Before I get started, I have a few things to mention – the first being that a poem of mine will be published in the Lost in Track Changes book put together by the wonderful folk over at If:Book Australia. I wrote about their project here, and I’m happy to say one of my poetic remixes is going to be included in their print edition. I also write comedic articles for SBS Comedy, which I don’t talk about often here, but the latest piece I have up is about Halloween, and specifically, the hilariously awesome folklore behind the jack-o-lantern: check it out!
With that out of the way, let’s talk poetry! This week, as I’m sure many of you are aware, American poet Galway Kinnell passed away. I follow a great deal of poets and poetry journals and organisations on Twitter, so for a while, his passing was inescapable for me. Sadly, I had not read any of his work, so I figured it was more than time for me to start. There’s a fair amount of it to be found online, and of those I’ve read, I keep returning to this small, simple poem titled After Making Love We Hear Footsteps.
It’s markedly different from the others I’ve found, like Another Night in the Ruins or The Bear or Flower Herding On Mount Monadnock, which exquisitely build poems into the landscape and are so very much concerned with place, with being and now. There is an unabashed lyricism in his detailing of nature, as in from Another Night:
Wind tears itself hollowin the eaves of these ruins, ghost-fluteof snowdriftsthat build out there in the dark:upside-down ravinesinto which night sweepsour cast wings, our ink-spattered feathers.
Or in Flower Herding:
There is something joyous in the elegiesOf birds. They seemCaught up in a formal delight,Though the mourning dove whistles of despair.
Though I haven’t read his other work, I imagine this gorgeous intersection of self/nature/poetry continues throughout his bibliography. Perhaps that’s why this poem in particular stands out to me: it’s so small in scope, so intimate a portrait, a moment of adulthood, of parenthood so perfectly sketched it caught my breath. I’ve read it numerous times now, and always the second stanza brings the poem to a full and satisfying conclusion, brings out the beauty in what could all too easily have been nothing more than an awkward situation. Here it is, After Making Love We Hear Footsteps:For I can snore like a bullhornor play loud musicor sit up talking with any reasonably sober Irishmanand Fergus will only sink deeperinto his dreamless sleep, which goes by all in one flash,but let there be that heavy breathingor a stifled come-cry anywhere in the houseand he will wrench himself awakeand make for it on the run—as now, we lie together,after making love, quiet, touching along the length of our bodies,familiar touch of the long-married,and he appears—in his baseball pajamas, it happens,the neck opening so small he has to screw them on—and flops down between us and hugs us and snuggles himself to sleep,his face gleaming with satisfaction at being this very child.
In the half darkness we look at each other
and touch arms across this little, startlingly muscled body—
this one whom habit of memory propels to the ground of his making,
sleeper only the mortal sounds can sing awake,
this blessing love gives again into our arms.
I should mention, you can click on through to the Poetry Foundation to hear an audio recording of the poem, too. Maybe it’s the incredible sap in me, I don’t know, but I just adore those last four lines.
They’re beautiful, don’t you think?
Okay, so it’s clearly Friday, and this is late, but in fairness, this has been a completely crazy week for me. I took a bus from New York to Toronto, a near 11-hour trip of static nothingness but which at least featured some gorgeous scenery: so many trees, some still in full autumnal dress, others nude, crooked limbs scratching at the sky. We drove past cliffs and lakes and factories, across bridges, intersections, and through empty towns.
It was beautiful.
Now, three days after I took said trip, and after many shenanigans, I’m in Boston. Currently, I’m loitering in the library at Boston University, pretending I’m a student, while my friend, who is an actual student, goes to class, so I finally have time to share a poem. I actually only read it twenty minutes ago, with its eye-catching title in the side-bar of ‘related poems’ to the one I was reading at the time. I am talking about The Poem that Took the Place of a Mountain, by Wallace Stevens, so without further ado:
There it was, word for word,
The poem that took the place of a mountain.
He breathed its oxygen,
Even when the book lay turned in the dust of his table.
It reminded him how he had needed
A place to go to in his own direction,
How he had recomposed the pines,
Shifted the rocks and picked his way among clouds,
For the outlook that would be right,
Where he would be complete in an unexplained completion:
The exact rock where his inexactnesses
Would discover, at last, the view toward which they had edged,
Where he could lie and, gazing down at the sea,
Recognize his unique and solitary home.
This is a beautiful, simple poem that brilliantly evokes the nature of poetry itself. That is, that a poem reshapes your world. That it has its own interiority, that in writing it, you are carving out a space within yourself, a world for it to inhabit. Worlds within worlds within worlds, it is the most magnificent of matryoshka dolls. Here, Stevens is discussing the building of said world, climbing it to ‘pick his way among clouds’, and how once there at the summit, new meaning dawns in his life and we get that lovely melancholy last line, where he gazes down at the sea in full and final recognition of the loneliness at the heart of this solitary pursuit of art.
On Sunday, I was lucky enough to snag a last minute ticket to the New Yorker Festival event, ‘Poets Read Their Work’, featuring Michael Dickman, Jorie Graham, Terrance Hayes, Philip Levine and Tracy K. Smith. I was there for Smith, whose work in Life on Mars I have previously raved about. It’s transcendent. And yet, possibly because of the heights of my expectation, I ended up being blown away more by the other poets.
I had heard of Terrance Hayes, and read one or two of his poems, but the others were a mystery. More’s the shame. I can’t wait to buy their books. Well, I can’t wait until I have the money to buy their books, especially Levine’s, because he was a revelation. A small old man with a wiry moustache, and silver hair flecked with black, he read third. I remember wondering what he’d sound like; his hands were trembling, and he didn’t get up and stand at the podium like the others had. Said he was afraid he’d pitch over into the second row.
Given this, I thought his voice might be soft, that I might have to strain to hear him, but I was wrong; his voice was strong, with a rasp and gravel to it that is wonderful to listen to and which also adds a layer of authenticity to the often workaday subject matter of his poems. At least, of the ones I’ve read since then, and of those I heard him deliver. I don’t mean to say his poetry is ordinary; it isn’t. You can read one which is simplicity itself, elevated to great heights with his succinct lines, his understated musicality, and you can read one rough as rocks, rough as hell, rough as Detroit which hits you square in the gut – in the feels, as my generation would likely say.
I had planned to share Terrance Hayes poem ‘Lighthead’s Guide to the Galaxy’, which is utterly gorgeous and absolutely worthwhile reading, until I came across the poem ‘What Work Is’ when I was binge-reading all I could about Mr. Levine, and found myself nearly in tears by the end. Holding them back, just barely. Don’t take that as a slight. Nearly in tears. Honestly, I’m always holding them back. I’m so practiced at it, that I sometimes struggle to simply cry, which is a tragedy I’d love to undo – a scar I’d love to unstitch. So, to have anything bring tears to my eyes is a beautiful thing, even if I only hold them briefly, then blink them back.
This poem made me think about my brother, and miss him so fiercely it was an actual shock to my system. Mostly because my brother is an idiot. I love him dearly. He’ll never say no to me if what I ask is within his ability to give, but somehow, the scars – there’s that word again, I am riddled with them – of childhood and adolescence still linger over our relationship. And so when I think of him, my first thought is not of love, not usually, but closer to irritation. An irritation laced with affection. Ah, he’s such a fuckhead, such a baffoon, what am I saying, but I love him anyway, and I always will. When I read this poem, I was buffeted by everything I have ever thought and felt about him, by the insane bond only brothers can have.
Such was its power, it has redrawn the lens through which I view him, and everything. I fucking love this poem for that, and Levine too. If I ever get to meet the man, I’m going to give him a hug. A big old man hug. If you’re interested in reading more about him, too, check out this fantastic interview he did with the Paris Review. But enough rambling, here, see for yourself what I’m talking about, and since it’s a short poem I’ll post it here, too.
What Work Is by Philip LevineWe stand in the rain in a long linewaiting at Ford Highland Park. For work.You know what work is—if you’reold enough to read this you know whatwork is, although you may not do it.Forget you. This is about waiting,shifting from one foot to another.Feeling the light rain falling like mistinto your hair, blurring your visionuntil you think you see your own brotherahead of you, maybe ten places.You rub your glasses with your fingers,and of course it’s someone else’s brother,narrower across the shoulders thanyours but with the same sad slouch, the grinthat does not hide the stubbornness,the sad refusal to give in torain, to the hours of wasted waiting,to the knowledge that somewhere aheada man is waiting who will say, “No,we’re not hiring today,” for anyreason he wants. You love your brother,now suddenly you can hardly standthe love flooding you for your brother,who’s not beside you or behind orahead because he’s home trying tosleep off a miserable night shiftat Cadillac so he can get upbefore noon to study his German.Works eight hours a night so he can singWagner, the opera you hate most,the worst music ever invented.How long has it been since you told himyou loved him, held his wide shoulders,opened your eyes wide and said those words,and maybe kissed his cheek? You’ve neverdone something so simple, so obvious,not because you’re too young or too dumb,not because you’re jealous or even meanor incapable of crying inthe presence of another man, no,just because you don’t know what work is.
After writing some 10,000 words since first securing a place in New York, these past few days have seen a brief stoppage to the outpour. I’ve done some editing, and typed up some poems, but otherwise have taken pause.
Moments like these, moments to recharge, are every bit as important as the days spent tirelessly at your desk, typing away, even when you’ve lost faith in what’s being written.
Given that, I think today’s poem – a spoken word piece from the always-wonderful poet Shane Koyczan – is particularly pertinent. It’s all about that signature pause, about taking that moment to reflect on what’s happening, to take stock of the challenge ahead, and to not be daunted by its size and scope.
I’ll let him do the talking, though:
Recently, while speaking to a friend, I was asked to describe New York, and how I’ve found it so far. As if I could synthesise the enormity of what I’ve experienced so far, could take this world and its endless vastness and reproduce it quickly in conversation. I can’t. Even now, even writing about it with some time and space to reflect (a reflection bound to be flawed as I’m currently still here, still enmeshed in it, body and soul), I can’t. I expect the repercussions from the explosions occurring in my chest and behind my eyes will continue to wreak changes on my internal landscape from now until the day I die; as such, I’ll never fully be able to chart the contours of this experience.
But I can show you glimmers; I can pull out shards. So, this is what I said:
New York. This fucking city. It’s magic, you know that? The best way I can think to categorise the glory of this place is that all the people I see seem like major characters. Let me explain what I mean: everywhere you go, great swathes of humanity will not register on your radar. People walk by with hunched shoulders, eyes downcast. They murmur, and shuffle to the side. Or maybe they just sit there, posture normal, faces blank. I’m talking about the forgettable ones, the extras in this thing we call life.
Not here though. Not in New York.
There is a vibrancy and diversity on display in this city and it has nothing to do with the buildings, with the famed skyline, with the great stores or comedy clubs or films – it has everything to do with the people. They just pop. They sizzle. The crowds here are a dizzying carousel of colour, and people stride about with purpose, or the kind of swagger movie stars would kill to have; to mimic, if never own. They’re always talking, shouting, laughing, engaged in a conversation not just with their friends but with everyone around them; words pour out of these people and with every one of them that I meet, I think, you’re a major character. A protagonist. Somehow, I feel like this story is about you.
And then I meet another, and another, and another. It’s endless.
So, am I writing? Am I walking around? Yes, and yes. I think I’ve walked everywhere, and yet conversely, feel like I’ve still got everywhere to go. I’ve written a short story, but that’s about all, since getting here. I’ve only had stable accommodation and writing space since Monday, so I’m okay with that, but even outside of the actual putting words down on paper, I feel like I’ve been writing every minute of every day since I landed. Just by living here, just by absorbing these experiences, meeting these people, I feel like I’m charging my body with stories. My mind and heart and soul with poetry.
That’s just a taste of what I’m thinking and feeling right now, the merest hint of flavour on the tongue. And it’s not at all satisfactory, not at all close to the full colour and range of what’s happening here. But enough about that for now — I’m sure some of you noticed the absence of a poem last week, and I’m sorry for that; I was on the verge of homelessness in this great city, and I’ve only now recently found a place, if through the strangest possible way, but that’s a story for another day.
This week, I think it’s only right to celebrate a poem about New York, and so I’ve chosen one of the more famous poems by Frank O’Hara, ‘A Step Away From Them.‘ It’s a wonderful evocation of the city, all the more so for its plain language and emphasis on the mundane, the everyday workers and ‘hum-colored’ taxi cabs, the Coca-Cola and stray cats; in short, shining a light on the things we see but don’t see, the things we are practiced at ignoring.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, and to make up for last week, here is a short, sweet little poem by Evelyn Scott, ‘Midnight Worship: Brooklyn Bridge‘, which is unabashedly lyrical. It takes a famous feature of the city and with light brushstrokes renders it holy, transfiguring the ordinary into the sacred. It is, in a word, beautiful.