Thursday Poems: Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson

Firstly, let me just briefly promote the fact my poem ‘Birds of a Feather’ is up at Meanjin, one of Australia’s oldest and best literary journals. It’s not so easy for me to read now, having written it a year ago, but I’m still proud I got it out there, and people can read it now.

Okay, with that said, let’s celebrate another – and far more accomplished poem – Combustion by Sara Eliza Johnson. This is a delicate poem layered with powerful imagery which has stuck with me over the past few weeks. I love the sudden and jagged enjambment, the subtle dance of it moving across the page, the merging of detailed scientific information with the poetry of ordinary moments – peeling an orange, spreading honey on toast. In that sense, it is not unlike Tracy K. Smith’s work in Life on Mars.

I keep returning to this passage:

 if each atom
has a shadow—then the lilacs across the yard
are nebulae beginning to star.

Isn’t that just gorgeous? This gentle exploration of the interconnectedness of everything at an atomic level is nothing short of beautiful and odd, leading to unexpected places, a meeting of image and thought that twists and turns but always manages to adhere to the rich and resonant theme, to dig deeper.

In short, I highly recommend it and as ever, urge you to check it out for yourself.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

So, I’m reading this wonderful book by Emily St John Mandel, and I come across this page. This page explains why I do what I do, why I write, why I take risks, why I have invested and will continue to invest everything I can in art. This is from pg. 165, and I just had to share it.

“But anyway, I look around sometimes and I think – this will maybe sound weird – it’s like the corporate world’s full of ghosts. And actually, let me revise that, my parents are in academia so I’ve had front row seats for that horror show, I know academia’s no different, so maybe a fairer way of putting this would be to say that adulthood’s full of ghosts.”

“I’m sorry, I’m not sure I quite –”

“I’m talking about these people who’ve ended up in one life instead of another and they are just so disappointed. Do you know what I mean? They’ve done what’s expected of them. They want to do something different but it’s impossible now, there’s a mortgage, kids, whatever, they’re trapped. Dan’s like that.”

“You don’t think he likes his job, then.”

“Correct,” she said, “but I don’t think he even realises it. You probably encounter people like him all the time. High-functioning sleepwalkers, essentially.”

I don’t ever want to sleepwalk through life. That’s what writing is for me – an effort to stay awake, to be present, to catalogue and explore and add to everything this world has to offer.

Thursday Lit: Two Movies by Danez Smith & Eykelboom by Brad Watson

Right, so first off, let’s all take a moment to celebrate the fact I’m actually on time this week. Shit, I’m positively early. Right on the heels of that (tiny) success, however, comes this failure: I couldn’t pick a poem or a short story to feature today, at least not a single one. It was a bumper week for reading and it seemed like every day I found something new to talk about, something wonderful or deep or dark or strange or all of those things.

So I’m going to mention a few of them. First up, I was stunned by Danez Smith’s poem ‘Two Movies’. It’s straight up fucking excellent, and while toward the end of it, I thought there were weaker sections — weak only in comparison to the brilliance and power of what came before — it recovers beautifully and the overall effect of it is still a resounding success. It begins like this:

PITCH FOR A MOVIE: LION KING IN THE HOOD

1. cast list

Mufasa & his absence played by every father ever

Simba played by the first boy you know who died too young

Sarabi played by the woman in church who has forgot the taste of praise
in favor of the earth that hold her boy captive

Nala played by the girl crying on the swing for her valentine who now date the dirt

Timon & Pumbaa played by Ray-Ray & Man-Man, the joy of not-dead friends

Zazu played by the ghost of James Baldwin

Rafiki played by a good uncle with a bad habit, his lust for rocks on his lips

Scar played by the world, the police, the law & its makers, the rope-colored hands

The extended riff on Disney, on the Lion King, is incredibly well handled. If you were looking to pick a film that occupies centre place in our generation’s childhood, you’d be hard pressed to find a better choice — the bright, joyously-coloured imagery of it plays out in your mind when you read the poem, only paired now with a totally different narrative, one which is too horribly real for too many people. He mines it for all its worth, and it turns out it’s worth a hell of a lot, a veritable treasure trove of cultural iconography that was merely waiting to be reclaimed; remember, this was a movie about African animals written by white people.

(Disclaimer: I love that damn movie, I’m just pointing out why it was such an effective choice for this poem.) I won’t say any more on that, though, because there’s a whole lot more to be said for the poem, which it goes on to say better than I ever could. Also, it bears mentioning that a few weeks ago I wrote a poem referencing the Lion King heavily, and after reading this one, I realised how pathetically I had done so. I may go and burn that poem now.

You should definitely go and read this much better one though, go get a taste of suffering and beauty and pain, the lived experience of too damn many. Bravo, Danez, for laying out this essential roadmap, brick by hurtful brick.

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Of the many great stories I read this week, I think Eykelboom by Brad Watson has to take the top spot. It shares the same landscape as last week’s choice, Rope by Joshua Harmon, actually; it makes a home in the darkness of children. But whereas Rope relied on mystery and, to a degree, whimsy–in so much as the girls’ lyrical wonderings always seemed to occupy a place sideways to reality, rather than directly embedded in it–Eykelboom is a more direct and brutal examination of the cruelty of boys and men.

It begins like this:

Where had they come from, the Eykelbooms? The boys suspected Indiana, Illinois. Some crude and faceless Yankee state. The Eykelbooms had emerged and emigrated from it. It was a tiny, deeply threatening invasion.

I do not mean to say this story lacked subtlety, by the by. It had that in spades, and mystery too, coming later in the musing of adults wondering about events in their childhood, if it had happened the way they recalled, or ended the way they assumed. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more accurate portrayal of boyhood–of this particular kind of boyhood, this particular kind of run-down life–and I say that as someone who lived an approximation of it. The violence, overt and not; the cruelty, consciously chosen and not; the brotherhood of trespassing, the intangible otherness of it stretching between boys, somehow more real than anything else… It’s all here in this fantastic portrayal of the amoral darkness central to adolescence.

This was a superb story. You’ll read it and realise you need to read everything else this man has written; I know I did. Go forth and enjoy!

Thursday Story: Rope by Joshua Harmon

No, you’re not mistaken, we have in fact crossed over into Friday and I am very late with this post. I see most of you have already checked in, so I’m very sorry for the delay. I was lying in bed, failing to sleep as ever, grappling with this horrible insomnia when I realised I’d forgotten to post something today.

Which is extra annoying as I’d planned to do something different this week, and this isn’t the best way to get started. Nonetheless, here we go. As you’ve no doubt deduced from the headline, I’ve decided to share a short story this week instead of a poem. This is because short stories are another of my passions, and in fact, of the two, is the elder — my first love, really. I also think there’s a lot of common ground with short stories and poetry, a lot of similar tools are used, and the same level of attention to detail, to craft and language, has to be employed.

Which brings me to ‘Rope’ by Joshua Harmon, who I was not at all surprised to see is also a poet. The story begins like this:

Our brother keeps a girl tied to a tree in the woods.

It’s an outstanding hook, a wonderful first sentence, and once it’s in you, it doesn’t let go. Its sparseness is all the more dramatic for its placement; the second sentence is an unwieldy thing, a full paragraph long on its own right. That second sentence doesn’t always work, at least not at the level the majority of this piece does – it’s overly long and sags a touch in the cluttered middle, but is still packed with detail and resonant rhythm, which is to say, the hallmark of poetry.

This is a deeply unsettling story about two sisters grappling with the unknown, with their own dark imaginings in a desolate setting on the edge of a forest — that great symbol of primal danger, of untamed wilds. You’re never quite sure how much of it is in their head, how much of it is real, and it’s a credit to Harmon that the suspense never lets up. Whenever there’s a risk of getting lost in the myriad other elements, the drama and tedium of humdrum life, he reels out the hook of that line about a girl tied to a tree in the woods, and it catches on the inside of your cheek, and he tightens the line and tightens the line and gradually brings you in.

To write great poetry, to write great stories, you first need to read them. In rare, beautiful cases, you get the best of both worlds at once.

This is one such case. Go and read it.

Thursday Poem: Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong

Hello again! It’s Thursday (in America), and I’m back to talk poetry. It’s been a long day of editing and revising my own work and I wasn’t sure if I was even going to be able to find a poem to talk about (I haven’t had as much time for my own reading lately).

Enter Twitter. I see someone has linked to a poem, I follow it, read it, it’s okay – I click on, find another poem by another poet, and it’s better. I check that poet’s bibliography, find a title that jumps out at me, and bam, read one of the best poems I’ve read all year. Not to hype it too much or anything, but I absolutely love it. And I love, too, how quickly I was able to find it. We have a habit of thinking things will be more difficult than they are, and when it comes to finding excellent poetry, I feel this is especially true. The truth of the matter is there is so much great poetry out there, it’s a wonder we’re not stumbling over it more often than we are.

In this case, the poem sending me into hyperbolic raptures is Aubade With Burning City by Ocean Vuong, a Vietnamese-American poet. I can’t reproduce it here because to do so would rob it of its movement, its dance across the page, and his use of enjambment is so stunning, and adds so much texture to the piece, that I just can’t bring myself to do that. You should absolutely click on that link and go over to the Poetry Foundation, however, to read this poem, which has its setting in Vietnam. Crucial context to the poem is provided at the beginning:

South Vietnam, April 29, 1975: Armed Forces Radio played Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” as a code to begin Operation Frequent Wind, the ultimate evacuation of American civilians and Vietnamese refugees by helicopter during the fall of Saigon.

You can see immediately what an incredible backdrop this is over which to project a poem, but it’s worth mentioning as well that its richness, its uniqueness, poses a challenge too, in that what follows must be truly sensational to rise above it – to be every bit as memorable as this moment in history. It’s a challenge easily met by Vuong, whose lyricism is nothing short of dazzling.

Lyrics of the song “White Christmas” drift through the staggered stanzas, the words which fall like snow, like debris scattered across a field of battle, and add a surreal touch to the absolutely fantastic imagery Vuong employs so masterfully, again and again. If this were all the poem managed to achieve — striking images and absurdism laced with lyrics — it would still be worth noting, but that it manages to also tell an evocative story, to bring the place, the moment, to life, is what really elevates this work to another level.

I could talk about it all day, honestly, and I so very much want to share its many outstanding lines, but I can’t be certain WordPress won’t mangle them, and I dare not risk such a tragedy. But enough rambling — go and read it!

It’s a poem I’ll be reading again and again for years to come, and if you read it, too, I’m confident you’ll say the same. It really is that good.