesa como un puntero
camina a grandes pasos
sus talones golpeteando el suelo
mientras toma la tiza del día
y con un trazo blanco

es este un pecado o el sueño de un pecado
ver a través del tercer ojo
como los niños tiemblan
sombreando sus trabajos
por un borrón de errores
los grandes fallos
que sentimos 
en la bizquera pedagógica
del extraño de una vez un trimestre
en un aula que huele a tinta derramada
y las notas bajas de la plastilina vieja
fragante en los dedos doblados
y las serpientes de barro multicolores
enrolladas y aplastadas en la tabla de modelar
un nombre gravado profundamente
en la caverna de cada pupitre

porque somos los intimidados, los tímidos
los salvajes, los regordetes
los brillantes, los extraviados
los niños malos, difíciles de complacer
los callados, los espinillosos
los sucios, los pobres
los criminales, los lisiados, los mutilados
los condenados a morir jóvenes
la mala semilla, los que se sorben los mocos, los llorones
fáciles de odiar parloteadores
los consentidos
los golpeados, los atolondrados
los demasiado estúpidos para las palabras

aprendiendo una lección en un sombrero de alta copa
bajo el pelo desgreñado

y uno en el birrete
adornado con borlitas

todos compartimos nuestra naturaleza con los muertos
un nombre gravado hondo en la caverna
de los pupitres vacíos es tuyo
y un nombre allí es mío


The Impossible Black Tulip

“The men of old see not the moon
of today; yet the moon of today
is the moon that shone on them.”
……………………—Chinese proverb

I wonder, Ida
when you joined the mission bound for China
did you know the name
Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit priest
from Italy
the man the Chinese still call
“the scholar from the west”
a sixteenth century Catholic polymath
wearing the robes of a Buddhist monk
impressing the mandarins
of the Ming
mastering the culture and
language of the middle kingdom
and then, mapping the world beyond the world
tracing coastlines on the impossible black tulip
of cartography wherever Magellan sailed
and Columbus lost his way
where the Portuguese, the Spanish, the French
the English, the Dutch
went warring for land
and the madness of gold
and the minds
of the savage
and the bodies of slaves
the rivalries of red-haired kings
and red-robed churches
barbarians and buccaneers uncouth humans
in the era of inquisition
after Copernicus spun the globe
and Galileo gave heaven away for fear of burning alive
and there the new lands were named
even the home of your birth Jiānádá
first named and thereby known
by the learned classes
who opened their eyes to the west
and the faith of the west
inscribed with the allegory of the Holy Land
and he, the first westerner
to enter into
the Forbidden City
died a failure to evangelize
though he built a cathedral
in the capital
and still, long after
the gunboats have fallen silent
and the opium wars
have burned away
and the Boxers razed
your home and murdered your kind, and the Japanese
imprisoned you and your children
for the sins of empire—his name
lives on
in reverence—
like Li Po’s drowning moon
held loose
and glowing in the drunkard’s palm
of a midnight pond
the one we might see
if we dare to dream
of a darkness yet to come


El tulipán negro imposible

“Los hombres de la antigüedad no ven la luna
de hoy; sin embargo la luna de hoy
es la luna que brilló sobre ellos.”
…………………………………….—Proverbio chino

Me pregunto, Ida
cuando te uniste a la misión destinada a China
si sabías el nombre
Matteo Ricci, el sacerdote jesuita
de Italia
el hombre que los chinos aún llaman
“el sabio del oeste”
un erudito católico del siglo dieciséis
que usaba la túnica de un monje budista
impresionando a los mandarines
de los Ming
que dominaba la cultura y
la lengua del reino medio
y luego, trazaba mapas del mundo más allá del mundo
dibujando la línea de las costas sobre el tulipán negro imposible
de la cartografía dondequiera que navegara Magallanes
y Colón perdiera su ruta
donde los portugueses, los españoles y los franceses
los ingleses, los holandeses
se fueron peleando por tierra
y la locura del oro
por las mentes
de los salvajes
y los cuerpos de los esclavos
las rivalidades de los reyes pelirrojos
y de las iglesias de mantos rojos
bárbaros y bucaneros humanos groseros
en la era de la inquisición
luego de que Copérnico hiciera girar el globo
y Galileo entregara al cielo por temor a que lo quemaran vivo
y entonces se nombraron las nuevas tierras
incluso el hogar de tu nacimiento Jiānádá
primero nombrado y por tanto conocido
por las clases ilustradas
que abrieron sus ojos al oeste
y la fe del oeste
inscrito con la alegoría de la Tierra Santa

y él, el primer occidental
que entrara en
la Ciudad Prohibida
murió en el fracaso de evangelizar
aunque construyó una catedral
en la capital
y aun, mucho más tarde de que
las cañoneras se han callado
y las guerras del opio
han consumido en llamas
y los Bóxer arrasaran
tu hogar y asesinaron a tu gente, y los japoneses
te hicieron prisionera con tus hijos
por los pecados del imperio—su nombre
en reverencia—
como la luna inundada de Li Po
y luciendo en la palma del borracho
de una laguna a medianoche
la que veríamos
si nos atrevemos a soñar
en una oscuridad aún por venir


Considering Ancient Chinese Erotica

in the spring palace
behind high walls
of the Forbidden City
the perfumed concubine
lolled with her bound-as-a-child body
lamed by beauty
the crimson water lily of the royal house
playing bring on the clouds and the rain
with the wealthy lords
of the Ming
in the court of songs
otherwise dishabille women
their misshapen bones
broken in slippers
crippled by pain her feet made small as a deer
for the visual delight of men
well-born girls
wearing bow shoes embroidered in silk
walking with the lotus gait
the short-step sway of pampered ladies
even in time the eldest daughter of the poor
wanting to marry highborn
achieved the crescent moon
of the cramped arch
with its erotic allure
an intimate and chaste concealment
lasting a thousand years
until the corseted Christians
came at the time of the heavenly foot
their own vital organs cramped
in whalebone
their tight breasts swaddled
in winding-cloth white wear
sending home souvenirs
amazing the congregation
amusing the minister
tantalizing all future museums
where horrified visitors troupe past
in clicking stilettos and blushing tattoos


Considerando la antigua erótica china

en el palacio de invierno
detrás de las altas murallas
de la Ciudad Prohibida
la concubina perfumada
se arrellanaba con el cuerpo envuelto como el de un bebé
lisiada por la belleza
el agua de lilas carmesí de la casa real
jugando a llevar al emperador al éxtasis del placer
con los señores acaudalados
de los Ming
en la corte de las canciones
por otra parte mujeres en traje de casa
sus huesos mal formados
rotos en las sandalias
lisiadas por el dolor en sus pies hechos pequeños como los de un venado
para el deleite visual de los hombres
muchachas bien nacidas
usando zapatos de arco bordados en seda
caminando con el modo del loto
el bamboleo de paso corto de las señoras consentidas
incluso con el tiempo las hijas mayores de los pobres
que querían casarse con los de alta cuna
alcanzaban la luna nueva
del arco agarrotado
con su encanto erótico
un casto disimulo íntimo
que dura mil años
hasta las cristianas encorsetadas
llegaron en la época de los pies celestiales
sus órganos vitales agarrotados
entre barbas de ballena
sus apretados pechos envueltos
en blanca ropa enrollada
enviando a casa suvenires
que sorprendían la congregación
divertían al pastor
tentando a todos los museos futuros
donde los visitantes horrorizados pasaban en grupo
en chasqueantes estiletes y tatuajes ruborizados


Into a Land of Strangers

the muddy root
of the lotus, also
desires the sky


tropical lotus
blooms in the night
white flesh a white moon dreams


black water, blue sky
two minds
consider one light


undulating cutwater
darkens beneath
the white of a single cloud


the lotus open
in the moon-wane of morning
how young a fading white


how might the lotus thirst
in the ever-evaporate black
of a deep pool


into a land of strangers
she comes
a stranger to herself


in the seed pearl
of her beloved moon
the sand grain of her soul


celestial stranger
your secret revealed
to a secret concealed


an unpainted lotus
imagines the mind
wet brush dampens dry water


here in the seam of true silk
the chrysalis clings
to the force of an unborn wing


A tierra extranjera

en la raíz lodosa
del loto, también
desea el cielo


loto tropical
florece en la noche
blanca carne que una luna blanca sueña


agua negra, cielo azul
dos mentes
consideran una luz


ondulante rompeolas
se oscurece bajo
el blancor de una nube solitaria


se abren los lotos
en el cuarto menguante de la mañana
qué lozano el blanco mortecino


como puede el loto languidecer de sed
en el negro en evaporación
de una laguna profunda


a tierra extranjera
ella llega
una extranjera para ella misma


en la perla seminal
de su amada luna
el grano de arena de su alma


extranjera celestial
tu secreto revelado
a un secreto guardado


un loto no pintado
imagina la mente
el pincel mojado humedece el agua seca


aquí en la sutura de la verdadera seda
cuelga la crisálida
ante la fuerza de un ala por nacer

—John B. Lee & Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon


John and I (1)Manuel Leon, translator, and John B. Lee

John B. Lee is the author of over sixty published books and  the recipient of over seventy awards for his writing. Inducted as Poet Laureate of the city of Brantford in perpetuity, he now lives in Port Dover, a fishing town located on the north coast of Lake Erie. He and Manuel have collaborated on translations on several occasions, the most substantial project being Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958 (Hidden Brook Press, 2010), a bilingual anthology of Cuban poetry in original Spanish with English translations.

Manuel de Jesus Velázquez Léon is a professor at University of Hoguin. A co-founder of the Canada Cuba Literary Alliance, he is editor-in-chief of the bilingual literary journal, The Ambassador. He and John B. Lee collaborated on the 360-page bilingual anthology Sweet Cuba: The Building of a Poetic Tradition: 1608-1958, (Hidden Brook Press, 2010). Sweet Cuba has been called “the most significant book of translated Cuban poetry ever published.”  He lives in Holguin, Cuba, with his wife and their young son and is the publisher of Sand Crab books which recently printed a bilingual editon of Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Glen Sorestad’s book, A Thief of Impeccable Taste.


Apr 092014

Julie Larios

Herewith impish, gracile, nimble poems by Contributing Editor (one of our own) Julie Larios whose continuing Undersung series has become a mainstay of the magazine and a model of poetic discourse. Julie’s poems are playful, yes — the body “poor sot” and men! who only need “A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory / that size doesn’t matter” — and her language is fast, packed with snappy rhythms, sly puns and rhymes that twist and curl meaning from word to word. Just read this:

of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose, 
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin

But prosody aside, she has also a lovely set of themes, always coming back to a view of life, mischievous yet grand, the comedy of the body that won’t stop, that has its knowledge, that faulty and doomed as it is nonetheless is holy, the house of the spirit. And Julie, I think, never loses sight of the current of spirit that runs beneath appearances. Oh, to have written that line.

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.


What Body Knows 

knows how
to go
slow now,
to fool Doom,
to bow down -
to grow

knows not
how to grow
cool, nor cold,
knows not
to stop,
poor sot.


What Every Man Needs

A pot to piss in.
A Porsche.
A few pit stops.
And to mark the right spots, several X’s.
Great sex or— on slow nights— a few seeds
to spit off the porch into the dark.
Down any mine shaft, a bright torch.
A daft aunt or two for comic relief.
A belief in the afterlife, or in the theory
that size doesn’t matter.
A mother, ha, like a hole in the head.
A starry sky in the Wild West, a loyal horse.
And to carry him down off his cross, a Blessed Virgin.
On New Year’s Eve, champagne’s satin fizz.
In July, a slow drizzle after the long drought.
In October, sun out after rain.
A magic grain of rice from a folk tale.
A tall tale about the one that got away.
A day on a raft on the Mighty Mississippi,
home-fried catfish and Huck’s Jim  for a buddy.
Beauty minus her Beast.
And the best BBQ baby back ribs
this side of Hell or Heaven.
A 7-11 on one corner, a Jiffy Lube on the next.
An exit plan for every war gone wrong.
And after a long day’s work, just a little peace
and quiet, for Christ’s sake,  can’t a man get
a little peace and quiet?


Proposal for a Whole New Scale
………………with a nod to David Letterman

Being the new measurement of how things scratch,
that is, what scratches what, which surfaces face
which other surfaces down, as in showdown,
screw-up, or turnover, what marks the softer body
with its harder body by turning over and over,
what breaks last when heated or frozen, relative
to the heart and/or the balls, what clangs the bell
or strikes up the band, what wins hands down
the Grand Prize on the scale opposite the prize
known as Booby, and being also the new measurement
of how the living, soft-bodied, feed at the bottom
of these lists, how we list too often, as in you lean, you lose,
or at the very least or most, moist and semi-soft,
we end up ripened and spread too thin, half-empty
rather than half-full, while sneaking up behind us
and hindering our progress or congress or aiding
our regress are the Straightened, the Leanless,
the Unsnackable and NonSpreading, aka the Moribund,
so tough and tactless, the pins of their blue ribbons
scratch more than our surfaces, then pop
the inflatable lifeboat and we’re surfacing for the first
the second, the last time, trying to breathe which is
an unchangeable characteristic of the living no matter
what scale we draw or weigh in on, including this one,
even when we give the grid a twist, a tweak, or toss in
an extra handful of beans, and even when
we’ve been snookered and when we begin again,
with a new batch of statistics, optimistic as we leave
an inch or two of air at the top, give the whole thing
a new moniker, make it a game called Will It Float?


I’m Telling That Story Again

The one where I pull into the driveway
and see a cop car and a hearse and my feet
don’t touch the ground until I’m inside the house
and find out the kids are fine, it’s my father
who’s in a body bag outside only this time
I tell the story without the hearse and without
the cop car and without the body bag,

so this is the story where it’s summer
and my feet touch the ground and I stay
in my body all the way out to the beach
where my kids are playing at the low tide line,
there, where the rocks meet the saltwater,
they’re playing with my father, and I
can only say thank god it’s not the story I told

where my feet didn’t touch the ground
because I was actually the one in the bag,
because once when I told that story I had to
change the part about my feet, due to confusion
about whether I was still in my body or not
at that stage, and I had to change the part
about the beach and my kids and my father
and summer and all of our several bodies,
and I had to admit that I wasn’t much of a storyteller
because my memory was so bad,  though I do remember
every detail about the low-tide line and the saltwater

and would anyone mind if I started over and told
another story, a better story, about somebody else’s body,
since I’m pretty sure it will be about a body—
no matter how confused I am, all my stories now
seem to end up being about bodies and seasons
and the point at which feet do or do not touch the ground.


Upon Coming to Plate XI in A Nomenclature
of Colors for Naturalists and Compendium
of Useful Knowledge for Ornithologists

………………—for Daphne Kalmar

God draws a bird then names its parts:
mandible, crown, the lesser, middle and greater coverts.
He names the rump. He names the contoured flight feathers
in the tail, calls them rectrices: Helmsmen.

Which do you love most, the philosopher asks,
those feathers or the metaphor?

I love, God says, whatever steers the boat of that bird’s body.

—Julie Larios

Julie Larios

Julie Larios has had poems chosen twice for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the winner of an Academy of American Poets Prize and a Pushcart Prize, and has published four collections of poetry for children.


Mar 172014

Karen Mulhallen

Code Orange is a hospital term, a warning to staff indicating a bomb threat, a radioactive spill, a person with mental issues is loose in the halls of the hospital. Sometimes it means everyone should evacuate a soon as possible. Karen Mulhallen’s “Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” is among other things a meditation upon the possibility that we are living in a Code Orange world, that we should all get ready to evacuate, though in the event she finds moments of beauty even in the midst of war.

…………………..…some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

Karen Mulhallen is an old friend, a child of Souwesto (as am I), that triangle of cultural territory that stretches south of Toronto to Windsor and north to Alice Munro country. She is a Blake scholar, founder and publisher of Descant Magazine in Toronto, and a prolific poet, undersung, protean, brilliant. I edited her collection of selected poems Acquainted With Absence and wrote the introduction, which you can read here, and tells you all you need to know.


I began to write the Code Orange poems as a response to the invasions of Afghanistan and the media flurry of photographs. There was such a disjunction between what one saw and what one was told to see that the formality of the quatrain seem to create a frame around the physical beauty, a beauty which was destroyed not only by the Taliban, but also by all the invading forces. “The Elegy” which follows on the death of the book man, and perhaps on the death of libraries, also required some classical interventions. Iambic pentameter, but also blank verse stanzas in the way of Milton’s Paradise Lost with intervention within passages of psalmic structures, their repetitive harmony: “perhaps he felt, perhaps he felt.” Throughout the whole suite I was drawn to the hymns of my childhood, spent on hard pews, snuggled in damp proximity to my nana’s big black sheared beaver coat on cold wet snowy days. And finally, as I moved through the whole sequence I felt a need to explore other stanzaic forms, the two-line, the four-line, even for moments William Carlos William’s three-lined, stepped stanza. I needed all of these to contrast to the media bullets which were pervading my consciousness as I wrote. My most recent title for the sequence is “The Code Orange Emblazoned Suite” since to emblazon is to embellish, but to blazon a body is to hack that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.

—Karen Mulhallen


To emblazon is to embellish
but to blazon a body is to hack
that body into pieces to create fragments as trophies.


In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore, (by and by),
In the sweet, (In the sweet), by and by, (by and by),
We shall meet on that beautiful shore.


Two gates there are that give passage to fleeting dreams;
 one is made of horn, one of ivory.
The dreams that pass through sawn ivory are deceitful,

 bearing messages that will never be fulfilled;
The dreams that pass through the gates of polished horn
are future truths for the dreamers who can see them.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XIX



The First War

Afghanistan, first war of the twenty-first century
in our shame little did we anticipate the rewards
those dailies pounding out
the propaganda brought us

faces of startling beauty. Some man,
some woman, some children, each assembled
so that Vermeer waking from his northern grave
would have gasped with joy.

Here a lip, there a profile,
always the superb curve of the head
blowing demonic rhetoric to smithereens,
not by a smart bomb,

but by a smarter one, some old god
rising  tall below the Red City,
or his companion, younger, seated still
smiling archaically before the caves

and tunnels and frescoes, in the rubble
of the Valley of Bamiyan, his hands
resting on the knees of his crossed legs,
his pakhool brim rolled and set

at a cocky angle, his thumbs and first fingers
forming an eternal oval, the other
six fingers extended to catch the rain
of his own blessings.



Revolutionary Meeting at the Royal Ontario Museum

After we met you, under the Moorish cupola,
in the foyer of the palatial Art Deco museum.
After we stood silently, Simon, Mairi and I—
Simon, Jewish, Glaswegian, a Londoner,

Mairi, his wife, Christian, Scottish, a Londoner,
I, the Canadian, mongrel yoking of Mediterranean
and  Caucasus, sea, desert, mountain: people of the book all.
Have we given away too much?

You come rushing in, lanky like a colt, getting its first legs,
your wonderful smile, your brown teeth,
late, held up by an eager interviewer,
asking more and more and more.

We ascend to the restaurant, overlooking the street,
four displaced persons, one a refugee, all perched
in Toronto’s shopping danger zone, where clothes
change hands for thousands of dollars,

and begin to order lunch, but first, you say, something to drink—
La Heim, Prosit, Cheers. I give you Simic, Louvish, Lakowitz,
Laucke, MacDonald, Nejedsky, Nelles and Naylor.
You don’t eat much, and Simon doesn’t drink,

so Mairi and I do our best to right the balance,
as you begin to discuss artillery and your interview.
You are wearing a black sweater and black jeans.
You are always in black, I’ve noticed, and the two of you talk

about your brothers, the right wing Israeli—
the father  Moishe Dayan’s right hand man—
and the Bosnian General, you spoke to him only last night,
carefully, evading the war, your exile, your Moslem wife,

your children. Your beautiful thin face, its Oriental eyelids
heavily laced, like the intricate ethnic lines of a Serbo-Croatian-
Bosnian-Montenegrin topographical map. You are used to interviews,
and your brother whom you love, so you talked of fishing,

never mentioned the two-page spread in Le Figaro
that other morning. You’ve been on the road two years
fleeing the war, Italy, Belgium, Scotland, England,
Canada. Now here, Toronto, a real pause,

Luna, and Darius, happy, Amela, not too lonely;
you always out front, on the road, on the stage.
That long Parisian print interview, the war,
the death of your mother, the sorrow of Sarajevo,

opening it that morning, having poured out your heart,
to find opposite your own hollow cheeks, bloodshot eyes
creased and rimmed in wrinkles, your brother’s round
well-fed cheeks, greased and smiling like a pig.



The Bookman’s Passing

The sinews no longer hold flesh and bones together—
these are all prey to the resistless power of fire
which burns the body to ashes, once life slips from the  bones;
and the soul takes wing as a dream takes wing,
and afterward  hovers to and fro.
Homer, The Odyssey, Book XI

There is something final about an obituary.
Not the brief death notice.
It is the testimonials—a sentence or two, please—encapsulating—
What would you say he was?
How was? How important?
How would you characterize? When did you meet?

And then the career path, marriages,
significant others.
Born on a farm, you say? A real horse trader?
Shaggy. Loved to smoke and drink…never before noon—
Are you sure?

Cancer, a pity—common enough these days—
So, a generation—
But wait a minute—a library—nearly a million volumes—
manuscripts—pictures, ephemera—
The house that Richard built.

There were many stops on that last road.
Sometimes you were at home, taking the sun on your deck.
Enjoying a drink at last, after so much treatment.
And your hair, beginning to grow back, whisps of white beard.

St Michael’s Hospital, where I came early one morning,
bearing the Farmers’ Market  flowers.
Your face smeared with peanut butter, yoghurt—
who would have thought you’d have an appetite?
But you were farm bred, all appetite:
The dance of libido and intellect, a real farm bred appetite,

and that’s the nature of a true horse trader.
You got it, sport those cowboy boots, that Stetson hat,
stompin’ Richie has got the mojo,
and he’s making a whole world of words.

Mount Sinai Hospital where meals appeared punctually:
Breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 12:30, dinner at 5 p.m.
Marie on the bed holding your head,
Sweetheart, sweetheart, I am here.

And first you were eating. Emptying the trays,
the meals, the treats from Harbord House,
and other friends’ small packaged offerings.

But there were no nuts at the last stop, at Perram House,
except the bereaved. The end of life hospice,
no charge, and no expectations.

I feel like I am in transit—
     You are in transit.
I am crossing the border, the time zone between north and south.
You can’t come here because you would disappear—
     I will meet you anywhere.
Last sighting, Wednesday, Toronto, Perram House,
heading for Room 8, 4 Wellesley Place.

The pick up ambulance arrives promptly at 10 a.m.
In the street, in front of Perram House, a film is being shot
as the ambulance arrives from Mount Sinai hospital.

The attendants move him out of the ambulance.
They carry him across the divide, between the film crew,
the cameras, the electrical lines, the catering van and dressing rooms,

the outside and the inside, the before and the after,
the now and the not now.

They are nearing the front  door of Perram House;
the elevator to the second storey is out of order:
Perhaps he felt the air in the street, as he became agitated.
Perhaps he felt the hesitation at the portal.
Perhaps he felt the line between then and now, before and after.
Perhaps he sensed the beginning of an ending.

Nothing convenient in a death.
Moments later, in the parlour, he died.

The parlour, they said, was just like home.
Pavilioned in splendour,
like the Ancient of Days,  girded with praise:
So the earth with its store of wonders untold
bountiful is—what tongue could recite
how streams from the hills, descend to the plain
………………………………..and are sweetly distilled, in the dew and the rain.



Suburban Hospital

For the past two days I had been thinking about the story
told to me by a friend last Wednesday evening.
It was a story about a doctor, a Chinese woman
who had examined a very young girl in the emergency department
of a suburban hospital  in the north east of a large urban centre.

The girl had bleeding from her anus; the doctor found a two-inch tear.
It was odd, she thought, how could there be such a tear?
As she talked to the girl, who was nearly silent,
she noticed that her head was tilted strangely,
her neck tipped to one side.

The more she looked at her, the more uneasy she became,
not about the anus, but about her head.
She called another friend, a doctor with access to an MRI machine,
and she sent the girl for an immediate MRI.

The results were astonishing.
On one half of the girl’s head there was a tumour
which was growing down the neck  from the brain stem.
It was a tumour of the sort sometimes found in AIDS patients.

She called in the girl’s mother; she talked to the girl.
The girl had been repeatedly raped and sodomized,
first by her father, and then by her father and her older brother.

The mother denied the story; the girl refused to repeat it for the police.

There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall
where the dear lord was crucified, who died to save us all.



The End of September

Early evening, and we meet to talk over the last events.
You said, you said, he said, he said,
I said, I said,
………….the years
………all have their lists, and learn
….learn to put aside lists, list to
the list, what’s at issue here,
what’s to be seen,
seen, seem, scene, difference,
different desires, different capacities,
sense, a sense, the sense of an ending:

Arranged I wait, as the light falls,
as the light falls on College Street, in Toronto.
…..A yellow room, the waiter’s sickled skin,
your face, your face with its tiny lines,
my face
…….our years together:
Hail, hail and farewell.



How Beautiful With Earrings

I was thinking of that afternoon
when Nancy and  Ethel and I sat in the sunlight
of the gravel court of those old barns
with the raised garden beds and espaliered trees
at the Priory of Notre Dame d’Orsan
and drank champagne

and of Nancy and Ethel and me on another afternoon
or maybe it was all one afternoon
or maybe I have merged all our afternoons
seated at tables on the gravel court
near the green glade in Nohant by George Sand’s house

and Nancy was wearing a black and white printed dress
and at her throat and on her ears
a necklace and earrings also in black and white—
some geometric design of African origin
in bone and wood

and as Nancy smoked, the sun dappled in the courtyard
and we three talking in the grace of that softness
and the light falling all around and the green glade
just beyond and the raised beds
just over there

and the little puppet theatre just inside the house
a house where she had loved the composer
but insisted on wearing the trousers

and I exclaim how beautiful you are
Nancy in pools of light, Nancy in black and white
here in this speckled gravel place
Ethel does not miss a beat chimes
so beautiful no sense jealousy.

Then, it is a fall day, New York, noon,
Gramercy Park brunch, Ethel’s ninetieth year,
her small apartment, her crazy driving
from Connecticut, her beautiful gold earrings,
how beautiful Ethel in old
gold earrings, Adam swooping her up
in his  long strong young arms, so beautiful
farewell  oh green eyed creatures
of the green glades, farewell.



In Slow Motion

Seeing you at table, a lunch
before Christmas, wondering if you remember,
surprised that I have.

You are much taller than I remember
I much smaller than I feel
as we walk west  along Bloor Street
that summer night

decades ago, a summer evening,
my blue tube top, my long white
silk skirt, turquoise Hawaian shirt,
long black straight hair,

pushing my white bicycle
along the wide sidewalk west
from the great glass hall, out
of the Courtyard Café

into the gentle night, from the glitter
and the Basque salad  you conjured for me
when it was no longer on the menu
and we talked and talked

and someone once said we were meant
for each other, but it was never so,
so out of the dining room, out of the hotel
in slow motion toward my white apartment

in slow motion toward my golden bed,
in slow motion, in slow motion
holding your cock, remembering her bangs,
as we kiss and part.



The Writer’s Saturday Night

Sure enough over night the canal had frozen
and there was ice in the Ottawa River
when I awoke after an evening at dinner
at the residence of the Turkish Ambassador;

I was due to read later that day
at the Sasquatch Performance series
and all the way  here I’d dreamt I’d forgotten my book
but read Jean Rhys over and over

learning who called the shots, who cringed,
who felt the need of a fur coat for cover.

I was on a bit of a roll with Sea Light
and with the Chateau Laurier;
I had a champagne cocktail in the bar
then headed out to the Ambassador’s house.

Darkness was coming at the Sasquatch bar
the house was full and I dove right in
opening up with the light on the lake
and the birth of the world. Water, water, everywhere

time bound in to the flow of the tides.
There was an odd smell as I surfed my text,
but the audience was rapt
and I kept right on

to the final ebb and flow of the surf.
Then they took me sweetly by the hand and asked me to
come back again to read to them, real soon,
but I knew I had done my last gig in a subterranean space

with a backed up sewer
and I hopped back on that rolling train
right down  to my lake and the city
where the lights never go out.



Cherries in Snow

The man in The New Yorker  ad
seated on a folding wooden chair

scarf tied in a knot at his neck,
shows cherries in the snow.

He holds a single cherry by the stem
in the  fingerless glove of his left hand

and in his right a simple wooden bowl
brimming with fruit.

He leans back on the chair
boots barely laced, legs splayed—

a good cap upon his head.
He is looking out at us.

Contented, conspiratorial smile,
dark beetle brows.

A friendly face, intelligent
shrewd but not unwelcoming.

The snow is white, a few trees
visible in misty distance near horizon.

An admirable open tweed top-
coat, ditto knotted sweater.

He is wedged right at the front of the magazine
just after a photograph of Ralph Lauren

advertising his own American—Made in England—
Purple Label Collection.

Cherry man has slipped in to The New Yorker
just before the Table of Contents

which this month, September,
and not winter, as in his photograph,

features men in blue and asks
Are we too hard on cops?

Should we take the kids out of the jails?
What really killed Princess Di?

Is the new Getty Art Centre too  good for Los Angeles?
Can technology set Tibet free?

And so, with a kind of crazy piety
he holds his piece, leans back

offers us cherries in winter,
peaches in spring.

It’s not about weather,
it’s packaging.

And for that he’ll answer to the world.

You bet.

 —Karen Mulhallen

Karen Mulhallen has edited more than 150 issues of Descant magazine. She has published eighteeen books, including books of poetry, and collections of criticism, as well as two visual arts catalogues.  Her essays on the arts have been published in North America and Europe. A new volume of her poems is due out from Black Moss Press in Fall of 2014.


Mar 092014

author photo color

Your Moon Cover

Ralph Angel is a brilliant poet, master of the laconic veering toward silence. Like his beloved Pierre Reverdy, he writes lines that turn your mind inside out, something always yielding to its opposite, presence and absence intertwine.

I painted the walls and the ceiling an even white.
Then I knocked out a wall.

The words emerge from the white space of the page, hesitant, whispered into the silence, uncertain of return. Melancholy, mysterious, precise.

These are poems from Angel’s new book, Your Moon, just launched from Western Michigan University’s amazing press New Issues Poetry & Prose.




In one breath of air
I swam to the bottom of the ocean and brought back the earth.

I painted the walls and the ceiling an even white.
Then I knocked out a wall.

On the lake a swan folds herself into her wings
forever.  It was that

time of year.  The snakes are making rain.


Being Back

Sooner or later I am out folding chairs again, and so
leave myself behind, though flirting
with an angel a few stairs
above me
feels just as real
and keeps things moving.

A golden retriever licks my hand.  It’s Christmas
in Chicago.  The family’s here
and from the cemetery
there’s talk of food
and family.

It’s flat
and cold in Dallas.  And then a bursting
cloud of grackles.

An old man pees himself.  His wife
takes her seat and thanks me.  In Louisville,
Kentucky, a baby’s
handed me.

In Seattle (must I go there, too?), I’m here
for you, and I know

I won’t be back.


The Traffic Is Going Down the Hills

The traffic is going down the hills
above the city to the harbor

and back again, past the statue
of a goddess poised

in her abandon.  Her arms
hang to the side

without touching her body.

At her feet a beautiful young girl
holds a plastic bag

in her hand, ready to pick up
her pet’s


Little sister, arranging
bottle caps.  Little brother, back

and forth you run
from one side of the pier

to the other.

Oh young mother
pulling your thin dress

to yourself

and tighter.

 —Ralph Angel


Ralph Angel’s latest collection, Your Moon, was awarded the 2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize. Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 received the 2007 PEN USA Poetry Award, and his Neither World won the James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets. In addition to five books of poetry, he also has published an award-winning translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song. Angel is the recipient of numerous honors, including a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association. He lives in Los Angeles, and is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His personal website is here.


Mar 062014

Montale 1970Montale and Friend

First, a few disclaimers: My knowledge of the history of Italian poetry is limited.  There is Dante’s Divine Comedy, which I studied reluctantly in college and have only grown to appreciate over the years, especially the brave and foolish translations that try to bring Dante’s terza rima forward from rhyme-rich Italian into rhyme-impoverished English. After Dante there is…let’s see…Petrarch and his sonnets, with their non-Elizabethan rhyme scheme, and… Boccaccio was a poet, wasn’t he? But all I remember of Boccaccio is that he wrote The Decameron, and those are stories written in prose.

At this point I have to jump from the Middle Ages up to the 1800’s – there was an Italian poet named Leopardi, but I know nothing about him, only his name and that he lived around the time John Keats lived. There it is: in one jump, five centuries of Italian poetic tradition lost to me. In the 1900’s there was someone named Campana – or was Campana Spanish? No, Italian, I think. And there was definitely a modern Italian poet named Ungaretti but I’ve never read his work – or was Ungaretti a woman? No, a man, I’m sure. I remember thinking his name sounded like an expensive espresso machine.

So in writing about Eugenio Montale, a Nobel-Prize-winning poet few North Americans have heard of, I admit freely that I am not a fluent guide, only a fan. I don’t know the traditions that his work springs from.

11/12/1960  Eugenio MONTALE nel salotto di casa sua (1896 Genova - 1981 Milano)  Poeta italiano FARABOLAFOTO 391103

I do know he was born in Genoa in 1896 and died in Milan in 1981. Growing up, he spent holidays with his large family in Monterosso, one of the Cinque Terre villages which hangs dramatically from  the cliffs of Liguria, a landscape that shows up literally and metaphorically in much of Montale’s poetry. I know he had a contentious relationship with Ezra Pound, who was arrested for treason after a pro-Fascist stint as a radio broadcaster in Mussolini’s Italy (Montale was famously anti-Fascist, forced from his job after refusing to join the Fascist Party.)

In preparation for this look at Montale’s work, I consistently ran up against the term “hermeticism” to describe his circle of poets. Hermeticism? And specifically Italian hermeticism? The term was tossed around casually enough and linked to French surrealism, but I had to go to the Encyclopedia Britannica for a solid definition (“…modernist poetic movement originating in Italy in the early 20th century, whose works were characterized by unorthodox structure, illogical sequences, and highly subjective language.”) In other words, the poet locks himself into his poems and leaves the reader out. Since I disagree with that assessment of Montale’s poems, I don’t believe it’s the reason behind why the poet is not well-known here.

One credible reason might be his late-in-life pessimism, seldom far from the surface. In fact, his Nobel Prize lecture is not the most optimistic of speeches, ending on this downbeat note: “It is useless then to wonder what the destiny of the arts will be. It is like asking oneself if the man of tomorrow, perhaps of a very distant tomorrow, will be able to resolve the tragic contradictions in which he has been floundering since the first day of Creation….” Poets with a reputation for pessimism are not embraced warmly by the general public. (As counterbalance to this reputation, try the charming video at this link, which shows Montale having a great time with an interviewer, then reading a section of Ossi de seppia which begins, “Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro, /arida, rivolgendomi, vedro compirsi il maracolo….” (Maybe one morning, walking in air / of dry glass, I’ll turn and see the miracle occur….”

Montale - Nobel PrizeMontale receives the Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden

Another contributing factor to his lack of popularity here is this:  Even North Americans who love poetry – and practice it – are sadly uninformed about individual poets (and whole schools of poetry) beyond their borders, including poets who have achieved fame at a broad international level. Is it the fault of our insularity – an ocean wide and deep at each edge of our “sea to shining sea” – and of our misguided sense of exceptionalism in general? Maybe the triumph of English as a global language has become a linguistic substitute for the defunct geographical concept of Empire. If that’s true, we can claim our ignorance is due in part to our superiority – an oxymoronic (and ridiculous) conclusion. Or maybe our educational system simply fails us, and we are left with wide swaths of ignorance in certain areas, including the learning of foreign languages to begin with. Maybe I shouldn’t even say maybe to that.

There’s one more possibility I can think of, a more attractive one which does less finger-wagging and makes me less embarrassed by gaps in my education, and that is the one Robert Frost offered: “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.”  If we accept the idea that the key element which distinguishes poetry from prose is its musicality (and not just those line breaks) then we have to accept the idea that translations which cannot capture the cadences of the original are, to a certain extent, failures. As Iris Murdoch said after being questioned by someone about her translations of French poetry, “The activity of translation…turned out to be an act so complex and extraordinary that it was puzzling to see how any human being could perform it.”

Adequate literal translations – yes, those are possible. Brave attempts to reproduce formal elements – rhyme and meter – and make them work alongside the literal translation? Yes, those exist and are laudable. But can we ever hear and know, at a visceral level – heartbeat and hoofbeat – the effect of a poem whose original language is not our own? I’m not sure. I suspect not. And maybe it is this – translation’s intrinsic failure – that makes us avoid poetry written in other languages. Vladimir Nabokov said it well in his poem “On Translating Eugene Onegin”: Reflected words can only shiver / Like elongated lights that twist / In the black mirror of a river / Between the city and the mist.

Which brings me back to my reading of Eugenio Montale, the great Italian poet of the 20th century, whose translated poetry deserves to be much more widely read, but whose name usually evokes the response “Who?” His poems seem to me to be filled with music.  Though I don’t speak Italian, I do speak Spanish, and I’ve always thought that the Latinate origins of those two languages helped me in my reading of Montale. But is my sense of its musicality justified?

Here is the original Italian of one of his most famous poems, published in his first poetry collection, Ossi di seppia  (“Cuttlefish Bones”), in 1925.  The English translation follows. To my ear (as I imagine it read aloud by someone who speaks fluent Italian) it sounds like river water rippling around well-polished rocks:

I Limoni

Ascoltami, i poeti laureati
si muovono soltanto fra le piante
dai nomi poco usati: bossi ligustri o acanti.
lo, per me, amo le strade che riescono agli erbosi
fossi dove in pozzanghere
mezzo seccate agguantanoi ragazzi
qualche sparuta anguilla:
le viuzze che seguono i ciglioni,
discendono tra i ciuffi delle canne
e mettono negli orti, tra gli alberi dei limoni.

Meglio se le gazzarre degli uccelli
si spengono inghiottite dall’azzurro:
più chiaro si ascolta il susurro
dei rami amici nell’aria che quasi non si muove,
e i sensi di quest’odore
che non sa staccarsi da terra
e piove in petto una dolcezza inquieta.
Qui delle divertite passioni
per miracolo tace la guerra,
qui tocca anche a noi poveri la nostra parte di ricchezza
ed è l’odore dei limoni.

Vedi, in questi silenzi in cui le cose
s’abbandonano e sembrano vicine
a tradire il loro ultimo segreto,
talora ci si aspetta
di scoprire uno sbaglio di Natura,
il punto morto del mondo, l’anello che non tiene,
il filo da disbrogliare che finalmente ci metta
nel mezzo di una verità.
Lo sguardo fruga d’intorno,
la mente indaga accorda disunisce
nel profumo che dilaga
quando il giorno piú languisce.
Sono i silenzi in cui si vede
in ogni ombra umana che si allontana
qualche disturbata Divinità.

Ma l’illusione manca e ci riporta il tempo
nelle città rurnorose dove l’azzurro si mostra
soltanto a pezzi, in alto, tra le cimase.
La pioggia stanca la terra, di poi; s’affolta
il tedio dell’inverno sulle case,
la luce si fa avara – amara l’anima.
Quando un giorno da un malchiuso portone
tra gli alberi di una corte
ci si mostrano i gialli dei limoni;
e il gelo dei cuore si sfa,
e in petto ci scrosciano
le loro canzoni
le trombe d’oro della solarità.

William Arrowsmith is probably the best known translator of Montale’s work, but the following English translation of “I Limoni” is by poet Lee Gerlach (who also deserves to be more widely read.) I prefer it especially for that wonderful turn of phrase “the jubilee of small birds,” which Arrowsmith translates as “the gay palaver of birds”:

The Lemon Tree

Hear me a moment. Laureate poets
seem to wander among plants
no one knows: boxwood, acanthus,
where nothing is alive to touch.
I prefer small streets that falter
into grassy ditches where a boy,
searching in the sinking puddles,
might capture a struggling eel.
The little path that winds down
along the slope plunges through cane-tufts
and opens suddenly into the orchard
among the moss-green trunks
of the lemon trees.

Perhaps it is better
if the jubilee of small birds
dies down, swallowed in the sky,
yet more real to one who listens,
the murmur of tender leaves
in a breathless, unmoving air.
The senses are graced with an odor
filled with the earth.
It is like rain in a troubled breast,
sweet as an air that arrives
too suddenly and vanishes.
A miracle is hushed; all passions
are swept aside. Even the poor
know that richness,
the fragrance of the lemon trees.

You realize that in silences
things yield and almost betray
their ultimate secrets.
At times, one half expects
to discover an error in Nature,
the still point of reality,
the missing link that will not hold,
the thread we cannot untangle
in order to get at the truth.
You look around. Your mind seeks,
makes harmonies, falls apart
in the perfume, expands
when the day wearies away.
There are silences in which one watches
in every facing human shadow
something divine let go.

The illusion wanes, and in time we return
to our noisy cities where the blue
appears only in fragments
high up among the towering shapes.
Then rain leaching the earth.
Tedious, winter burdens the roofs,
and light is a miser, the soul bitter.
Yet, one day through an open gate,
among the green luxuriance of a yard,
the yellow lemons fire
and the heart melts,
and golden songs pour
into the breast
from the raised cornets of the sun.

As much as I admire this translation, it’s clear that the music in the first stanza alone – the long “e” rhyme of all those internal and end-line words (ascoltami, i, poeti, laureati, si, nomi, usati, bossi, ligustri, acanti, erbosi, fossi, ragazzi, i, ciglioni, ciuffi, negli, orti, gli, alieri, limoni)  has been lost. Does Gerlach’s free-verse English have a subtle music of its own? It does (“Tedious, winter burdens the roofs, / and light is a miser, the soul bitter.”) But does this evoke, much less reproduce, the music of the original? Can we say we understand what Montale does with sound in his poem by reading this translation?  No.

Montale - Lemon Tree“…the yellow lemons fire / and the heart melts….”

In fact, the more aggravating question might be this: Do we understand the sound register of the original at all? Or do we romanticize the Romance languages, pleased by their multisyllabic flow, believing them to be mellifluous just because we are accustomed to the monosyllabic chunks of granite that English inherited from its Anglo-Saxon ancestors? Montale himself felt his native tongue was weighed down by exactly what I take to be its quickness and its flow, saying once that he fought “to dig another dimension out of our heavy, polysyllabic Italian.” One critic I read said he would have to go all the way back to Dante to hear an Italian poem as guttural as “I Limoni” (specifically referring to the doubled consonants in many of the Italian words.)

Guttural? That surprised me as much as the word “hermetic” did when applied to a poem which feels so wide open, accessible, and generous-hearted.  Maybe “guttural” in this case suggests a sprung rhythm I can’t quite hear, in the style of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whom Montale read and was influenced by.  If so, the translation provided here fails in a more serious way, since Hopkins (“fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings, / landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow and plough….”) is nowhere to be found in it. I’ve wondered at the translatability of Hopkins – Montale was only one among others who attempted to translate the English poet into Italian, a formidable task considering Hopkins’ penchant for vocabularies and phrasings that were Germanic.

There might be poets who are singularly unsuited to translation into particular languages. And maybe the whole idea of what is “lost in translation” has less to do with poetry and more to do with cultural constructs in general; that is, maybe the failure of some translations (“Translation is the art of failure,” said Umberto Eco) is not only a failure of sound reproduction but of emotional connotations, linguistic anomalies and cognitive connections.  The way we think (and so, the way we hear and process language) is determined by our mother tongue.  It’s enough to make a translator throw in the towel – but thank goodness, some do not. If translation is our only access to certain poets, isn’t a flawed attempt better that no attempt at all?  For anyone who wants to explore issues of translation more deeply, try reading Douglas Hofstadter’s quick essay, “What’s Gained in Translation,” as a teaser to get you interested in his doorstop-size book, Le Ton Beau de Morot: In Praise of the Music of Language.

In any case, I don’t hear Hopkins in Montale’s “I Limoni.” And I can’t quite see the “obscure” nature of Montale’s poems that so many critics moan about. Yes, his poems are deeply personal. No, his frame of reference is not everyone’s – it includes his wife, his lovers, a landscape (Liguria) we are not completely familiar with, and politics that we are only marginally aware of. Montale was a firm anti-Fascist, and some of the allusions in the poetry will go over the heads of people unfamiliar with how those political issues played out in Europe during the 1930′s and 1940′s.  We have to pause and hunt a bit to understand a few of the references. Easy, no. But “characterized by unorthodox structure [and] illogical sequences” as the Encyclopedia says?  I don’t see it.

Maybe this is just a case of a poet’s work being ahead of its time, in the way paintings by Paul Klee might have seemed indecipherable to those who loved Monet.  To put it in a more contemporary frame, maybe people two generations out will be reading the work of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets and wondering why people (me, for example) once thought of them as non-linear, illogical and difficult. It pleases me to think that the critics might be wrong about the “difficulty” of Montale’s work.  As the poet himself once said, “I have never purposely tried to be obscure and therefore do not feel very well qualified to talk about a supposed Italian hermeticism, assuming (as I very much doubt) that there is a group of writers in Italy who have a systematic non-communication as their objective.”

My goal is not to argue with literary critics but to encourage the reading and enjoyment of Montale’s work. You don’t have to figure out whether his poetry is fluid or guttural, emotionally open or hermetically sealed. It’s intriguing and worthwhile, no matter what labels are attached to it. I am all for reading any poet who calls nature “rough, scanty, dazzling” and who says, “I wanted my words to come closer than those of the other poets I’d read. Closer to what? I seemed to be living under a bell jar, and yet I felt I was close to something essential. A subtle veil, a thread, barely separated me from the definitive quid. Absolute expression would have meant breaking that veil, that thread: an explosion, the end of the illusion of the world as representation. But this remained an unreachable goal. And my wish to come close remained musical, instinctive, unprogrammatic. I wanted to wring the neck of the eloquence of our old aulic language, even at the risk of a counter-eloquence.”

Montale published only five books in fifty years of writing, so he was not prolific. I’ve brought this up previously as one possible cause for poets being under-appreciated, though the spacing of books is less the issue here than the suspicions we all have about translation in general. But consider the lovely English translation (by William Arrowsmith) of  “Il fuoco e il buio” :

Fire and Darkness

At times, because of dampness,
gunpowder fails to flash, and sometimes
catches without matches or flint.
A pocket lighter with one drop
of fluid could do the trick. And anyway
there’s no need for fire at all,
indeed, a good sub-zero curbs
that boring great-grandmother, Inspiration.
She was none too spry a few days ago
but she managed to disguise her wrinkles.
Now, ashamed of herself, she seems
to be skulking in the folds of the curtain.
She’s lied too often, now let darkness,
void, nothingness fall on her page.
Rely on this, my scribbling friend:
Trust the darkness when the light lies.

If you have only one book of Montale’s work on your shelf, it should be The Collected Poems of Eugenio Montale 1925-1977; the entire collection is translated by William Arrowsmith.  It’s still possible to get the poems in individual volumes: Ossi di seppia (“Cuttlefish Bones”), Le Occasioni (“The Occasions”), La Bufera e altro (“The Storm and Other Things”),  Xenia and Satura; it’s interesting to see how different translators handle the original Italian (poets Charles Wright and Jonathan Galassi take on the task with different collections, and Ghan Singh both translates and analyzes Montale’s work.)  But The Collected Poems, set out in the chronological order in which the poems were published, offers both Italian originals and English translations (on facing pages for easy comparison) and it is carefully indexed with both Italian and English titles of poems, making individual poems easy to find. The real genius of this collection for anyone interested in translation is the section containing William Arrowsmith’s notes – 107 pages of them in a 793-page book. In an age where translators rarely get any public recognition for their work other than their names in smaller-than-average font on the title page, that kind of permission given the translator – to go into the particular nuances of translation and the frame of reference of the original – is exhilarating. As poet and critic Rosanna Warren says in her introduction to the collection, “In each phase, [Montale] invented new ways of putting poetic language under stress and of realigning poetry with prose.” Warren, by the way, goes on to praise Arrowsmith for what she calls his “idiomatic, surging versions, ever alert to the pull and swerve of the original.”

Here’s one more small poem to pull you Montale’s direction:

My Muse

My Muse is distant: one might say
(and most have thought it) that she never existed.
But if she was my Muse, she’s dressed like a scarecrow
awkwardly propped on a checkerboard of vines.

She flaps as best she can; she’s withstood monsoons
without falling, though she sags a little.
When the wind dies, she keeps on fluttering
as though telling me: Go on, don’t be afraid,
as long as I can see you, I’ll give you life.

My Muse long since left a store room
full of theatrical outfits, and an actor costumed by her
was an actor with class. Once, she was filled
with me and she walked proud and tall. She still has
one sleeve, with which she conducts her scrannel
straw quartet. It’s the only music I can stand.

For all his insistence on the inadequacy of language to capture the true essence of anything (he called it “inexpressibility”) Montale managed to use the tools of language with grace, clarity and power.

— Julie Larios

 Author Photo

Julie Larios is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Pushcart Prize for Poetry, and a Washington State Arts Commission/Artist Trust Fellowship. Her work was chosen for The Best American Poetry series by Billy Collins (2006) and Heather McHugh (2007) and was performed as part of the Vox series at the New York City Opera (2010). Recently she collaborated with the composer Dag Gabrielson and other New York musicians, filmmakers and dancers on a cross-discipline project titled 1,2,3. It was selected for showing at the American Dance Festival (International Screendance Festival) and had its premiere at Duke University in July, 2013. For five years she was the Poetry Editor for The Cortland Review, and her poetry for adults has been published by The Atlantic Monthly, McSweeney’s, Swink, The Georgia Review, Ploughshares, The Threepenny Review, Field, and others. In addition, she has published four books of poetry for children. She lives in Seattle.

Mar 042014

2014 bio photo colour doireann

It is well-understood that the language we speak shapes our perception, the structure of the language affecting the ways in which the speaker conceptualises his or her world. In this regard, bilingualism has been shown to have many cognitive advantages including an additive effect on a person’s creativity. Doireann Ní Ghríofa, a bilingual poet writing both in Irish and in English, exemplifies this. Although the written poems appear on the page in a single language, the thought processes to create them are borne of a far more complex interplay. I like to think of this interplay occurring in a type of cognitive marshlands, a ghostly transition zone between water and land with its own unique emotional ecosystem. Doireann’s poems, it seems to me, dwell in that world, and emerge from it like a rare and endangered species might emerge from its wetlands habitat through an early morning, low-lying mist.

— Gerard Beirne

My poem Waking gives voice to a woman waking up in the recovery room of a maternity hospital. At the core of this poem is the sense of disorientation, loneliness and loss that follows a miscarriage. This is an experience that is, sadly, not unfamiliar to me, personally.

I chose to dedicate Waking to the memory of  Savita Halappanavar, whose  appalling death while under the care of the Irish maternity system left many in shock. She was admitted to hospital while suffering a miscarriage, and despite her repeated requests to terminate her pregnancy, she was denied the procedure that would have saved her life. Savita’s death led to many protests both in Ireland and abroad, where protestors demanded a review of Irish law that prevented her from accessing the abortion that would have saved her life. I would wish nothing more for Savita than to allow her the treatment she needed in order to wake up and draw breath, and it angers and saddens me to live in a country where a woman must die in order for society to effect essential constitutional change.

I am very grateful to the talented filmmaker Peter Madden for interpreting my poem visually with a sensitivity that I believe honours those many, many women who each year suffer the pain of miscarriage in silence. The haunting soundtrack is an original musical composition by guitarist Stephen Moore that adds further depth to the collaboration.

Glaoch/Call is a consideration of modern life and love. I am intrigued by the multiple paradoxes of contemporary life — we are more connected than ever through technology, and yet there often remains a fundamental disconnect between us, an emotional distance, a fundamental interpersonal detachment. This poem arose from dissonance between these opposing constructs, and our collaboration in film seeks to further explore this matter.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Recovery Room, Maternity Ward
(for Savita Halappanavar)

The procedure complete,
I wake alone, weak under starched sheets.
As the hospital sleeps, my fingers fumble
over the sutured scar, a jagged map
of mourning stitched into my skin —
empty without and empty within.
Cradling my hollowed womb,
I trace this new wound and weep.
The only sound I hear now is the fading retreat
of a doctor’s footsteps, echoing my heartbeat.





Ní cheanglaíonn
…………………………aon chorda caol,
aon sreang teileafóin sinn níos mó.
I réimse na ríomhairí,
………………..ní thig liom
do ghuth a bhrú níos gaire do mo chluas.
Ní chloisim tú ag análú. Anois, ’sé an líne lag seo
……..an t-aon cheangal amháin atá fágtha eadrainn
agus titimid
……….as a chéile
……….arís eile.



No slender thread,
………………………………no telephone cord
binds us anymore.
Now that our computers call each other,
…………I can’t
…………………..press your voice to my ear.
No longer can I hear you breathe. Now, we are bound only
……………………………..by a weak connection
and we break up
……………………………..and break up
………..and break up.


Frozen Food

“The Iceman was carrying a sloe, presumably to eat” –Mandy Haggith

In the frozen foods aisle I think of him,
as I shiver among shelves of plastic-wrapped pizza,
green flecked garlic breads, chunks of frozen fish.
I touch the cold wrappers until my fingers
tingle, until my thumbs numb.

Strangers unpacked his body in a lab and thawed his hand.
His long-frozen fingers unfurled one by one,
his fist finally opened, let go,
and from his grasp rolled
a single sloe.
Ice-black with a purple-blue waxy bloom,
it waited through winters and winters
in his cold fingers.
……………………………………………………….Inside the sloe,
……………………………………………………..a blackthorn stone.
………………………………………………………Inside the stone,
…………………………………………………………….a seed.

In a frozen aisle, white on glass
I watch my breath freeze.


The Ledger

a sonnet for Edna O’ Brien

This chapter begins in a pharmacy.
Over the counter, you smooth prescriptions,
weigh powders, pass parcels. You nod shyly,
greet customers, mix tonics and potions.
Yellow liquid pours into glass bottles—
here, cures come from chemical addition.
All summer, you study, fill tins with pills,
dispense tablets, count coins, make medicines.
Summer blooms fade and fall. Rain returns. Bored,
you think up tales with each cream you concoct.
Every time the bell rings over the door,
you conjure symphonies of secret plots.
Name—ailment—payment. Pencil strikes paper,
filling the ledger, each word a step to your future.


In the University Library, I open the Book of my Finger

I study the same words again and again.
Smells of damp tobacco and beeswax polish
hover over a hundred desks of beech.
A sudden incision slices my skin,
splits my fingertip—a narrow breach.
The wound is so thin that it barely bleeds
but the slit stings, insists that I look again.
My cracked fingertip turns inside out.
Broken skin become walls, white-limed, gritty.
In the split, the red roof of a cowshed peaks. Doubt
rusts in my blood. I can’t live in this city.
On my palm, a road through streets and roundabouts
leads me home. Under beech trees a bee flits, free.


Radioactive Relics

Her papers still hum
in lead—lined boxes labelled Curie
in the Bibliothèque Nationale:

boxes filled with jotters
filled with the spools and loops
and curlicues of her hand

page after page of trials and tests
ideas in metamorphosis
the gleam of polonium and radium
the slow glow of understanding

a century later, her papers
still set our Geiger ticking
like a metal heart.

—Doireann Ní Ghríofa




Doireann Ní Ghríofa is a bilingual poet based in Ireland, writing both in Irish and in English. Her poems have appeared in literary journals in Ireland and internationally (in France, Mexico, USA, in Scotland and in England). The Arts Council of Ireland has twice awarded her bursaries in literature. Doireann’s Irish language collections Résheoid and Dúlasair  are both published by Coiscéim, and her bilingual chapbook A Hummingbird, Your Heart  is available from Smithereens Press. Doireann was the winner of a Wigtown Award (Scotland) in 2012. She has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize (USA) and her pamphlet of poems in English Ouroboros was longlisted for The Venture Award (UK).  

peter bio photo

Peter Madden graduated from IADT National Film School, Ireland in 2011. Currently working in photography and video advertising, he also works in short documentary, short film and music videos, editing the award winning short documentary ‘Rose’ in 2011.  His own directorial pieces have been screened at Irish and international film festivals. He works with two media based companies; Replayhouse and Little Beast, and has just recently co-created MadBag Films, all based in Dublin, Ireland.


Feb 162014

I heard Catherine Greenwood read “The Texada Queen” during Poetry Weekend in Fredericton last fall and was smitten with her poetry there and then. Such life, wit and narrative drive. Amazing presence. Today we have four poems from her recent collection The Lost Letters, including two from the stunning Abelard & Eloise sequence of which our reviewer Sydney Lea wrote:

This story is famous: Abelard, renowned twelfth-century logician, seduced and impregnated his brilliant student Heloise, whom he spirited away to live with relatives of his. She bore a male child, after which, infuriated by her teacher’s behavior, Heloise’s uncle hired thugs to castrate the scholar. Soon, however recalcitrantly, Heloise became a nun.

So richly detailed and so narratively compelling are these poems that to excerpt from them seems almost an impertinence. Her evocation’s sheer sensory accuracy is enviable, but her rendering of motherly love, mixed with anxiety, amusement, frustration, and protectiveness, however obliquely rendered, is more than that– it’s stirring. Whether Greenwood has children or not I can’t say; but she keenly understands, when it comes to one’s offspring, what complexities underlie a parent’s urgent wish that her child have the very best. The entire Heloise-Abelard portion of The Lost Letters shows Greenwood as above all a supreme chronicler of longings, often as not unfulfilled. 




Silver-Haired Bat Caught in a Ceiling Lamp

Following twilight
appetites, he swallowed
unthinking the aphrodisiac
rumour of moths.

Conducting an inquiry
into brightness, he saw
the light and followed
their sputtering flight

over the lamp’s smooth lip,
seduced by what drew
those unblinking orbs
charcoaled on their wings.

Now the world’s outside
in, hunger become entrapment.
Still blind, he smells
sizzled flutters, singed fur.

Struggling to climb out
he slips on walls
the shape of an upturned bell,
his body an ashen clapper.


And what of us
headed upstairs to bed expecting
nothing but summer air
to enter the open window?

The sight of a dark
silhouette projected
against the opaque white
globe – a hundred watts

baking him like a chick
in an incubator, Hell’s
hatchling – provokes horror
and pity. A stepladder!

How many sets of hands
does it take to open hope, unscrew
the lid tightened on that jar
of misguided longings?


Tipped from the lamp
out he spills on the sill,
still as a lump of silvery coal
dumped from a scuttle.

Black cloak collapsed, bones
poke beneath the membrane
of his skin like spokes
of a broken umbrella.

Above the lawn mosquitoes hum.
He unfolds webbed fingers,
his singular pair of wings.
Singing, re-enters the night.



A typical barbwire fence on wood posts surrounded the field about six kilometres east of McBride…. [I]t looked like the whole area was covered with an opaque, white plastic grocery store bag. —CBC News, November 27, 2002

no alcazars or office towers
parliament buildings shopping centers
pavilions minarets

the spiders have set up their looms
in the cow pasture
pitched gauzy white tents
on the fence posts

silken energies pour
like water from spinnerets
clear caramelized wires run out
from the spigots of being

above the frozen dung
of a few trodden acres of soil
they have chosen to drape
the delicate sheets of their art


each spider toils a tiny allotment
paving with crystalline filaments
a single square inch of air

spires spun of mist turrets of frost
this city will not stand
ten thousand years ten winters
ten weeks until summer fallow

each night that feudal lord
the wind like a second thought
rends the structure
confiscating rags to repair
the underbellies of cloud


across this tattered white page
ten million spiders swarm
the living ink of their spinning
writing a letter to be read
when all moments coincide

meantime they mend the torn shroud
adorning the veil
with the gleaming black pearls
of their bodies

revealing the face of a bride
hiding who she will turn out to be


Yes and No

Heloise my sister, once dear to me in the world, now dearest to me in Christ, logic has made me hated by the world. —Abelard’s Confession of Faith

Devoted heretic, rewarded
for your efforts
with an eviction notice,
your philosophy was simple –
find a place where
the thorniest contradictions
could peaceably coexist.
The last time I saw you
you were moving
from a grey area of faith
to an open concept space
constructed solely of questions:

Would the animal shelter
find a home for your
ancient one-eyed tabby?

Did God the Father,
like a heavenly sea horse cradling comets
in the pipe bowl of his belly,
or a holy penguin in an arctic
of unending patience coddling the egg
of Christ’s being on chilblained feet,
actually birth his own son?

Do you still love me (assuming
you once did)?

……………………… ….Yes
and no, black and white, hot
and cold. A stew of antonyms
sustained you like a hobo’s dish
of sautéed boot. As proof
we were poles apart
you opened your fridge to reveal
the package of snow peas
you intended to subsist upon
for the balance of your tenancy
on earth. The cardboard boxes
I’d brought from the liquor store
were heavier empty than you
might imagine. Even now, it doesn’t bear
thinking, you on your knees
after midnight in the circum-
fused light of one unpacked lamp,
trying in vain to fit everything in.
As if an earthquake had shaken
open all the cupboards in your head,
the floor was strewn with pill
bottles, undeveloped negatives,
pages of sheet music out of
Guitar Hits from the Sixties
and the same leaky wineskin
we used on our honeymoon.

In the midst of such ruin
the smell of Earl Grey tea brewing
over the steady flame of books
crackling in the wood stove
was a welcome comfort.
Like the leaves
of the coffee plant you grew
from a bean into a gangly stalk
I once deemed aesthetically
annoying, our old familiarities
had withered from lack
of attention. How strange it felt
to be drinking once more
from the last of those unbreakable
white mugs rimmed
around the lip with blue
flowers! Cheery, testy,
and reserved by turns, we coughed
politely into our cuffs, ignoring
the embarrassment of smoke
in an atmosphere grown mildly
poisonous. Your magnanimity
regarding my impending nuptials
irked me. Reduced to living
on tips saved up in a pickle jar,
you gave me a piece
of unleavened advice
with which I was to buy
a loaf of whole grain bread
on my way back to the nunnery.

You swore I would taste
the difference between us
like day and night. Weary of pondering
the long and short of it all
– buy high, sell low?–
by the time I left
my pockets were weighted
with wooden nickels.
When you waved at the door
I could see from the Taser
scorch on your palm
how you’d been pinned
like a butterfly against
a brisk and cloudless sky, hung
out to dry, rumpled shirt
washed once too often. Old love,
dear heart, now that you’ve slipped
the stigmata of clothes pegs,
escaped my unforgiving grip
to fall crumpled as a leaf
into a final pile of ironing,
allow me to admit how deeply
I regret not kissing you
hello and goodbye.

Author’s Note: “Yes and No” takes its title from one of Peter Abelard’s book’s on logic, Sic et Non.


Riddle for Two Voices Staged in an Confessional Stall

[By] a kind of holy presage of his name he marked you out to be especially his when he named you Heloise, after his own name, Elohim. —Abelard to Heloise, Letter 4





—Catherine Greenwood

Catherine Greenwood has a BA in English and Writing from the University of Victoria, and an MA in English from the University of New Brunswick. She has held a variety of jobs over the years, from working in a community services thrift store to teaching literary theory in a Chinese university. Her poetry and fiction has been widely published in magazines and anthologies, and her poems have won several prizes, including a National Magazine Gold Award.  Her first book, The Pearl King and Other Poems, based upon the life of the inventor of the cultured pearl, was a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book.  At the center of her new collection, The Lost Letters, is a sequence of poems inspired by the story of Heloise and Abelard. Catherine lives in Victoria, BC, where she currently works for the Ministry of Justice.


Feb 132014

Ronald JohnsonPhoto courtesy of Robert Glenn Webb, who writes: “It dates from 1984 and was taken by Mario Pirami (who died not long after) and was given to me by Jodi Johnson Panula, Ron’s sister.”

In the spirit of our Undersung series on the great-but-somewhat-unnoticed poets, Denise Low, former poet laureate of Kansas, pens here a passionate, erudite essay on the late Kansas poet Ronald Johnson, as she says, a second-generation Black Mountain poet, who invented a brilliant “cascade” structure for his poems. I love this essay for its close reading of the text, its technical expertise and for its consciousness of tradition and influence. It seems to me that unless you have read for years and studied hard the territory of poetry can seem dauntingly homogeneous. But an essay like this sets out a part of the map. It’s also a part of the map with which I feel an affinity, the San Francisco poets (I practically memorized Kenneth Rexroth’s Autobiographical Novel at one point) and the Black Mountain poets (reading Charles Olson taught me about place and the economy of the parenthetical). I even brushed up against this world (which still seems distant) personally having once had the opportunity to interview the poet Robin Blaser. In any case, what I mean to say is read the essay! Think about the traditions, the landscapes and the form.



In the mid-1990s I saw poet Kenneth Irby at the Lawrence public library, a brief encounter over book shelves, and he mentioned the Kansas poet Ronald Johnson had moved to Topeka. This was the first I heard of Johnson, who had just returned from the San Francisco Bay Area. This lumberyard worker’s son, born in 1935, is one of the most influential second-generation Black Mountain poets. Indeed, he and Irby (born in 1936) both were influenced by Charles Olson’s geography-informed poetics; Robert Duncan’s experience of occultism; and the synergy of the Bay Area during the 1960s-70s.

Johnson wrote one of the first and most influential erasure poems, RADI OS, in 1977 (Sand Dollar Press). For this project, Johnson found copies of Paradise Lost in used bookstores and erased words on each page to create his own text. He experimented with concrete poetry, and he wrote the epic ARK (Northpoint Press, 1980, and Dutton, 1984) in the tradition of Ezra Pound, H.D., and Louis Zukofsky.

His influence is considerable, and as his work becomes more widely available, it will grow. Peter O’Leary, his literary executor, has edited new editions of Shrubberies (2001), RADI OS (2005), and most recently ARK (2013). All of these are from Flood Editions. Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas houses the Ronald Johnson archives, where first editions and journals are available.

Johnson’s last work, The Shrubberies, has apparently modest dimensions, short poems of two to fourteen lines. Nonetheless, the collection innovates a poetic form influenced by botany and optics.

This last work, written from 1994 to 1998, is Johnson’s “own elegy,” his final project, written with full awareness of his own mortality (Naylor 507). He had returned in 1993 to care for his father, but within months he collapsed with symptoms of his own final illness (O’Leary 128). He worked part-time as a groundskeeper and handy man at a public garden in Topeka, and so plants were in his daily sight. The Shrubberies grew to “perhaps 300 poems” (O’Leary 128). The resulting posthumous book, “pruned” by his friend and editor O’Leary, is 125 poems, arranged chronologically for the most part (128). I am most interested in the optics, especially mirrored binary structures, in the poems. Binary couplings appear throughout the work, including life / death, natural / cultural, light / dark—“oscillation between light and dark” (Naylor 513)—and belief / disbelief—“stanzas of belief / strewn with disbelief” (Shrubberies 55).

Johnson does not declare his overall arrangement for the book-length collection of poems in explicit terms, and Naylor see the book as “a long, unfinished series” (507). O’Leary selected a poem from the middle of the manuscript for the opening poem, following Johnson’s own direction: “I have not altered the order of the poems in the manuscript, with the exception of the first poem, which is to be found in the middle of the manuscript. Although it was not the first poem composed, Johnson marked it with the marginal notation: ‘beginning’” (130). The rest is a chronological sequence, with some references to seasons and garden tours, so some temporal and spatial ordering do occur (O’Leary 128).  However, because Johnson gardened, I believe he set a master plan, probably in his mind as gardeners plot out their beds before sketching them on graph paper. Johnson structured all his major works deliberately, like the concrete poem projects or the RADI OS erasure based on Paradise Lost. His open-ended plan for Shrubberies is a deliberate if not closed system. He understood the organic composition of a garden and its imperfect symmetries.

The poem Johnson chose to open the book creates a template for physical construction of the rest of the book’s poems, at micro- and macro-levels. Here is the first The Shrubberies poem in its entirety:

mostly circadian rhythms
“and words to jointly knit”
a series of circumlocutions
eye in the eye of things
mirror cascade of asphodel
yet delight in spectacle   (1)

The most important trope is “mirror cascade.” This splicing of two similar but unlike things joins opposites—human-constructed “mirror” and the parallel term “cascade,” a natural water feature. This parallels how a mirror reflects a Plato’s cave dyad: flat cave wall reflection and its intangible and complex physical form.

The opening two lines set the pattern of balance between natural and imaginative qualities: “Circadian” references human measurement of daily cycles, in latinate vocabulary—Johnson used European tropes as the deep text within his writings. “Rhythm” is abstraction of time intervals, vague and unquantifiable. The quotation “and words to jointly knit” is from Richard Tottill’s description of Queen Elizabeth I’s acceptance speech for a gift, a purse of gold, presented in a public procession. This was just before her coronation, January 12, 1558-9. Tottill described the great woman’s rhetorical craft:  “. . . if it moved an extraordinary shout [from the crowd] and rejoicing, it is not to be marvelled at, since both the heartiness thereof was wonderful, and the words so jointly knit.” Johnson “jointly knits” his own procession through a rhetorical garden of delights.

Nature and culture interweave in the work and in this poem, with language as the medium. Johnson’s choice of “circumlocutions,” in the third line emphasizes speaking around meanings, as in riddles, and the concise poem-lets are indeed like word games. This set of poems is a “series,” writes the poet, not just isolate occurrences.

Next, the poet is the human “eye” or “I” or “aye” within “the eye of things”—and despite his dire health, Johnson, found affirmation, and indeed “delight,” through his inner- and outer-directed sight.

But most important are the last two lines. The “asphodel,” or white asphodel, is a plant associated with death in Greek mythology. Robert Glen Webb agrees that Johnson felt his mortality as he opened The Shrubberies with this flower symbol: “I’ve always felt the asphodel had the echo of the Greek Asphodel Meadows and thus his foreknowledge of death.” The spectacular spike-like asphodel has myriad small blooms, each with five sharp petals. Their translucent, white texture would reflect that hue intensely in direct Kansas summer solstice sunlight, with sap visible through the light-colored petals. The effect would be a clump of prisms, so indeed asphodel is a “mirror cascade.”

So the entire The Shrubberies cascades, one page after another. Poems are similar but not identical, like Kant’s mitten pairs. Johnson himself writes of his use of accretions and  bricolage. He described Sam Rodia’s building Watts Towers, as “realm of mosaic” and used it as a model for his deliberately built ARK (311-2). But cascading tiles are linked even more closely to each other than mosaic pieces. They have intentional overlaps and reflections of parts. They create a more liquid effect, like waterfalls. To emphasize this fluidity, the poet uses no line capitals or end punctuation, so the individual verses read as a continuous sequence, all parts of the whole stream. Poems were interchangeable parts because of their shared structures. Johnson did not know the final make-up of the book, but any assembling order would create his “cascade” effect.

The poetics itself is mirror-based. The lines have a binary, reflective quality within themselves, and the sequence from one line to the next is a continuum. This entire opening poem has a doubled quality, a mirrored symmetry. At each level—from line to couplets to entire poem—the composition is like paper snowflake cutouts, made by folding paper in half to create repeated patterns. This initial poem has three beats to the line, asymmetrical, with perhaps the fold in the middle of the line.

Match-ups within lines are: “circadian” and “rhythms”; “’words’” and “’knit’”; “series” and “circumlocutions”; “eye” and “eye of things”; “mirror cascade” and “asphodel”; “delight” and spectacle.” The pairs repeat each other, and the lines, one after another, re-contextualize the ideas and sounds of the line before. Lines one, three, and five, use latinate terms—circadian, circumlocution, “cascade of asphodel.”Even-numbered lines two and four have one-syllable Anglo Saxon words like “words,” “knit,” “eye,” and “things.” The poem ends with a rhyming couplet, end-words being “asphodel” and “spectacle.” Latinate and Anglo Saxon words balance in the first four lines, and the ending couplet is its own sets of more cultivated Graeco-Roman-based words.

Another couplet illustrates this bisymmetry, not quite half-way through the collection: “a plummet depth / death plumed / heights prized / into Empyrean” (60). Here deep earth—the site of graves—couples with flames of the Greek heaven, where fire originates. “Plummet” is a fall, while plumes are agents of flight. Indeed, the next poem takes up the mirrored themes of human and natural, with the opening line “tigered orange & black / a gathering of Monarchs.” The themes of “spectacle” and royal procession overlap this as well.

And so the cascade moves forward, from one sight to the next, from one dance of verse to the next. The entire poem is overlapping, paired lines, stanzas and individual poems. Bradin Cormack describes the mirror-like quality of lines in a later The Shrubberies poem: “The way that one body mirrors another is an instance of the repetition whereby the singular moment or event is preserved even as it is woven into a complete and recursive whole” (521). Each poem is an individual reflecting tile, assembled into a spire of a larger aggregate. The model of the asphodel spiked blooms is both regular and irregular, an overlapping of natural and cultivated geometries. Kenneth Irby did visit with Johnson briefly, during the composing of The Shrubberies, and they had brief correspondence. From both Kansas-by-way-of-Black-Mountain poets I learn to look closely at each word, how each evokes etymological lineages, other imperfect and overlapping sequences.

Based on comments presented on the occasion of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library- Special Collections exhibit of Ronald Johnson manuscripts, 16 April 2013.

—Denise Low


Cormack, Bradin. “A Syntax of Vision: The Last Poems of Ronald Johnson.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 517-528.

Johnson, Ronald. ARK. Chicago: Flood Editions, 20013.

—–. The Shrubberies. Edited by Peter O’Leary.  Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001.

Naylor, Paul. “After ARK.” Ronald Johnson: Life and Works,” ed. Joel Bettridge and Eric Murphy Selinger. Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 2008. 505-516.

O’Leary, Peter. “Afterword.” The Shrubberies by Ronald Johnson. Chicago: Flood Editions, 2001: 127-31.

Tottill, Richard. “The Passage of our most drad Sovereigne Ladye Queene Elyzabeth through the Citie of London to Westminster, the day before her Coronation, Anno 1558. Imprinted at London in Flete Streete, within Temple-Barre, at the Signe of the Hand and Starre, by Richard Tottill, the WWIIII day of January, quoted in John Gough Nichols’s compilations of  accounts of royal processions – 1837 – City of London (England) p. 57

Webb, Robert Glenn. Personal correspondence. 1 April 2013.



Denise Low, 2nd Kansas Poet Laureate, has published 25 books, including Ghost Stories (The Circle -Best Native Am. Books of 2010; Ks. Notable Book). Heath Fisher writes: “Filled with vivid imagery of the land and the culture, and both verse and prose, Ghost Stories is an enchanting tribute to the plains and the history (Rain Taxi). Low’s Natural Theologies: Essays (The Backwaters Press, 2012) is the first critical review of mid-plains literature. Mary Harwell Sayler writes: “The literature of the ‘New Middle West’ seems to adapt, innovate, and follow Low’s insightful view” (Rattle). Low is a former board member and past president of AWP. She writes articles, blogs, and reviews and also publishes a small press, Mammoth. A critical article on the poetics of Kenneth Irby is forthcoming from Jacket 2. Her heritages include British Isles, Delaware, and German. Recent writings appear in American Life in Poetry, Yellow Medicine Rev., Virginia Q. Rev. New Letters, Yukhika-latuhse, Unraveling the Spreading Cloth of Time (rENEGADE pLANET), I Was Indian (Foot Hills), I-70. You can find Denise Low on the web at http://deniselow.blogspot.com and  www.deniselow.com.


Jan 132014


I met poet John Barton about seventeen years ago at a University of Alberta conference titled de:Scribing Albertas. The conference brought together academics and writers and, often uncomfortably, had them face-to-face over the same text. Which is how I came to do a reading of landscape, memory and identity in John Barton’s poems while he sat kindly and patiently in the second row and didn’t hurtle chairs at me.

In an interview with him I taped at that conference, John Barton said,

I often play around at the extremities of metaphor. Right now I am quite interested in conflating seemingly unrelated ideas or images . . . the poem becomes a kind of aural photomontage composed of discordant, arbitrary splices.

This conflation continues in these two poems: public history, mythology, desire and personal loss all collide and thrum alongside one another.

Two years ago Barton was the writer-in-residence at University of New Brunswick where I teach. The two poems included here were written during his tenure in Fredericton. As beautiful as it is, this place is still sometimes an alien landscape to me. It’s with palimpsest pleasures that I read about Fredericton through Barton’s poetics and I invite you to collide, too.

—R.W. Gray


Maritime Icarus, June 28, 1838

Upon discovering Keir Inches dead in Fredericton
after the coronation of Victoria Regina
in the nineteenth year of his life

Why should you keep falling through numbing blue
Layers of the St. John River, night’s soft dark
Mauves soon to black its crest, a misconstrued
Curve of known camber snagging you in stark
And tenacious currents, your fall no lark
You a volunteer from army quarters
On board a scow, launching fireworks to mark
A far queen’s ascent, their nitrous flicker
A seal torn free of by frantic limbs, its glister

Clinging to you as, dripping, they extract
Your corpse escaped into unsurveyed depths
Awash downstream among grey shoreline tracts
Of reeds below Oromocto, the length
Your life meant to take shedding light, its breadth
Praised as a simple crossing, bank to bank
Not a falling-in partway home, hope’s worth
Unwished-for, your half-read face bloated blank
Its unlikeness not unlike this freeze-and-thaw-franked

Stone still here to hold your grave in place
An anchor thrown off time’s foredeck to slow
Not stop a family’s drift, motto effaced
Its stance set flat in earth, soon known
In fissured pieces, tectonic plates thrown
Ajar by cracks swamped in lichened waves
Your bones falling still as you plunge through loam
Unaware if bursting through the craved-for
Surface is up or down, memory a breath staved

Off longer than this hour permits, breathless
As I stand primed from above to watch you
Fall, to haul you ashore, not prone to guess
Or make you what you were not or might not
Have sensed, though scarce years later, from the blue
—Sweet unencumbered man, my ancestor—
A friend’s remains lay vanished next to yours
Light’s substrates porous and me no reader
Of soils, though I would swim through each and no others.


Closing the Gate of Sorrow

             …you were the axe at my side
in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath
the shield I carried, my glorious robe
the wide belt around my loins, and now
a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.

Gilgamesh, translated
by Stephen Mitchell

Ten years have sunk a foundation beneath me since the towers fell.
In your and their phantom presence, I have become another man.
Or his stand-in. A few cells snarling in retrospect’s Möbius strip
Are left to regenerate into bracing twists of conscience.
My body, as it uncurls, may feel warm if adrift were you
To ease in beside me while I doze, my eyes half shut, unallied
To the quiet verdant space you had hoped to reseed inside me
The sun burning my face clean of your green, expansive gaze.
Today I’d roll away a stranger, one not far from the lean, unsatisfied
Man you’d met by chance, though once you were the axe at my side.

Two towers fell, and the unlooked-for deaths of several thousand
So private and improbable, must not reconstruct as a backdrop
To how abruptly we came to be apart, though the down-rush
Of floor into floor, the avalanche of debris and ground-to-dust
Flesh and bone juggernauting through the Financial District
As TV watchers looked on, boiled up a haze to screen the disbelief
You projected in a flash upon my betrayal and untoward failure
To love, my untried fidelity an itinerant eye seeing manifest
Destiny in the regard of each man at every corner despite the interleaf
Of your hand in mine, in which my arm trusted, the knife in my sheath.

We fought for hours, the news ten years ago unable to blowtorch
Our gaze elsewhere, my remorse a match lighting your nerves.
Today I’d strike each deflection, not see our nosedive down through
What held us up as uncontrolled, the elevator cable a fuse unwinding
At live-stream speed word by threadbare word, my grip slipped free
Of, in despair, as you plummet, flame out in the searchlight’s strobe.
What gravity may be I’ve come to know, lacking your weight upon me
Though you’d fall under mine—the thrust of my randy indifference
Left you insatiable, another appetite you would not dare probe.
Your unexamined love became the shield I carried, my glorious robe.

Perspective one day highjacked jets, payloads intent as they streaked
Through frets of porous steel. Cut deeper into the century, I am still
Alive as someone here to mourn, not relive as mine what they’d felt
In advance of immolation, primed no more to see you in the shock
Of office workers catching wind of the approach, fuel about to spill
A timeless fear of not remaining calm, unsure of what could allow
Them to stay as they are before taking flight down stairs on fire
Or climbing higher: abyss or redemption not a choice, no unasked-for
Consequence rigged to look fated, and the resolve of nations I vow
Never again to loop into the wide belt around my loins, and now

Like Gilgamesh, millennia later, I close the gate of sorrow. No ends
Exist of the known world I can voyage to in avoidance of death
After the loss of a friend. We subside into earth or spread as light
On the wind in handfuls, not fists. And should we meet again
Our past won’t re-link us; no love is epic, and how cities fall
Can’t repeal how we came to live as citizens before, the favour
Tragedy offers us in its aftermath helpful only in how we rebuild.
Gilgamesh arrived home a just ruler and no longer divine. I wake to sun
Through blinds, the blankness of my cells open to rising light, the lover
I am: perhaps a kinder man, but a harsh fate has torn you from me, forever.

 —John Barton


John Barton’s ten books of poetry and six chapbooks include For the Boy with the Eyes of the Virgin: Selected Poems (Nightwood, 2012) and Balletomane: The Program Notes of Lincoln Kirstein (JackPine, 2012). He lives in Victoria, where he edits The Malahat Review. His eleventh collection, Polari, is forthcoming from Goose Lane in April 2014.

Jan 102014


The Lost Letters
Catherine Greenwood
Brick Books
88pp; $20

Birds, Metals, Stones and Rain
Russell Thornton
Harbour Publishing
80pp; $16.95

For Display Purposes Only
David Seymour
Coach House Books
80pp; $17.95

I’ve known for most of my life that Americans are woefully ignorant of our great neighbor to the north. I try hard not to be, in part because I live within an easy drive of the Québec border. But I have no real right to be sanctimonious, even with regard to my own calling. Having just (pinch me) turned 71, I find it increasingly hard to keep up with U.S. poetry; some recent Canadian visits, however, have reminded me of my deeper ignorance of Canadian verse, beyond that, say, of my friend John B. Lee and of Don Mckay (two men I admire deeply) and of Anne Carson (a woman who, I admit, mostly baffles me).

The Lost Letters coverThe three books I’ll consider here suggest how much I may be missing. Each is greatly distinct from the others– and each of a very high order.  I marvel, for instance, at The Lost Letters (Brick Books) by Catherine Greenwood, whose pivotal section, “Dear Peter,” is prompted by such correspondence between Heloise and Abelard as survives. Many have tried Greenwood’s strategy, but few to my mind have succeeded: she “updates” aspects of an old story, here, so to speak, putting the legendary lovers’ relationship into modern dress.

This story is famous: Abelard, renowned twelfth-century logician, seduced and impregnated  his brilliant student Heloise, whom he spirited away to live with relatives of his. She bore a male child, after which, infuriated by her teacher’s behavior, Heloise’s uncle hired thugs to castrate the scholar. Soon, however recalcitrantly, Heloise became a nun.

So richly detailed and so narratively compelling are these poems that to excerpt from them seems almost an impertinence. But consider this from “Astrolabe,” titled with that bastard son’s name, in which Greenwood conjures a mother lying in her grown boy’s room after he has left her with an empty nest. “Sentimental music,” she testifies, “makes my nipples itch”:

With the clarity peculiar
to us oxygen tipplers I recall
the infamous homemade astrolabe
at our son’s grade eight science fair–
two cardboard circles pinned together
with a grommet, sights drawn
with banana-scented marker
the ensuing kafuffle
when he taught the other children
how to calculate the angles
of Venus and Mars tumbling
in their star-besmirched

Her evocation’s sheer sensory accuracy is enviable, but her rendering of motherly love, mixed with anxiety, amusement, frustration, and protectiveness, however obliquely rendered, is more than that– it’s stirring. Whether Greenwood has children or not I can’t say; but she keenly understands, when it comes to one’s offspring, what complexities underlie a parent’s urgent wish that her child have the very best.

The entire Heloise-Abelard portion of The Lost Letters shows Greenwood as above all a supreme chronicler of longings, often as not unfulfilled. In “Same Story, Different Day,” for instance, having cited a fragment of an Abelard letter, including the phrase, “You know what my uncontrollable desire did to you,” Greenwood speaks from the perspective of a young woman whose beloved is in jail. On visiting day, she writes, “We fuck/ each other quickly with our eyes,” and then

The bare plywood table, my guy
holds my wrists and sneaks
the balloon full of contraband dreams
I smuggled in up my sleeve.

Greenwood’s depiction of the pain of desire– from her opening poem, “Monk’s Blues,” an hilarious and funky monologue by a young woman with a crush, precisely, on an unresponsive monk, through the final section, “Lost Letters,” which presumably derives from her time as a clerk in a thrift store: that sense of unrequited yearning, in a word of loss, is masterful. In “Lost Letters,” say, the speaker of “Charity” recognizes a customer, who may or may not recognize her: “In our grade six pageant I’d played mother/to his pauper.” Real pauper now,

stepped from decades of gleaning gutters,
he’d returned to what was possible, a man
grown into his fate like a foot into a boot…

he’d returned –still short, spunky–to visit
his mom, he said, and hadn’t brought a coat.

To see this derelict, resilient despite his own foiled promise, leads the clerk to recognize that

…my own life had been driven
by small-heeled struggle, the leather scuffed
but snug, and that for a long while I’d been
walking the wrong way in a costume slowly
going out of style.

That last passage, in which the speaker recognizes vulnerabilities far greater than her own, may suggest what makes The Lost Letters such a triumph. Whether she is considering “The Natural History of the Hamster,” the late night wishes breathed into a “Rotary Dial Telephone” (“Double cheese pizza./Something, anything to fill the gap…”), or the profound and balked passions of Heloise and her lover, Greenwood has the heart and humility to see yearning from the inside.

 Russell Thornton cover

For us humans, it is –is it not?– always a matter of hope and/or its betrayal, love and/or its absence. The first-person narrator of Russell Thornton’s Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain often makes clear that the missing ingredient in his  story is the love of a father who deserted him early. He means to compensate that lack by lavishing love on his own children, a daughter and a newborn son. As he says of the latter, “I want this infant/to fight my father for me.”

The sense of betrayal, anger, and loneliness occasioned by his male parent’s leaving is sharp unto excruciating in Thornton’s work. The writer would leave all that behind if he could. But when the noises of a storm sound to the adult like knocks at the door, he says,

………………………….…father, if I let you in,

I would crush your skull the way some men will
an intruder’s, some an enemy’s, some a boy’s.
The blinds, the wind and rain, are actual

banging blinds and wind and rain– before I fall
more asleep, I know it. Still, I want with all my heart,
whatever my heart is, to go the door.
……………………………………………………….(“The Envelope”)

Similarly, when he recalls his father fabricating “Aluminum Beds” and installing them in his sons’ room just before running off, Thornton recalls that

Nightly I allow not one of my brothers
to speak or even audibly breathe. I know
that the sound of any of our young voices
will distract the light trying to make its way
through the fitted substance of the metal. I know
at the same time that this light is my father
searching for his sons.

The desperate wishfulness suggested by the repeated “I know” in that passage is laden for me with pathos, as is the later moment when the poet’s childhood bed seems “a skeleton,”

unending silver, pure and cold, and I become it,
the light of my father’s love arrived at last.

The boy’s delusion is heartbreaking– and yet it turns out in due course to be less than entirely illusory. Again, fatherly love does indeed enter the very being of the poet as he exerts it upon his children.

The moments in which that love manifests itself are so many in this volume that to quote one is to slight others; but for any parent to note this passage from “River Rainbow,” in which the speaker stands at riverside with his two-year-old, who cries boohewun

Looking back at me
with the grey-blue of the river heron,
one of its feathers fallen into her eyes.
She looks back to the water. Throws a stone
And adds circles within widening circles.
Throws another stone and her irises
halo the river flow. Throws another
and in her pupils the heron opens
its wings and lifts to arc through the blackness
lit blue–

For a parent to note the world’s freshness and sheer availability in the eyes of a child is a poignant experience:

……………………any name
she utters is a rainbow, any bird
she sees is a boohewun, a messenger
carrying to her a name for rainbow,
a heron, and bringing her a heron’s blue.

By focusing on parent-child thematics, I scandalously overlook Thornton’s other significant accomplishments in Birds, Metal, Stones & Rain, not least his spot-on representations of the natural world. Yet because I too am a doting father (and now grandfather, I can’t seem to help myself. Though I was never scarred by a parent’s desertion, I do know the ineffable and unbreachable bond a committed elder feels toward his progeny; and at my age, having watched five children grow and go, I am moved by this much younger author’s sense of time’s velocity, and how it impinges on that bond. In “My Daughter and The Geometry of Time,” he stands with the same child on a beach where he buried the ashes of his grandparents:

I think I will be here at her margins
when I am gone in the same way those two
are now at my own margins, receding
to the beginning…

This  is, I think, as much prayer as speculation, the poet keenly aware that, all too soon,

I will see my small daughter gazing back
at me for a moment from where she stands
collecting and pouring the sand, moving
into the future at the speed of light.

Surely that’s one thing that makes parental love so precious, our awareness of how little time we have to offer it in its originative state, primal and primary.

 David Seymour cover

In general, the poems in David Seymour’s For Display Purposes Only are more edgy than others I’ve considered here. I was unsurprised to learn that the poet works in the film industry, because –as his very title may imply– the perceptions he records are somewhat like “takes” in a film shoot. One of the epigraphs of his collection, in fact, is from fellow poet Jay Hopler: “From being to being an idea, nothing comes through that intact.”

In short, this volume emphasizes that our representations (or “ideas”) are inevitably provisory, are, precisely, for display purposes only. There may be some solid ground of being –the opening lines of the first poem are “The best design survives/ a narrative compulsion”– but successfully to figure it in words seems largely beyond us.

To that extent, the identity of the “I” in these poems is obscure, even to the I himself. The cinematic perspective dominates: we are usually acting even when we think we are at our most genuine. Here is a passage from “The Photo Double”:

The cameras, correctly aligned, produce a seamless
Waterline between the shooting tank and the Pacific
Ocean behind it. Cloudy skies are ideal for this illusion.

Study the dailies, learn his moves, I am the mirror left
After the actor has used the mirrors up.

Seymour’s response to the inevitable facticity (as the theorists, on whom  more directly, would say) of personality and perception is, however, seldom daunted. It is more likely to be jaunty, even when the material at hand might be shocking or dismaying. “Eyewitness Testimony,” for instance, recounts a murder in a parking lot from the perspectives of various onlookers. But that “The man who was killed died,” as the poem avers at the outset, seems the one unequivocal “fact” in the whole incident.

Consider “The woman at the scene sporting leopard-skin/spandex.” She was

…way too realistic. She lacked
conspicuous panty lines. Her description,
though relevant, was weapon focused.


The report from the shots fired was heard variably
As a calendar sliding off a kitchen wall and the after-
vacuum of implosion.


The passing cab driver had the largest
hippocampus among the onlookers, being
the least lost.  This was scientifically proven
though need not be mentioned in the final.


Others were directionless– what they saw
They now knew had never not happened.

By poem’s end, we cannot even be certain of the incident’s physical details. “(T)estimonials/ hardened into notebook fact,” and yet “Plausible rival hypotheses/ will arise in court.”

Just as everything we do or observe is hypothesis, so is the doer/observer: “That’s me,” the poet writes in the tellingly entitled “The Clones’ Brief Tenure,”, “immortal matter, a smattering of universe made/ coherent by reason.”

There are several clones in the poem just quoted. The third at one point reads the first, who’s apparently a poet:

When I read anaemic verge of yews lamping wiry shade
along the urban growth boundary  I read
stand of trees casting shadows on the edge of town

and think I have reduced his thoughts, insulted him,
or oversimplified the yews, but no,
……they have only grown

more complex since he laid eyes on them,
if he saw them at all and they weren’t fabricated
……for the line to convey meaning of
………….another order entirely,

and now I’m stalled on the words, trying to uncover
a clue to the yews’ reality, a stark hint of certitude…

As it turns out, it is not only what, elsewhere in the poem, Seymour calls his “suppositious self” that is endlessly clone-able but also the world that we wrongly imagine to be intact and, as we like to say, factual. As my dear friend, the superb poet Fleda Brown, has written,

Poets/fictionists are liars. They make things up as they go along. So? Language can never  tell the “truth.” So?  I’m reminded of the French critics of the past 20 years, who very accurately noted (in ridiculously convoluted language) that language has no intrinsic meaning. That the author is dead. The reader makes up the stories in a negotiation between mind and page.  So?

I have also long felt that, once one penetrates the explorations of the theorists, one arrives, as Brown implies, at conclusions that the average writer will have discovered within a few months of applied authorship. How much more fun it is to find these “truths” enacted by a poet of David Seymour’s manifest talent than to find them emphasized in studiously and gracelessly unreadable prose.

I challenge you: Search the theoretical pantheon, from Heidegger to Derrida to Lacan to Lyotard and on and on, and find me something as delightful as this:

When I tell you I love you
you smile like

our old television advertising
a clearer HD television.

Ms. Greenwood and Messrs. Thornton and Seymour present us, variously, with persona poems, impassioned “realist” testimony, and postmodern (brilliant) japery. Let us Americans jettison our odd provincialism. If we look north of the border, we’ll find a little –or in fact a lot– of something for each of us.

 —Sydney Lea


sl, bird dog pete and sharptail, Montana

Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. His poetry collection Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Another collection, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont College of Fine Arts and Middlebury College, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. His selection of literary essays, A Hundred Himalayas, was published by the University of Michigan Press in September, and Skyhorse Publications recently released A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. His eleventh poetry collection, I Was Thinking of Beauty, was published in 2013 by Four Way Books.

Jan 082014

Phil Hall

Phil Hall is a language-player whose restless mind and tender sensibility makes poems that l like to read over and over. The first time we met up was at the Cow Cafe in downtown Toronto. Someone had put salt in the sugar bowl and I ended up spitting tea down the front of his shirt. He smiled and dabbed at his clothes, the picture of grace when blindsided by an unexpected event. He approaches language and image the same way, welcoming the unanticipated and ushering it inside the poem. Phil Hall has been short-listed for the Griffin Poetry Prize twice and has won the Governor General’s Award and the Trillium Book Award.

— Ann Ireland


Ann Ireland interviews Phil Hall

Ann Ireland: How did you come to poetry?

Phil HallGet that goddamn / dog out of here / before I get the shot / gun down (said my father – sounding a lot like Milton) Blue & green / should never be seen / except in the washing machine (said my mother – sounding a lot like Beatrix Potter)

I came to poetry through all of the usual pathetic early tunnels: Wilf Carter and Hal Lone Pine, Kipling and Service, The Song of the Lazy Farmer, greeting cards… I came to poetry backwards, secretly, on an outside track: I would be an actor, because theatre is the art form by which one gets the most immediate response and attention. I was hungry to be told I was OK, and clapping is a big (if fleeting) OK. (Thankfully, writing poetry means that not a soul is in the audience. The inside track and the stadiums are for prose. Hear the novel whizzing by…) I came to poetry – I guess you could say – missionarily – is that a word? The clean & holy parents of school friends sometimes took me along to Baptist Sunday School & Church in Bobcaygeon. Here I heard and sang hymns devoid of melody but rich with long dark tones, the foot pedals pumping on the organ. That chastising drone got into me, I guess – along with the bag-pipes at Orange Lodge parades… Between Milton & Potter: half mighty condemnation / half little animal jingles –  I sing.

AI: What does living in nature bring you?

PH: I grew up on farms, but was allergic to everything: hay, ragweed, goldenrod, dust, horses, dogs, cats, blue & green molds…When it grew cold, and those spores weren’t in the air, I got asthma, bronchitis, skin rashes…A dead deer was hanging in the woodshed, dripping – I wouldn’t eat meat. What the hell is wrong with him! Fortunately, books have in them none of the things I am allergic to – except as referents. Books saved me. And peanut butter. I am allergic to rural life, I guess…or ultimately, I am allergic to Ontario. But I have grown out of the asthma, have never smoked so my lungs are clear, can avoid horses & pets & dust & weeds, mostly. And living back in the country, in nature, now, I feel at home – with my aversions. I am writing with Blake’s rural pen, or trying to. I have a little garden, even. The poems eat the leaves off my bean plants.

AI: You burrow at words from the inside-out: I will write a poem again today / it will make no sense // my claver will clawhammer the bars of the word barbaric // sense can be a gag order / silence can be made to sound civilized & free. This feels like a statement of poetic intent. Care to comment?

PH: If we don’t work with words from the inside-out, we are using them as they have been sold to us, cheaply. A poem will then be no more than a Cabbage Patch Frankenstein composed of imitative sound-bits. Poem as soma – in the Huxley sense of a pacifier from the State. Coke. Against this – we may try to honour the historical and sonorously complex revolt against propriety that is each word in truth. Also, to write this way makes me laugh, and is clarifying. I have come late to the pondering of words, late to letter-rumination. Neither Milton or Potter care-took language in this way, contemplating words as objects, designs, sounds, shapes. (In other ways, they did.) Susan Howe, bp Nichol and Robert Duncan are my Virgils in this. But let me tell what I know about these lines you quote…Claver – in Scots means gossip or jibber-jabber. Clawhammer – is a style of banjo strumming, as you know. And you have seen already that the word barbaric has two bars in it. My kind of talk in a poem will strum the two bars in a word like barbaric, acknowledging it visually as well as referentially. Making sense turns out to be very limiting. There is more to be said than — Then she said…And don’t ever think that silence is proper (it is wild). Or that by saying nothing you can remain free. If you don’t write the poem as a full invite to all of the potential barbarism its words embody, your voice is being muzzled, tamed, and eventually killed by…what…education? Morality? As Clark Blaise (another of my heroes) says of the short story: literary justice is at war with morality. This applies to poems too. How would Gertrude Stein or James Joyce write of having been sexually abused as a kid? There are rigorous savannahs of possibility still.

AI: What goes on between spoken words and words on the page?

PH: One of the most common mistakes people make when giving poetry readings, is that they proceed as if the poem – as written – were sacred. It isn’t. When shared aloud, the poem is a non-page creature. Listeners deserve to be entertained. Not preached to, or taught. And certainly not regaled by sly or hip examples of the poet’s sensitivity. For me, this involves composing a reading by pasting together various sections & stanzas of poems from throughout a whole book. I often will tear a book apart, then cut & paste. Making a new thing to read…This turns a box of fossils into sea life again. And listeners are grateful for the iconoclasm.

AI: Sound is dug into the soil of your poetry, so I’m assuming that music is important to you. What do you listen to? Do you listen while writing?

PH: I listen to jazz. Oscar Pettiford, Charlie Mingus, Roland Kirk, David Murray, Jerry Gonzalez & the Fort Apache Band…Horns & bass full-tilt. Sometimes I can write while inside that harsh wall of sound, for it blocks out the constant nitter-natter, and is oddly calming. I listen to early Zydeco and The New Lost City Ramblers. I listen to a lot of fiddle tunes: Jarvis Benoit, Wade Fuge… I have been trying to get the fiddle tunes inside me – to replace the organs & hymns. I’ll keep the bag-pipes.

AI: Do you read poetry in translation? Care to comment on translation in poetry?

PH: I am ashamed to say I use only one language, but what poverty of word there would be without translation! When I read in translation, I know I am looking down through water at cities I can’t walk around in, but I am voracious for wavering glimpses of those foreign cities. Many of my masters are non-English poets: Vallejo & Jimenez, Elytis & Ritsos, Mandelstam & Tsvetayeva, Char & Césaire, Brossard & Pato…Many of what we consider great English poems are in imitation of models from other languages.  And what presumption to assume that one language – ours – can always be where the best writing is…Shelley said that to translate a poem was to boil a tulip. I prefer boiled tulip to no tulip at all. At worst, I get that shimmering recognition of something deep in the water; at best, there are translators and trans-translators who give us luminous furtherances of poems…new poems built in border-crossing forms…

AIAh research / now there’s the ear’s coffin – This is my favourite line because, like so much of your work, it makes perfect sense although I couldn’t tell you quite what, or I’d get tangled if I tried. It’s also funny. There’s that research and that ear – and the ear is within the research as if tucked into a coffin!

PH: You’ve got it – visually, the word research enacts all of what I’m saying. A pet peeve of mine: the popularity of researching a subject and then writing poems based on that information, the popularity of young poets getting Phds. Too much research, too much information, kills the ear’s ability to hear music. For example, look at the Augustan poets, Dryden & some of his lesser contemporaries. They were solid, pragmatic versifiers, and translators, mostly on classical themes. Designed purely for instruction…reasoned into truth. Lectures & fables cut into heroic couplets. Dryden was like (later) Darwin with a metronome. Dull stale stuff. I prefer, though it sounds flaky in these reactionary times, the ephemeral scatter of Mallarmé. Or I like what Philip Levine says – about actually avoiding learning to do many things – while waiting for the voice to enter him. Not inspiration – but certainly there is more than enough to know about these complex interlocking mysteries of personhood & language – without having to mummify your ear in some archives…There are exceptions, but generally – a book of poetry about something gives me the heeby-jeebies.

AI: I’ll stop there. What the heck is Plevna?

PH: Plevna is a town near here, in the Ottawa Valley. I’ve used as titles for a number of poems in this new book the odd names of nearby towns: Tweed, Poonamalie, Ubdegrove, etc. These poems aren’t about those towns, I just like the sounds of the place-names. And who knows, maybe I have represented my place and mind – by invoking the map of sounds I live within…Who wouldn’t want to call a poem – Oompah!

– Ann Ireland & Phil Hall


Three poems from The Small Nouns Crying Faith (BookThug, 2013)



..The chewed-corn gaff of the mullein
its tall standard rising behind the wood-pile
..(between the wood-pile & the woods)

seems yellower as the morning darkens
..& the maples gather darkness into themselves
& clouds combine as overcast moil

..& the highest poplars tell of what’s to come
throwing their paper bangles up / letting loose
.[their crepe-ribbon noise (braided loops

being pulled down after the party
..that was sleep)[**]such blinkered comfort to write like this
the supposedly-tender anthropomorphic wit

[.of witness that is really a hiding-out
under stupid traditions[**]while the ramps narrow
[.in the tock yards

it is going to do a whole lot more than rain



.[I am away[**]up side-roads[**]into another attempt

at local song[**]have begun to see how to possibly fix[**]again
.[an obscure entry or warped fragment[**]its pulse taken at word

crossings-out[**]circles with arrows[**]crossed-out arrows

[.I am lost[**]my only anchor / dither[**]dither as dubious power

I have sold my children to the zero & the one[**]& complete sets
[.of My Book House to the fox[**]to Fox[**]to Captain Fox

I drink only Adam’s Ale[**]have no one to read to but yellow-jackets

[.when I sit still[**]when I try to be clear & silent[**]I go & & & &

my ear at some hive[**]listening to flight thicken


The Access Route

[.There were coy-wolves howling in our woods last night

what is rarer & rarer is an un-surveilled common
[.when it was coming dawn out[**]enough grey-blue[**]the lake grey-blue

I looked out to see the thermometer
[.there were riot police around the cabin
leaning hard against the logs[**]staring straight ahead[**]locked eyes

[.on point with the new chinking
I tapped the window[**]but they didn’t acknowledge
[.they aren't supposed to I guess[**]the weather continues
& I am the same age I’ve always been[**]am trying

[.not to talk about the weather or my age
for instance I didn't know hallowed or hollowed
[.was a choice[**]I got told by example something different
victims convinced of their own goodness

[.& up to despicable distractions[**]these were my people
so I chose hollowed by scar[**]when I could have had hallowed
[.which is my initial h plus allowed

now I've changed my thinking on this[**]I allow that a hole is for echo not ache
[.bless me 26 times[**]that I may be finally not the point

but the pointer[**]sheep & citizens beware


Two sections from the poem sequence X, published in a deluxe special edition of 100 copies by Thee Hellbox Press of Kingston, 2013

[.My posture[**]crumbling[**]says its word

[.but the little sweet Tommy Sweets

grown off of one last tree[**]beside the furthest stile

[.up Devitt's Settlement[**]scrub cedar[**]mullein[**]purple thistle
are down[**]all down[**]derry-down

[.warty-yellow in the unscythed timothy

my posture says I never went there[**]when I could[**]& can’t now
[.but I did[**]always did[**]& am




[.Few poems worth knowing

worth suspect[**]knowing suspect[**]/[**]few suspect
[.seeing double[**]hearing less out of one ear

to have had to be 60 to say in a poem the abuser’s name

].is this success or failure[**]both[**]neither
my tongue’s baloney-smell[**]articulating adios


 – Phil Hall


IMG_1139Phil Hall is the 2011 winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in English, for Killdeer, published by BookThug. His is also the 2012 winner of Ontario’s Trillium Book Award for Killdeer. This book of essay-poems also won an Alcuin Design Award, & was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Previously,Trouble Sleeping (2001) was nominated for the Governor General’s Award; and An Oak Hunch (2005) was nominated for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Among his many titles are also: Old Enemy Juice (1988), Hearthedral—A Folk-Hermetic (1996), White Porcupine (2007), & The Little Seamstress (2010). In the early 80s, Phil was a member of the Vancouver Industrial Writers’ Union, the Vancouver Men Against Rape Collective, & the Starvation Army Band. In the early 90s he was Literary Editor at This Magazine. He is a graduate of the University of Windsor, & has taught writing & literature at York University, Ryerson University, Seneca College, George Brown College, & elsewhere; currently, he offers a manuscript mentoring service for the Toronto New School of Writing. In 2007, Phil & his wife, Ann, walked the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. He has been poet-in-residence at Sage Hill Writing Experience (Saskatchewan), The Pierre Berton House (Dawson City, Yukon), & elsewhere. In 2012, he was writer-in-residence at Queens University in Kingston. He plays clawhammer banjo, is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, & lives near Perth, Ontario.

Jan 032014



Woman Without Umbrella
Victoria Redel
Four Way Books
88 pages, $15.95
ISBN-13: 978-1-935536-24-6

Woman Without Umbrella slips out the door barefoot in spite of flash flood warnings. Without interruption is my recommendation when reading this, Victoria Redel’s third collection of poetry.

Redel is also the author of four books of fiction, most recently a collection of stories, Make Me Do Things, from Four Way Books. Her award-winning novel, Loverboy, was adapted to film in 2004. A native New Yorker, Redel earned her MFA at Columbia University and was a student of Gordon Lish: as an editor at Alfred A. Knopf, Lish published her first book. In an interview with Leah Umansky, Redel reflects “I’m a poet more driven by the sentence than by the line, and I’m a fiction writer driven more by language than plot.”

The first poem in this collection is titled “The Way It Began,” and the second one is “The End.” These two poems are separated by two blank pages and a page with an ampersand, an indication of Redel’s skill in measuring and compressing time and space in the length of the collection, in the space and interaction between poems, and within single stanzas.

From this energetic opening, the collection would seem to explode outward, way beyond structures. In fact, the next poem begins with “The roof collapses.” David Orr, in his most recent article “On Poetry” in the NYTimes Book Review, concludes “poetry, unlike churches and fortresses, has never loved a wall.” Here, poetry loves a wall but for different reasons entirely, as Redel shows in “Woman Without Umbrella, Unseasonable.”

All month her city sweats and sticks,
women and men stripped down to a snarl, it’s too fucking hot.

These are steamy low-key days, south of the border,
hot-to-the-touch afternoons,

burning cement walls built for pressing him up against.

The poem next is “Suddenly,” which begins “A month after turning forty-five, every last egg in her body / is a Rockette doing the can-can. Use me use me use me, they cry.” And it goes on, describing the woman at the crosswalk, warning off any nearby men. The next poem, “Woman Without Umbrella,” begins with “Thus she waited at the corner / for the light to change.” The manipulation of time between month and month is exhilarating, as is the way Redel focuses the space, from the wide-angle view of the city to the particular woman standing on a corner.

The poems “Upgrade” and “Bottom Line,” which are a little before the halfway point in the collection, is a glorious reflection on the nature of the heart and our relationship to it, which seems sometimes strange to say, as though we could remove ourselves from it enough to say “to it.” But in Redel’s hands, this manipulation of the view through time and space is masterful. In “Upgrade,” Redel shows us the “I want,” incessantly asking, clawing-for-something heart, the font of all desire. Apart from the heart, in the wonderment of considering it—

I don’t want a refund to say it didn’t fit, never worked, or worked at first,
then in fits and starts, the switches useless, gears stripped. No, I don’t want

Customer Service, a Claims Department, complaint letters, an exchange
or credit toward the latest model, an upgrade or Lifetime Parts Replacement.

Even now, broken, chipped, in pieces, pieces lost, worn out, the original
gone—there are times, still, it comes back to me whole and I am amazed

by what is beyond fragile, by how elaborately and generously, wrecked
and beyond repair, we made use of our hearts all those years. And then.

The way her lists topple into other lists here is the glory of it. The first stanza’s list repeats the words “fit” and “worked,” and uses the assonance of the short i sound for intense energy from the start. And we don’t know what she’s talking about yet, as the second stanza takes us into Customer Service for this broken or defective thing. Third stanza, and this list parallels the first with the short-i sound in “chipped” and the repetition of “pieces.” Then in the beginning of the third stanza, “even now” starts to shift the poem away from its initial “I don’t want” and into the amazement of “and then.”

“And then” is a force in this collection. I found myself following it, catching it hiding here and there, and finding its inverse flying around in certain dark corners. For example, we move from “And then” at the end of the poem “Upgrade,” to the beginning of “Bottom Line”: “As when my father goes back under / and the doctor comes out to tell us he’s put a window in my father’s heart.” Perhaps this is the most extreme example of the way “and then” propels the reader through this collection. Or maybe it’s in the poem “Later Still, Then,” where Redel begins, “What if I told the husband everything. / How I leaned against a shoulder on the raft. Later, still. Or years earlier. And then.” In the poem on the facing page, two of the lines begin with “then.” The poem titled “And Then” precedes a page with an ampersand, which precedes the three-and-a-half-page “Kissing.” That is followed by another page with an ampersand, followed by “Holy” which begins “Then I went to a party and danced like no tomorrow.” And next comes “And, Finally,” and then “Gorgeous Present.” And this is still nowhere near the end of the book.

So, back to “Kissing.” The poem begins with a potent first line, “The first surprise of your mouth on mine.” Then it steams up quickly with a glorious list of the places where:

On streets, on staircases, in bathrooms, in the backs of cabs, in a field, against that wall and that wall and that wall, down on the floor, my hair caught in it, in hotel beds, in a borrowed bed, and in the same bed night after night after year after night, through an open window, under pines, under water, on a raft, in rain, salty with ocean, a peck at the door, a have a good day.

Our mouths, prepositional.

From this point, the poem delves beautifully into every aspect of that description, “prepositional.” Mouths act as prepositions indicating another place, “like there is another room inside and then another room inside.” Alternatively, kissing mouths are prepositional to each other, introducing the irresistible action of offering and taking: “suddenly you are turning me saying, / ‘Give me your mouth,’ and I am giving you my mouth.” The poem takes the grammar reference further with these lines: “A fluency, accented, each vowel and consonant exactly formed. / Sudden native speakers.” Later in the poem, we consider “A private syntax. / Pun and slang, slip of tongue, intentional.” The reader wonders whether kissing is a metaphor for language or if it’s the other way around.

Redel’s list of mostly prepositional phrases uses alliteration and assonance in tight sequence at the beginning of the run, and then repetition of “wall,” “bed,” “night,” “under,” “on,” and especially “in.” There’s that wall again. And that raft. Within single lines of the poem, the repetition of a word strikes the right notes of sound and insistence. In “Kissing,” this doubling of words within the line occurs with “eyes,” “mouth,” “room,” “taste,” and “drifting,” which is in itself an enticing list.

Paired with this virtuosity of metaphor and pattern is Redel’s exquisite attention to imagery and sensory detail.

Like something windy, like good weather. In winter, our mouths the
warmest place in the city.

Kissing like nobody’s business.

A lower lip flicked by teeth, pulling back just a little to breathe

 And, then, all twitch and pull and ache.

If this were a review of a novel, I’d have to stop here to avoid spoilers. In her interview with Leah Umansky, Redel said “I see Woman Without Umbrella as having a kind of narrative arc and so the thread of poems using the same titles is a consideration of time. And though “Woman” in the title is singular I think of this as a book inhabited by many women both contemporary and historical.” A couple of stanzas toward the end of the collection stand out as fine examples of Redel’s repetitions and resulting conversion of these materials into something sublime. In “Smoking Cigarettes with Brodsky,” the last stanza evokes “and then” with the surprise of “and yet.”

I’m just learning desire makes us sometimes lovely,
always idiotes. And yet. And yet. And yet
Joseph smokes another cigarette.

The first half of “Monet’s Umbrella” gives it away, too.

I didn’t have to kneel down by the roadside lilacs
and I didn’t have to go walking this dawn in Riverside

with the dog sniffing wet dirt and the red tail hawks
nesting over the Westside highway on-ramp

to know that without even trying Sweetness returns
without a Monet umbrella or a proper scarf around its neck

and that when I rush to bring Possibility indoors for a hot tea
it gathers me in for a dirty-minded kiss.

Redel’s “and then” has become “and that when” here. And there’s that kiss again, suggesting with its capitalized “Possibility” an Emily Dickinson poem, which begins “I dwell in Possibility — / A fairer house than Prose –”.

Redel leaves us in a cozier place at the end of the collection—in a theater after the show, considering the “riveting” special effects, as you might after reading this book without intermission. The deluge of brilliance in this collection could turn manhole covers into geyser spouts, recycling bins into white-water rafts, and then—who needs an umbrella?

—A. Anupama


A. AnupamaA. Anupama is a U.S.-born, Indian-American poet and translator whose work has appeared in several literary publications, including The Bitter Oleander, Monkeybicycle, The Alembic, Numéro Cinq and decomP magazinE. She received her MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2012. She currently lives and writes in the Hudson River valley of New York, where she blogs about poetic inspiration at seranam.com.

Dec 122013

Sydney Lea

Time was, long ago thankfully, when I used to worry about running out of ideas to write about. Nothing like that happens to Sydney Lea; Syd can’t get out of the kitchen before poems strike him. He makes coffee — a poem. He thinks about scraping out the firebox in his stove — a poem. Not that I am making fun of this; it’s a rich spiritual condition to have that much respect, and even love, for the existence of things. Things contain memory, affection, duty, ritual, even a moral armature — mere persistence, at a certain point, implies strength of purpose and will. Sydney has that Heideggerian ear for the sussurations of Being and we hear them, too, in the cadences of his poems.



For some it’s prayer and for others I guess it’s sitting quiet zazen
And for others still it’s chanting a litany of protest
At what life deals them and though I pray myself in my way
I’ve been known to recite the litany too though it’s clear that I do best
When I go downstairs and make a cup of strong black coffee

In the elegant glass French press my wife so good and lovely gave me
Years ago I think for one or another birthday
Then drink it because I should desire to be awake
To the world I see around me though it’s more than merely coffee
That will make me so I understand but still and all

The ritual can help incline my stubborn heart and soul
To appreciate that a doe let’s say before she runs
Stands silhouetted sideways there on the ridge outside
My window momentarily backlit by morning sun
And I should treasure the ridge itself and all the rest

The sun included spangling all this myriad glorious mess
Of October color which I’m willing to grant is just as corny
As any postcard but I also believe that for me to treat it
As no more than platitude will mean to miss the point entirely
Of why I should sustain deep gratitude no matter

Autumn’s here and gone more quickly nowadays than ever
Though that should be even greater cause for me to marvel
At all I behold and never mind that I don’t sit
Like some wise monk or yogi or sage I can nonetheless be mindful
Feeling that certain inclination that only a cretin

Would fail to cherish so why not feel it more often?


The View in Late Winter 

…….Step right up, come on in,
……………….If you’d like to take the grand tour…

………………………………..—George Jones

My wife and one of our daughters, home to visit,
sleep through the creaks and moans of timber and sill.
More than I might have once, I welcome
warmth, so I a load a log.
One fights the tug of nostalgia,
fights to accept the idea of acceptance,
of surrendering first one thing, then others, then all.

To judge by the journal I just took down from a shelf,
on this very day in 1968,
I hiked all the way up Mousely Mountain
to camp at height of land.
There are maybe a dozen visions
scribed indelibly into my mind,
and one, however minor, is of that night,

when the world seemed oddly, generously upside down.
From high above them, I spied on a pair of owls
that coasted tree to tree on a hillside,
while their perfect shadows below them
slid over snow, cast there
by a moon as wrought as museum marble,
all else but those birds and shadows equally still.

I’ve checked the mercury now through a frost-starred pane:
at 22 below, it seems far too frigid
to scrape the ashes out of the firebox.
I should have done it before
this cold snap, but that would have meant
letting the stove go dead to haul them,
and so to invite the chill into our kitchen.

Instead of moon or predator or hill,
from a favorite chair beside the stove I fix on
a lovely ceramic plate we found
in an Umbrian village somewhere.
Our honeymoon. Years ago…
On the cluttered counter before it stand
still photographs of children–and their children.

I see pictures as well of dogs, most of them gone.
Each thing in anyone’s life is fated to go,
and yet here it comes, the faithful day.
Who doesn’t vainly long
for what he has loved to stay?
Another photo shows our house on the pond,
with its still, inverted reflection in water below.

—Sydney Lea


Sydney Lea is Poet Laureate of Vermont. His tenth collection of poems, I Was Thinking of Beauty, is now available from Four Way Books, his collaborative book with Fleda Brown, Growing Old in Poetry: Two Poets, Two Lives, has now been issued in e-book format by Autumn House Press, and Skyhorse Publishing has just published A North Country Life: Tales of Woodsmen, Waters and Wildlife. Other recent publications include Six Sundays Toward a Seventh: Selected Spiritual Poems, from publishers Wipf and Stock, and A Hundred Himalayas (University of Michigan Press), a sampling from his critical work over four decades.

He founded New England Review in 1977 and edited it till 1989. Of his nine previous poetry collections, Pursuit of a Wound (University of Illinois Press, 2000) was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The preceding volume, To the Bone: New and Selected Poems, was co-winner of the 1998 Poets’ Prize. In 1989, Lea also published the novel A Place in Mind with Scribner, and the book is still available in paper from Story Line Press. His 1994 collection of naturalist essays, Hunting the Whole Way Home, was re-issued in paper by the Lyons Press in 2003. Lea has received fellowships from the Rockefeller, Fulbright and Guggenheim Foundations, and has taught at Dartmouth, Yale, Wesleyan, Vermont and Middlebury Colleges, as well as at Franklin College in Switzerland and the National Hungarian University in Budapest. His stories, poems, essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, The New York Times, Sports Illustrated and many other periodicals, as well as in more than forty anthologies. He lives in Newbury, Vermont, where he is active in statewide literacy and conservation efforts.

Dec 062013

William Olsen

William Olsen is a dear friend and former colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts, a publisher, editor and poet, a major force, diffident and yet such a presence. In this new poem, he pens what he calls “among other things, some sort of response to and loving argument with a favorite poem, Coleridge’s “Frost At Midnight.” The Coleridge poem situates itself as an address to the poet’s son, sleeping in his cradle. It’s night; it’s cold. Frost outside. Everyone is asleep except the poet. The world is so still the stillness seems to flutter with presence that disturbs meditation, the presence of the Stranger, which is a kind of Coleridgean encapsulation of a neo-Platonic deity behind or beneath the phenomena of existence. The poet bemoans his own childhood (much to complain of there) cooped up in the city grime and tells his son he’s lucky; he’ll grow up in sight of “…lakes and shores / And mountain crags…” that are the “eternal language” of God.

Olsen’s poem plays with Coleridge’s poem starting with a brilliantly suspended first sentence that takes seven stanzas to come to an end as the poet takes us deeper and deeper beneath the surface of things, past regret and mother’s tears and “funereal vacuities” (more than a hint of humor here) to something that, in the end, is not Coleridge’s Stranger nor his God, rather something the poet cannot name or even choose to name. Note the line “wherever it is leaves must fall” and its echo farther down “The leaf falls to earth…”

The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.

And the word “teach” here echoes the Coleridge poem that also is about teaching: God “Great universal Teacher!” But Olsen is much less credulous or sanguine than Coleridge. He cannot say why things are nor who speaks through the delicate traceries of frost and the decomposing leaves that teach.


Far down below black, lowest regret,
deeper than death, and deeper yet,
down where my mother weeps to me
to leave tomorrow’s sorrows be,

far below sadness and tenderness,
where more is less and less is less,
below the sky or the sky-blue lake
brimming over like the hull of a shipwreck,

below where the crows crow and the cows sleep,
below the bluestem and the apples the cows crap,
below the prettiest sunset,
below even the bluest white-

bright-last-sunlight upon even bluer waves
gleaming their overly-precious granite graves,
below funereal vacuities,
extravagant superfluities,

far below the lovers’ quarrels,
or their story’s broody morals,
in its own good timely time, time has gone back home.
Time and time again, homeless time—

all the time in the world, homeless,
homeless space of universe,
all the time that time might pass
inside a shiny timeless hearse——

far down below idling hopes,
below the learned astronomer’s telescopes,
wherever it is leaves must fall
is neither my life nor my choice to call.


Upon a few gnarled stunted vines
fall’s first frost fairly shines,
mist rising up from fields while new minted frost
mummifies a shingle-sided house.

Here is a glittery homelessness
better acquainted with earth than with us.
All we are is less substantial,
all our fears, less substantial.

Dawn is ready and the heart is able.
Fear could not be less substantial.
I’ve had it with odes to dejection,
which is never more than the fear of rejection.


Here’s what frost isn’t—insubstantial,
querulous, of itself too full,
a mood of ferried buried
waves and the threadbare eroded

dunes we sightseers climb up and down to ruin.
Torment never spread itself this thin.
Incandescent, heartless, so like tin—
gull-gray gulls shriek atonal tunes.

The light of frost is the understudy of day,
this lake, once, as hard as rock:
icebergs—like ships, they broke
to floes which, farther down on their luck

drowned, to nothing—invisibly.
This frost is anything but free.
It looks like the moonlight got good and lost.
It got busted, sprung, and lost.

Frost has a cryological conscience:
the afterworld is cold chance.
Lunatical . . . white as a grin.
It shines unapproachably, like sunlight shines on tin,

whitening fields between cars and houses.
Plow-slashed furrows freeze
over smooth to its silver sky.
Forgive this intricate analysis

but it looks so stunned and incredulous.
It is spotty, like a roof of a vacant crystal palace,
Instantaneously tenuous,
it scribes the window glass.


It is so distinct from rain.
It shuns asphalt as too human.
The lustrous is
incipient in us.

Its deposition of glory
is inexplicably ordinary.
What a tenacious
underside of heaven it is—

it won’t be pushed around or salted or plowed like snow.
It won’t be tracked on and no weatherman will see it lift.
It is profligate thrift.
Its past is vaporous.

Beauty never spread itself so thin—
incandescent, the heartless night
turned inside out—
pasture field light.


The great lovers once frantic to touch
in darkness no dawn or frost can reach—
my mother gone in the blink of an eye,
my father going by and by,

all mothers, all sisters, all fathers, all sons,
all brothers and keepers, everyone’s
truest, best, lost influences,
nameless lovingkindnesses. . . .

it is all and none of this.


It seems irretrievably early.
Time is awake, only barely,
infinitesimal hates,
infinitesimal fights.

Tight, fibrous and delicate,
around the fine white plow bared roots,
its extremely minute white
threads appeared overnight.

It prompts us and then reproves us.
Its intricate paralysis
crystallizes . . . miraculous.
Preposterous.  Analogous.


The leaf falls to earth and keeps
falling and cups the frost,
then decomposes beyond the deeps,
to teach us how to be lost.


So night may be said to be over,
over, and over at no real cost,
each dawn the stars take cover.
Stop fretting about the frost.

Frost clung to the shadow places
and as always already was there
before anyone could take a step.
In the sky, stars stayed on

while you were asleep.


While you were asleep
everyone was asleep;
if we sleep, if we die,
stars hang in the sky.

Between our houses
is its heartlessness,
but whatever grass
is, the frost blesses

whoever sees this,
whoever would mean
that frost be seen
not heard in this:

now fields steam and
its steam mists to sky.
Under us is only sand
and who can say why,

or whose voice this is.

—William Olsen

William Olsen is author of five collections of poetry, including Sand Theory (Northwestern, 2011). He has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the NEA and Breadloaf.  He is co-editor of Planet on the Table: Writers on the Reading Life (Sarabande) and, most recently, Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry (New Issues). He teaches in the MFA and Ph.D program at Western Michigan University and edits New Issues Press. His home is in Kalamazoo.
Nov 062013

Jordan Smith 1

John Clare was a farm worker’s son, a contemporary of Keats, and, sometimes, a madman who thought he was Shakespeare and Byron. “I’m John Clare now,” he wrote. In one of his most famous poems, “I Am,” he penned the lines:

I am: yet what I am none cares or knows,
My friends forsake me like a memory lost;
I am the self-consumer of my woes,
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shades in love and death’s oblivion lost;
And yet I am! and live with shadows tost

In the July issue we published Jeanette Lynes’ wonderful selection “From School of Flowers: The John Clare Poems.” Jordan Smith read those poems and almost immediately sent me some of his John Clare poems, written long before but aching to be part of the conversation. This delights me because I do have the persistent idea that NC is a community, a group of readers and writers talking to each other, not just numbly glancing and racing to the SUBMIT page. NC writers inspire each other and are inspired by the same things. I also really enjoy seeing two poets dealing with the same material (more or less), a practice that throws their styles and personalities into a bold relief. Read Jeanette’s poems and Jordan’s poems side by side and you will read them both better, find their individual felicities in difference.

When he sent me his poems, Jordan wrote: “I read the set of John Clare poems right away, with the complicated pleasure that the warps and threads and vines and dead ends of Clare’s life and work offer. I’ve thought about him a lot in the last several years, and spent a good part of a sabbatical in 2010-11 writing a book-length sequence about him. Jeannette Lynes’s poems are quite different than what I was up to, but I can see we were caught in the same gravity of that sweet, sad, class struggle of a life.”


John Clare via WikipediaJohn Clare

John Clare, His Early Poems

He wrote on scraps of paper his mother craved
For her own purposes, tedious, domestic,
Practical. He hid his drafts away;
Practice in penmanship or arithmetic,
He’d lie straight-faced if any such were found.
He spoke one once. He claimed it.  The room went round

With laughter. Later, he found a stratagem
That suited his desire be heard
Unmocked. He’d read his poems and say he’d found them
In an almanac. Then they thought them fine,
Though as he grew more deft, more sure in verse,
He found he liked best those that they thought worst.

And yet they cared and prayed. His mother talked
Of service, her highest hope for him, in livery
To a lord. He nodded as a horse will, balked
and bridled, pawed and stood his ground, quivered,
Feigned stupidity. Feckless and disheveled
He wrote to tell the truth and shame the devil.


Clare Absconditus

Under an ivied oak in Oxey Wood
He twisted young vines into a bower
And hid there and found it good,
Cramped, and private. So the hours
Flee in idleness and rhyme.
Both shamed him, He knew that time

Loves the industrious and labor’s
The first cause of God and his first
Rebuke. Play Adam’s sin with tabors,
Pipe Eve’s as well; no sin is worst.
And yet see what has come of it:
Fields, towns, the unfit ruled by the fit.

He knows all this. He hates it. Briars
Are better friends to man, and God
Is not our friend when not a liar,
Governing with a wink and a nod.
The men who felled the tree thought witches
Hid there. Good guess, you sons of bitches.


John Clare at School with the Gypsies

Were it not for dread of winter cold,
He might have gone with them, whose talk
Was horses, lasses, dogs, who were less bold
Than rumor claimed and cannier, who balked
When questioned closely about God, or why
Their men had a crooked finger (sly,

They broke them to avoid the king’s levy
Of soldiers that would not claim a crippled man).
Their thefts were petty, their arts were mummery–
Beguiling, fortune telling. They could mend pans,
But not their slandered, squalid reputations.
One reverend judge suggested extirpation,

Hardly needed once the groves were cut,
The fields fenced, paths gated, commons turned
To private profit. They dwindle now like June
Flowers in a storm or ash trees burned to ash.
He should have gone too. His sadness was a riddle
They might have answered. They taught him how to fiddle.


Thoreau’s Flute, Clare’s Fiddle

Thoreau’s flute was made in Albany
By Firth & Pond, given by his father
With a family book of tunes; an Irishman’s
Shanty supplied Walden’s planks, his mother
His laundry. Don’t scoff. He knew what he was about.
Pure New England. Make do, or do without,

As writers do, though making do means taking
Some small advantage of another’s work
To do your own, and better that than waking
To make pencils, teach a day school, fork
Manure, survey a lot, herd the cattle, bend
And scrape to scrape by, and defend

A little leisure anyway you might.
Take up your flute, your fiddle, and you’ll find
No one asks you why, no one slights
A good tune. Even the halt and blind
Harper might find a place at the lord’s right
Hand, the cramped, closed hand, the one that writes.


Clare’s Library

Included Thompson’s Seasons, Ward’s Mathematics,
Fisher’s Young Man’s Companion, Robin Hood’s
Garland, pamphlets and sermons, Joe Miller’s antic
Jests cheek by jowl with Death of Abel, the good
And bad alike brought home at no small cost.
A Shatterd Copy of Milton’s Paradise lost…”

His mother gave him a small locked wooden chest
To save his coins for clothes in. Leave off writing,
Buy no more books, she said, meaning the best.
He knew she did. He had no thought of quitting.
He rhymed in secret, furious, a kind of theft,
Locking the drafts away inside her gift.

What else could Milton teach him? Mankind plunges
Into labor, an angel guards the garden.
We study to get back, nothing expunges
Our desire to know. We scribble in the margins
Of any texts. n.b, q.v, inter alia,
Ad infinitum, our gloss, our glossolalia,


But Everywhere He Is In Chains

The ego is a chain. The chain
Connects the trap and stake. The stake
Is class, an accident maintained
By some as virtue; the trap’s the stake
By other means, sharpened teeth, weight
Of bite, sprung jaws. The ego’s bait–

How’s that, you say, stake, trap, and bait?
Imagine you stood by the road.
A distant horse. Dust. You think your fate’s
A calloused palm’s line. Hoofbeats. Goaded
(he’s used his whip) you start to sing
An old ballad, made new each spring.

A gypsy lures the lord’s wife out;
She forgets herself in the song he sang,
Rolls in his arms. (She’s in yours now,
Joyous.) They’re caught. The gypsy hangs.
He canters up. You doff your hat.
Good song, lad.
……………………….M’lord. (I’ll rewrite that.)


Genesis, Reconsidered in Light of the Enclosure Acts

The Great Rift, where all time began
In endings, scavengings, some ape
With thought, thought’s ape, leading his clan
Through thought’s default, jaws’ agape,
And wonder at, yes, flower, flock,
And pelt, as earth, unseemly, quaked

And humped, plate sliding under plate.
It strikes Clare that the world can be
So lovely only when unconstrained,
That God’s hand in the willow’s leaves
Must wither when enclosure comes,
His voice among the reeds go dumb.

That Pan should die, and panic not
Seems mystery enough.  The grip
Of property’s another, and the lot
Of all the wretched, pox and grippe,
And scarcest of all, happiness,
That sweet disorder, undone, blessed.


The Poverty of the Imagination

Is nothing to it. The poverty of spirit’s
Mere fiction, noble or otherwise
Ill-intended; the poverty inherent
In inheritance (the will’s demise)
Is but circumstance; the poverty
Of scholarship’s self-fashioned penury–

Compared, I mean with this morning’s mourning-
Grey sky, a hospital hallway, windowless
Whose inmates mutter, scoff, and scorning
Reason as the king’s gang scorns the impressed
Sailor. Let’s join them in that suite
Of endless rooms, that hell whose only heat’s

The mind’s fevers, flaring like the sun ,
And each room similar as snowflakes,
But maddeningly, meltingly its own
Design. Left to these, how they ache;
And hunger’s nothing to it,nor an ear,
Throbbing, bursting with what it alone can hear.


Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver 1904

Pull it, you son of a bitch, pull it…”
Big Bill, bulky, blind in one eye,
Down at the Denver depot, decked
Capt. Williams, faced down the carbines,
You damn bastards, was hauled by the neck,
Pistol whipped in the hall of the Oxford Hotel—
As Marlowe said, we all know hell:

It is the baiting of such fierce nobilities,
Clare’s badger harried from his sett
For dogs to worry; it is equality
Redrawn as suffering and the yet
Undisproven axiom that the rich
Deserve their riches. Son of a bitch.

They used a cuspidor to catch
His blood (they get a forked stick
To bear him down) after they pitched
Him headlong down the stairs (till kicked
And torn and beaten there he lies).
He did his best. He didn’t die.


An Economy of Poetry
………………..-– for Hunter Brown

Poetry is necessary
Only to those who find it so,
That is to say, unnecessary
To whatever makes the world go:
A mill’s shuttle, the back and forth
Of industry walking over the earth,

Each step a thread, the weft, the cross-
Hatched fence through the warp of property,
A world ill-divided, lost,
As Adam Smith said labor must be
In details, infinite, repeated,
Efficient, skilled, or not, depleted.

Imagine a poet and the few
And fit readers in a public house
A small fire, small beer, the news
Is war, ventures; the talk is loose
As capital, but talk is cheaper.
And poetry cuts its losses deeper.


Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s

So we must imagine Orwell lying in his sanatorium bed,
                gaunt and wretched, going through his notebook…wondering….
                which of the 135 names to pass on to Celia.
……………………………………………………………………………— Timothy Garton Ash

A notebook full of unnoted treasons
Of the cloaked and waspish enemies
Of language, which is to say, of freedom;
Nettles; among the anemones,
A serpent’s sibilants. So he names
Names. Wouldn’t you do the same:

The carpers, the false friends who claimed
He did not write his verses, wastrel
Publishers and  patrons and the damned
Mutability of public taste,
Those who’d write in fealty
To tyranny, authority.

He is no saint, and they would try
A saint’s patience, much less a wrecked,
Sick man who, before he dies
Would like to think words have effects,
Even his, and so he hands his muse
These private notes, for her public use.


These poems are a fantasia on the life and work of John Clare, and make no claim to accuracy. For whatever fidelity to the facts they possess, the author is indebted to Jonathan Bates’ John Clare: a Biography and to David Powell and Eric Robertson, the editors of the remarkable John Clare – By Himself. The epigraph to “Clare Finds a Watch Upon the Heath” is from William Paley’s Natural Theology. J. Anthony Lukas’s Big Trouble provided the epigraph to “Clare’s Badger and the Arrest of Big Bill Haywood, Denver, 1904.” Background information and the epigraph to “Clare’s List, Like Orwell’s” are from Timothy Garton Ash’s essay, “Orwell’s List,” in Facts Are Subversive.

—Jordan Smith


Jordan Smith’s sixth full-length collection, The Light in the Film, recently appeared from the University of Tampa Press. His story, “A Morning,” is in  Big Fiction # 2, and Clare’s Empire, his book-length sequence of poems after the life and work of John Clare will be published in a digital edition by The Hydroelectric Press. He lives in eastern New York and teaches at Union College.

Oct 142013

Ralph Angel

Ralph Angel’s lectures are theater pieces; he enacts meaning; he breathes presence; he speaks with quiet reverence and passion of great artists. He is my colleague at Vermont College of Fine Arts (along with Mary Ruefle, who has the same theatricality, reverence and passion but in a different key — it’s rare air that we breathe in Montpelier); so I watched him give this lecture; he starts by pulling your brain inside out like a sock (reading the Reverdy poem backward and forward); then he teaches a lesson about craft and art, not just by telling (Ralph is so NOT into telling) but by a series of images, Mark Rothko paintings that illustrate the true artist’s journey from craft to clarity and essence.

Watch for Ralph Angel’s new book of poems Your Moon, coming out next year with New Issues Press.




A long time ago a short poem by Pierre Reverdy changed my life forever. Its title is “Departure,” as translated by Michael Benedikt.

The horizon lowers
SPACESPACEThe days lengthen
SPACEA heart hops in a cage
SPACESPACEA bird sings
SPACESPACEAt the edge of death
Another door is about to open
SPACEAt the far end of the corridor
A dark lady
SPACELantern on a departing train

And for whatever reason, a long time ago—maybe because it retained its mystery each time I read it, maybe because each time it took me to some unnamable and wholly present, wholly immediate place—for whatever reason, I read this poem backwards, from last line to first line.

SPACELantern on a departing train
A dark lady
SPACEAt the far end of the corridor
Another door is about to open
SPACESPACEAt the edge of death
SPACESPACEA bird sings
SPACEA heart hops in a cage
SPACESPACEThe days lengthen
The horizon lowers

And voilà! This short poem, read from last line to first line, or from top to bottom, so validates the mind’s capacity!

I understand things in my mind—I understand things in my heart. There are times when I understand things in my knees.

Meaning involves the mind. The brain is a receptor. It’s like a dream machine. It receives impulses and it receives image upon image upon image upon image, but the mind craves meaning. The mind is assembling stuff all the time. It’s what makes the human species pretty interesting. We crave meaning by our very nature and by the size of our brains. If you think about language, it can be understood, it seems to me. You have twenty-six abstract symbols that mean absolutely nothing. And yet, in any arrangement, arbitrary or contrived, any arrangement whatsoever, we are orchestrating meaning. Those symbols, as they interact with one another, generate something greater than themselves. So it’s kind of like the brain itself. Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, and yet the mechanism is constantly, without our having a whole lot of say in the matter, making meaning out of what we receive.

The mind craves language, and Reverdy trusted that. Reverdy trusted language, and, therefore, a long time ago, trusted me, an embryo yet to be and waiting for a taxi.


The Metamorphosis

In the first sentence of Franz Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis,” “Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams….” And he can’t get up—he’s on his back!—and he’s late for work. Sound familiar? He hates his job. He loathes his boss. It’s a tedious, boring, undervalued job, but his father’s retired, and he’s the only son. His sister is a prodigy, and she’s young; she has a future ahead of her as a concert violinist. But Gregor’s arms and legs don’t work. He can’t turn himself over. The door is locked. His mother and sister and father and the char woman are outside the door. And then his boss arrives, and they are all exhorting him to get out of bed. But he can’t communicate with them in a way that they can understand. He just sort of squeaks.

Now Gregor lives with his family in a five-room flat, and his room is at the center, right at the center of the family. And, yes, he eventually tumbles from his bed—because he has will power and guilt and anger, and because he doesn’t know anything different—and he even gets a tiny hand to the key. But what’s on his mind? “…they should all have shouted encouragement to him, his father and mother too. ‘Go on, Gregor,’ they should have called out, ‘keep going, hold on to that key!’”

Not one time in this story does it ever occur to Gregor Samsa that he is a bug! And why should it? How may times have I awoken and not wanted to get out of bed? Or resented having to make money, or envied the sanity and good fortune of others, or hoped someday soon to murder my landlord? On any given morning I wear my skeleton on the outside because I am an insect at the center of the family and maybe could use some applause and a little more encouragement for once in my life! On any given day, friends, I am a bug. How else could I communicate with you? How else might you recognize me?

Gregor Samsa does not awaken one morning feeling like an insect. He is an insect. As time goes by he abandons cleanliness and stops sleeping. He loses all interest in food. “I’m hungry enough, but not for that kind of food.” He is the size of an insect now and does what insects do—skittering this way and that, climbing on things, collecting dust on his tiny legs, and leaving a weird sticky substance everywhere he goes.

Kafka’s title, “The Metamorphosis,” is a bit of a ruse. Gregor Samsa does not become a bug in this story. He is simply, from beginning to end, in spite of himself, who he is.


Poppies In October

Even the sun-clouds this morning cannot manage such skirts.
Nor the woman in the ambulance
Whose red heart blooms through her coat so astoundingly—

A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for
By a sky

Palely and flamily
Igniting its carbon monoxides, by eyes
Dulled to a halt under bowlers.

Oh my God, what am I
That these late mouths should cry open
In a forest of frost, in a dawn of cornflowers.

In the last months of her life, Sylvia Plath, one of the supreme craftsmen of the last 75 years of American poetry, did not suddenly make transcendent poems by perfecting her craft. No poet or writer or artist or musician ever perfects his or her craft. The poet, for example, has only two tools with which to work: the language in which one composes, and the fact of one’s reality—and each is in flux. Just as one’s orientation to language evolves and changes over time, so too does one’s life.

Every poem is a revelation. Instead of perfecting her craft Sylvia Plath became, without much say in the matter, precisely who she was. She could not help but look outside of herself, at anything at all—in this case, at a bed of poppies in autumn—without discovering herself!

Like Reverdy who, at his purest, jettisoned the story of his reality for the fact of his reality. Poems comprised of essential language only—simple catalogues of details and images without exposition or explanation, without connectives, referents or transitions.

Language is powerful stuff. And essential language does the work. Inexplicable experience can never be explained, but it can be said.

Impulse upon impulse upon impulse, when we were born our brain weighed about three pounds, and our body was a mere appendage of it. Metaphor upon metaphor upon metaphor, isolating out metaphor is a futile task. Everything is simply what it is. Situations are not similar to something else. Situations exist within themselves, as tone, as mood, as state of being. Just ask Gregor Samsa!

Sylvia Plath and Pierre Reverdy and Franz Kafka were great artists in part because they did not endeavor to explain reality. Rather, they were attentive to reality, which is the job of the artist, and each found a language to depict it. They were not tricked by the idea of perfecting one’s craft in order to make great art possible. Rather, they aspired to more than that. To immediacy and absolute presence.

To become themselves, they learned how to get out of the way.




Like all the great American abstract expressionists, Mark Rothko began painting with marvelous technique and craftsmanship.


But for years his paintings resembled closely the early paintings of many of his contemporaries,



like early Gorky, for example, or early de Kooning or Pollock.


But as he progressed in his work and began to make utterly unique, transcendent paintings


he learned to get out of the way, to become indivisible with his tools,


and to trust that, without referents or points of departure,


they could spin a viewer into his or her own ineffable interiority.


That they could make presence possible.SPACE


“The progression of a painter’s work,” wrote Rothko, “as it travels in time from point to point, will be toward clarity: toward the elimination of all obstacles between the painter and the observer….


As examples of such obstacles, I give memory, history, or geometry, which are swamps of generalizations from which one might pull out parades of ideas (which are ghosts) but never the idea itself.”

Poems, stories, paintings—art objects are like mirrors. No matter what we think we’re up to when we make them, they reflect precisely who we are at the time.

But it’s our job to be there. Attentively.

But we don’t always want to. To be there, I mean. I mean we all want to be liked, and we all want to spin things in a way that will make us look interesting and important and likable and smart.

It’s why not everyone is an artist.

“It takes ten years to master the art of basket weaving,” said the Master. And that’s just the first sentence of this story!

— Ralph Angel


Ralph Angel is the author of five books of poetryYour Moon (2013 Green Rose Poetry Prize, New Issues Press, forthcoming); Exceptions and Melancholies: Poems 1986-2006 (2007 PEN USA Poetry Award); Twice Removed; Neither World (James Laughlin Award of The Academy of American Poets); and Anxious Latitudes; as well as a translation of the Federico García Lorca collection, Poema del cante jondo / Poem of the Deep Song.

His poems have appeared in scores of magazines and anthologies, both here and abroad, and recent literary awards include a gift from the Elgin Cox Trust, a Pushcart Prize, a Gertrude Stein Award, the Willis Barnstone Poetry Translation Prize, a Fulbright Foundation fellowship and the Bess Hokin Award of the Modern Poetry Association.

Angel is Edith R. White Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Redlands, and a member of the MFA Program in Writing faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Seattle, he lives in Los Angeles.

Oct 132013

descriptionThis photo was taken in the 1980s with my grandmother and her grandchildren. I’m the tallest one. —BK

Bunkong TuonPhoto by Carol McCord

Bunkong Tuon’s grandmother carried him out of Cambodia on jungle trails on her back. In California, he was a lost kid, a dropout working in a donut shop, too bereft to find a footing in the West. One day he pulled a book off a library shelf and it changed him. The book and the author became this fatherless exiled orphan’s new father. You can read about this in his wonderful essay “On Fathers, Losses, and Other Influences,” published on NC  in February.

This time we have a handful of BK’s poems about his grandmother. They will break your heart.

They will break your heart, not through design but because BK knows how to pare his poems down to their emotional core; he knows how to get out of his own way. Like his poetic father, Charles Bukowski, he is a master of sentiment without being sentimental. BK writes: “My tongue has been cut / to fit the meter of another world,” which is a nod to his refugee roots, his loss of his native Khmer language. But here it is almost a conceit, for his heart speaks English all the same, and his poems are a remarkable testament to the power of one woman’s love and determination and the author’s own redeeming spirit.

All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.


My collection of poems, Under the Tamarind Tree, is a story of leaving Cambodia, living in refugee camps, and growing up in the United States, exploring both the history and culture of Cambodia and the early experience of a refugee in America. I write about Cambodia’s rice paddies, water buffaloes, early memories of my mother and father, life in the refugee camp on Thailand-Cambodia border; I also write about growing up as a refugee in Revere and Malden, MA, in the early 80s, collecting bottles and cans, getting into fights after school, feeling culturally alienated, discovering the work of Charles Bukowski in a Long Beach public library, teaching at a small liberal arts college in the East Coast; in short, the emergence of a hyphenated Khmer-American identity.



Dead Tongue

We are each other’s
springboard to another world.

I search for mother in you,
and you see your daughter in me.

I never knew how to thank you.
The words don’t sound right.

My tongue has been cut
to fit the meter of another world.

The words bounce off walls,
deflated, a dead poem.



We were talking about survival
when my uncle told me this.
“When you were young,
we had nothing to eat.
Your grandmother saved for you
the thickest part of her rice gruel.
Tasting that cloudy mixture
of salt, water, and grain, you cried out,
‘This is better than beef curry.’”

All my life I told myself I never knew
suffering under the regime, only love.
This is still true.


Calling Home

My cousin left me this message:
“Grandmother fell in the bathroom
and hit her head against the sink.
There’s a small gash over her right eye.”

I call home, and my uncle answers.
“No need to worry.  You can’t talk to her.
She’s sleeping now.  How’s work?
When will you be up for that review?”


 Pic for Grandma poems 2This picture (of grandmother and me) was taken in 2004 at Wat Phnom, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


Breakfast with Grandmother

Her maroon beanie, a Christmas gift
from one of her grandchildren,
rests snugly on her shaved head,
a stained bib around her neck.
The pills, crushed in a spoon,
sprinkle the murky gruel.
The water must be heated
to the right temperature, somewhere
between hot and not warm enough.
She cries each time one of us leaves
and is surprised when we return.

I sit at the table trying
not to stare at the cut near her temple,
watching her eat her breakfast,
to let her know that I am here
for her
when suddenly she screams in pain.

Afterward, she sobs quietly,
starring into the gruel
of Jasmine rice, chicken broth,
and now, tear and mucus.


Dining in Chinatown

My twenty-eight year-old cousin says,
before putting a piece of sesame beef into his mouth,
“She can’t be lonely.  She has everyone by her side,
her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.”
He pours chili oil over black and pepper squid,
and continues, “Whatever she needs, we get for her.
Food, medicine.  She has Elder Uncle who sleeps
in her room to make sure all her needs are met.
Unlike some of her friends whose children
are all over the States, she’s lucky to have us around.”

I watch, fascinated by his ability to take in all that food.
Maybe he’s making up for all that lost time
in the refugee camp.  “And that damaged nerve of hers,
her pain stops whenever you’re around.  It’s psychosomatic,
or something like that.  I don’t know.  You’re the Ph.D.”



On the couch she watches
her great-grandchildren chase
each other down the hallway.

Commanded by the eldest,
they are Power Rangers battling
some evil robot.

A smile flickers.
Memory lit, before it disappears
into darkness again.


Early October, My Cousin’s Four-Year-Old Daughter’s Birthday

Our house booms with noise—four generations under one roof. My grandmother, uncles and aunts, me and my cousins, and their children. Grilled chicken, steak, fried rice; hot dogs, hamburgers, potato salad. Soda pop and beer. The kids are chasing each other in the hallway that connects the living room to the kitchen. I sit with the adults around the dining room table. Grandmother is having her lunch of finely crushed rice powdered with her daily medicine.

—She’s fine.  The doctor says she needs to exercise.

—I try to get her to move around. She walks a couple times between here and the living room, then sits on the couch, and seconds later, she’ll be snoring.

—She sleeps too much during the day. At night, she keeps all of us up with her night talks, about her husband,  her young brother, our missing brother, and your mother.

—I get goose bumps sometimes, listening to her talk like that.

—Doesn’t she want to go to the temple anymore? She has friends there and the monks really like her. Didn’t they come to bless her in August?

—Her friends are old, too. Grandma Jeat passed away last month from cancer. She was sixty three. Grandma is eighty-four.

—She needs to get out of the house and be with people her own age. I see her sitting by herself in the living room watching the kids run amok and yelling at them to speak Khmer.

—She’s out of breath just walking from here to the bathroom. Besides, it’s getting cold outside. She can’t handle the weather that well now.

—When is her next doctor’s visit?  I’d like to go with you, Uncle.

Staring at each of our faces,
Grandmother speaks in clear, measured Khmer:
“Why is everyone speaking English?
You think I don’t know that you’re talking about me?
‘Doctor.’ ‘Hospital.’  ‘Yiey Jeat.’
I’m no dummy. ”


A Lesson

I tell myself.
There must be a lesson
in old age.
As the body withers,
truth appears.
It’s wishful thinking,
but it’s good
to think of hope
and renewal
in something beyond
our control.

But, seriously,
how long can we
ask this
of our elders?
How long can we
ask this
of ourselves?


Thanksgiving Farewell

Grandma is holding my wife’s hand:

Take care of each other.
He doesn’t have any parents.
I’ve taken care of him
since his mother passed
away under Pol Pot.

Grandma sobs and turns to me:
Tell her. Speak for me.

She places my hand on top of my wife’s:
You. He. Take care.

Seeing our stunned faces, she repeats.
You. He. Take care. OK?

I give her a hug and say in Khmer:

There’s no need to cry, Lok-Yiey.
We’ll be back around Christmas.


Breathing In

Waiting for the broth to boil,
so that I can drop in the noodles

That Grandma used to make,

I imagine that phone call
from home,

The kind you see in the movies,
where a couple is awakened,

Two in the morning,
fumbling in a darkness

That will never leave.

I breathe in
to become part of you.

 —Bunkong Tuon


Bunkong Tuon teaches in the English Department at Union College, in Schenectady, NY. He completed a book of poems, “Under the Tamarind Tree.” These Grandmother poems are from this collection. Inspired by the reception of his essay “On Fathers, Losses, and other Influences,” he is currently working on a book of essays on family, memory, and home.