Thursday Poem: Museum of Tolerance by Michael Miller

Quick Personal Note: Hello to my new subscribers, all 450+ of you! It’s been an absolutely crazy week for me, both in terms of blog follows, and professionally. Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish, whose work I wrote about here last year, reached out to me recently and has had a few poems of mine translated into Arabic and published in his newspaper. If you can read Arabic, you can check that out here. If you can’t, well, join the club.

It is a surreal experience to see my words in another language, in a language ostensibly my own, no less. I can speak a little bit of Arabic, but my ancestral tongue is otherwise lost to me. I’m taking lessons now to rectify this, to – as Najwan said to me – chase my poems into Arabic. I’m also incredibly happy to announce that my poem America, You Sexy Fuck has been shortlisted for the prestigious Judith Wright Poetry Prize for New and Emerging Poets! I wrote that poem while I was traveling across America last year, and I knew then and there that it was different to anything I’d written before, that it marked a new beginning for me as a poet, and I’m just so thrilled to see that belief validated by others, to have it get this kind of recognition.

But that’s enough babbling about me, let’s get to the good stuff, the excellent poem ‘Museum of Tolerance’ by Michael Miller. I love everything about this poem, from the start to the finish, to the subtle movement of the lines themselves. Movement is important here, not just because of the rhythm and musicality which propels the piece, but because the poem begins almost at a run:

The shirtless man by the ticket counter
  has already broken the gloom here, his crowd
    of two boys and the cashier with the Star of David
      gathered around and mouthing astonishment

There is a sense that we’ve come in mid-way, the scene is already unfolding. This opening stanza does a heroic amount of work in such a short space; we know where we are, who we’re dealing with, and have a sense of both atmosphere ‘broken the gloom here’ and subject matter. It sounds dull, breaking it down into its composite bits there, but read those four lines again, and nothing changes; it’s still interesting, still propels you onward into this story about stories. The kind we tell after major events, the kind we tell each other, the morbid fascination we have with survivors, the way we flock to them both personally and as a media collective.

It is this which Miller dissects so brilliantly in this poem, this man who survived the Holocaust, recounting the stories behind his scars. Is he embellishing, when he says he split a real Nazi’s lip? It doesn’t matter. It’s the treatment of him that matters, as an object equal parts sacred and spectacle. Not for nothing does Miller mention the packed tightness of churches and carnivals.

Are they
  all survivors here, dazed and exhilarated
    by the fate that dropped them so far from blight?
      A father heads the line, shirt fat with muscles

That last line is perhaps my favourite in the piece, such a simple description, so expertly rendered. The contrast is so fucking juicy, so delightful ‘shirt fat with muscles.’ Ah! There are plenty of reasons to admire a poem, and this one in particular has a dozen different angles from which its light can be seen and appreciated, but for me, a surprising description of the otherwise ordinary will always standout the most. The unexpected is always delightful in poetry.

If that was all Miller accomplished, I’d probably still have chosen this poem, honestly, but that he manages to go beyond that and deliver an important message about survival and tolerance in its own right, elevates this piece to another level. I don’t want to dilute the power of that message any more by talking about it; as ever, I want you to read it yourself.

Thursday Poet: Philip Levine

This week, the poetry world suffered a great loss: Philip Levine passed away.

I’ve been chewing over that line for the past hour or so, writing a dozen different paragraphs and deleting them. Leaving only it. It’s a problematic line, in so many ways, but I think my major issue with it is the specification of world – the poetry world suffered. I think every world suffered this loss, his family’s especially and most obviously, the physical world, but my first instinct was to say poetry, which was his world. My world. Our world. Does that justify its placement there? I’m not sure. I’m not thinking right now, only writing, discovering each thought as it emerges from beneath my fingers.

The next issue is this one: is this truly a loss for poetry? I’m not so certain anymore. Let me explain. Last year, I wrote about his extraordinary poem ‘What Work Is’, and how I discovered him and his work at a live reading hosted by the New Yorker Festival. Afterward, I emailed my old poetry professor, Australian poet Judith Beveridge, to rave about the event and this man who had opened my eyes with such ease. I did so not just because I wanted to share my joy, as I do each week here, but because during the Q&A which followed the reading, Levine talked about letter writing and how he had maintained a 15-year correspondence with a random individual who had written to him once. In short, he talked about the importance of mentorship, and how much could be gained from communication.

So I wrote to her, and it turns out she’s been a fan of his work since her 20s, and she’d met him at a poetry festival over a decade ago. We talked about him for a while, and she promised when I got back to Sydney (I was abroad at the time), we’d catch up and she could loan me some of his books (which I couldn’t afford). Fast forward to this month, I’ve been back in Sydney for two months, and I finally arrange to see Judith in a week and get these books. Two days later, I hear the news that Mr. Levine has passed away, news which entirely recasts the tenor of the catch up, the poetry exchange I was to have. Now it was to be less an excited sharing of a voice still booming in the air, and more an exchange of echoes. A memoriam. Or so I thought.

Judith gave me several of his books and now I have weeks worth of his words to read, to live in, and in reading them I have discovered I can still hear his rough voice as if he were standing next to me. I am glad of that, so very glad, but that is not why I am saying he is not lost — I’m not going quite so Amazing Grace as that — it just strikes me that the loss we have suffered is a future one. It is the future which is robbed of any new work of his. Any new love. The past is full of it, so very full, and I thought it would be easy, so easy to pick a poem of his to celebrate this week, but I’ve spent the past two days swimming in his work, online and in these books, and I can’t pick a single one. There’s simply too much excellence.

Now I see that ‘loss’ is the wrong term to use, at least for me personally. It’s less of an absence and more a cessation, as of rain or a river or both that over the course of a lifetime filled a great basin, and at the end, left behind a lake. A huge, shimmering lake, the kind brimming with wildlife, bordered by trees – spears of green pointed at the sky, and drooping paint brushes both, the faded fraying brush tops leaking emerald into the rippling blue – which we can row across at will. Or admire from a distance, or dive into. Each time I choose to dip my toe into it, I find the waters are a different hue, a different temperature: sometimes he sends chills racing across my skin, up and down my spine, and other times it is a warm rapture.

So, yes, Philip Levine has sadly passed on, but there is so much left behind, so much yet to discover, that for me at least, it would be far too premature to say I have lost anything, when there are yet worlds of him to gain. On that note, I will link you now not to a single poem but to the extended catalogue of his poems available on the wonderful Poetry Foundation website. Whether you take a lunch break, a half day, evening or weekend, you cannot go awry with time spent on this man’s lake.


General house-keeping note: I’ve created a Facebook Page for this website, so if you like what you see, or think you might enjoy a ramble or two from me in future, by all means head on over and show it some love.

I can never say no to love.

Thursday Poem: Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming by Thomas Lux

I wanted this to be easier.

I wanted to pick a poem I could just rave about and be done with, not because I like simple poems or any such thing, but because I’m tired and coming off a cold, but no, I saw this poem shared by The Academy of American Poets on Facebook earlier today and I’ve been chewing on it ever since.

There’s a lot to love about Ode to the Unbroken World, Which Is Coming with its sweeping universalism – the tapestry of experiences, small and intimate and vividly specific but which we can all relate to – and a lot to sift over, to wonder at. We begin with the declarative title, emphatic in its twofold certainty: the world is broken, an unbroken one is coming.

The very first line immediately counters it with a question: It must be coming, mustn’t it? The contrast immediately sets up the narrator, the poet as unreliable and so it’s difficult to trust what follows. The skill of the poem however, is that you do, buoyed by your own optimism no less as we come to the heart of the poem – a simple summation of humanity itself, as seen through the prism of our most basic desires and actions.

and saloons are filled with decent humans.
A mother wants to feed her daughter,
fathers to buy their children things that break.
People laugh, all over the world, people laugh.
We were born to laugh, and we know how to be sad;
we dislike injustice and cancer,
and are not unaware of our terrible errors.
A man wants to love his wife.
His wife wants him to carry something.
We’re capable of empathy, and intense moments of joy.
Sure, some of us are venal, but not most.

Lux abruptly shifts out of this mode, as fast as the bullet metaphor he uses to do so. It proves only a brief interruption before the soliloquy on universal pleasures resumes, now more emphatic and explicit in its reaching:

It’s the same everywhere: Slovenia, India,
Pakistan, Suriname—people like to pray,
or they don’t,
or they like to fill a blue plastic pool
in the back yard with a hose
and watch their children splash.

Were the poem to simply continue in this vein, I think I would still love it, for saying what needs to be said and saying it plainly. Sometimes poetry needs no varnish. But instead, it returns to the creeping uncertainty with which the poem began. “And if there is a long train of cattle cars”, it’s no big deal we’re assured, it’s just heading to the abattoir. The problem with that assurance is it no longer rings quite true, and the following lines now acquire a kind of desperation which belies its earlier optimism:

The unbroken world is coming,
(it must be coming!),

He wants it to be around the corner, he sees the tenets of basic decency all around, so it must be so, right? Right? That questioning lingers, as does the final ambiguous image of the poem. The more I think about it, the more ominous the cast of the entire poem, the more I feel tricked. I, like the poet, wanted so much for that reaffirming humanity to continue to be outlined, the common ground, the things we’ve all (and it is all of us, right? …Right?) felt or lived or desired, but ultimately, that quavering note is bound to enter our voices. Ultimately, we’re just not sure.

Perhaps that is for the best, as Bertrand Russell says: “In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted.”

For reminding me of that, and for lifting me, however briefly, out of a wan day, this is my poem of the week. Give it a read.

Thursday Poem: Abandoned Farmhouse by Ted Kooser

Today, I woke up to find a letter from a friend, in which she included a poem by Ted Kooser called After Years. It is – being a Ted Kooser poem – lovely, of course. No one else I know can pack so much in so little space; all poems in their own way are universes unto themselves, but with Kooser, it is more apparent than most. They are compact, but extraordinarily layered. Having reminded me of him, I went searching for some of his work online and came across Abandoned Farmhouse.

It begins:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you know you’re reading good poetry when you can hear it sing, however quietly. However strangely. Read it aloud. If ever you need a mantra to stick to in understanding poetry, that’s the one: read it aloud.

This poem, more than the musicality of the lines, the occasional near-rhyme, is beautiful for the story it tells. Kooser lets the picture speak for itself, quite literally, and the result is a deft, exquisite exploration of place. Of the marks we leave on the land, in the structures we inhabit, and what those marks say about us.

It ends with a solid, sombre thump, a sad silence. This is one of those poems that carves a small niche inside you, that takes up residence within and provokes thought for weeks, months, years to come. Needless to say, I think you should read it.

It’s beautiful.