Thursday Poem: The Mechanics Of Men by David Tomas Martinez

You should always read a poem aloud. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, and I’ll say it until I die: you should always read the fucker aloud. I am especially grateful for having just read this sensational poem by David Tomas Martinez, for two reasons:

1) I found it just after reading an unrelated, but shitty poem. I don’t talk about poetry that doesn’t move me because I haven’t the energy to spare for hate or pettiness, but this lifeless poem I read left a bad taste in my mouth. So ‘Mechanics of Men‘ was an excellent palette cleanser, being just the opposite, brimming with life lived and lessons learned. With vitality.

2) For being so damn good I stopped midway and went back to start again, reading aloud this time. Usually, I read something first, so I have an idea of what ends where; I don’t like to pause in the wrong places –  even when it’s just me in my room, reading is a performance. I made an exception because I knew just sounding this one out would be an aural discovery, regardless of whether I screwed it up or not. But enough about that, let’s get to the goods.

It begins:

I have never been the most mechanically inclined of men.

             Wrenches, screwdrivers, or shovels
have never made nice with me. In the shipyard,

I worked alone, in the dark, deep in

               the bilges of frigates.

This is, on the face of it, an innocuous enough opening, for all that it does the job of setting up the narrative to follow, but my god, even here it’s a joy to read. There is throughout this poem subtle assonance and alliteration, a repetition of sounds, a rhythm that builds. God, I could chew on that second line. And he’s not even saying anything important! I’m nine kinds of impressed and too many kinds of jealous to count, so let’s move on.

The brass tool
              hissed like an ostrich
when it fed on metal. That day, my flame cut
permanent deck fittings; the loops fell like bright oranges;
              I ripened the rusty metal.

Look, this poem is a fucking orgasm in my mouth. Do you understand that? Maybe not. ‘Hissed like an ostrich’ is wonderful, but then, it isn’t just sounds that make this poem stand out, it’s the evocation of work and masculinity, of the gulf between a father and his son, of life and love and never quite fitting in and most assuredly always fucking up.

It’s the little things as well. I love the juxtaposition of ‘flame cut’ with ‘permanent deck fittings’, such a simple and literal line yet it undercuts the idea of permanence itself at the same time. I love, too, the way the metal becomes organic, a fruit that ripens. I want to quote this whole poem, basically, and I’m annoyed that I can’t. I’m annoyed too, just thinking that there will be some of you out there who won’t feel what I’m feeling – the intensity of joy suffusing my body right now, the ecstasy of recognition – that, hell, it might somehow read as lifelessly to you as that one poem earlier tonight did for me.

I read recently a quote from a book which said that the best moments in reading are when you come across something you thought special and particular only to you – that it’s like a hand coming out and taking yours. Well, if that’s the case, reading this poem was like meeting someone, making love, falling in love, getting married and then at the end of it, jotting down some thoughts. Which is to say, it felt like that damn hand reached into the pulpy, bony mess of my chest, pulled out some red stuff and daubed it on the page. There’s so much of me here it’s scary.

This is true for a lot of the poetry I love; this is the most subjective of arts. Every poem is a sampling of DNA, and it can be a matter of pure luck whether you turn out to be a match or not. Oh, I’m not saying those which don’t match aren’t skilful, or that you can’t appreciate them objectively, you certainly can, but it’s a cold and distant thing in comparison to this mad heat, this crazed passion you should probably only feel when in love or while fucking, but which somehow extends to this thrilling expression of language, this superlative art.

I’ll stop rambling now, but man am I glad to have read this outrageously good poem today. If anybody out there knows David Tomas Martinez, and he’s totally okay with you doing this, kiss him on the damn lips for me. Or just tell him this poem is seriously good, and that I now feel the same mixture of admiration and envy I reserve for those whose quality I aspire to emulate, to match and – in my wildest, most ambitious moments – hope to one day exceed. My benchmarks. I’ll end this with his words, and a reminder that you need to read this.

And that summer, I returned
               to each of the women of my past and bedded
them all, trying to reheat our want. I don’t regret that—drinking wine

and making love, or writing poems and making love, of wanting to stay
               but nonetheless leaving.

Celebratory Poem

So, I couldn’t wait till Thursday to share this, because it made me happy, and happiness is a rare and fleeting thing in my world: I woke up to find I’d received over 1,000 followers on this blog! Which is kind of crazy, since only a month ago I had about 150, tops.

1000

I’d gotten used to the idea that very few people were reading my weekly rambles about poetry, and that it would remain that way, but I guess I was wrong. Here’s hoping it continues to grow and more and more of the poetically inclined find their way here. In celebration of all this, and in thanks to you fine people and possibly-bots, I thought I’d give you a poem I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s just a little one, and I never know what to do with the little ones, so this is as good a use as any. I hope you like it.

None Of Us

Nobody cares about poetry
my poetry professor said.
Nobody appreciates the band
either, the lead singer said.
Nobody notices the backup dancers
the dancers said, not to mention
the choreographer, or the roadies,
the technicians, the bored IT guys
and girls. Nobody loves their father
as much as fathers want them to
or loves their mother as much as mothers
need them to. Nobody cherishes actors
until they’re gone and in black and white
on a memoriam screen. Nobody writes
about writers except writers and failed writers;
nobody thanks the cooks. Nobody wants
to be a farmer, we just want to eat.
Nobody thinks, nobody thinks, nobody thinks
about any of this
but damn do the flowers get their due.

Thursday Poem: Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

Hello, and welcome, you magnificent bastards. Firstly, I’d like to say thank you to those of you who responded so kindly to my poem – I truly appreciate it. I’d also like to say, since it was raised in the comments, that if you’re keen to introduce yourself or say hi, I’m aware you can’t do so on my About page, but you can always go over to the Facebook page I recently made for the blog. It could do with some loving anyway. Ultimately, as I’ve said before, I’m not here just to hear myself talk – so to speak – I’m here to start a conversation. If you’re so inclined, go ahead and start talking.

Now, this week’s headline is perhaps a little misleading. See, what I really want to talk about is the article which led me to the poem. Bringing A Daughter Back From The Brink With Poems by Betsy MacWhinney is an extraordinary story about a mother trying to get through to her self-harming daughter. I’m going to quote liberally from this piece now because it’s so endlessly wonderful, but I urge you to read the entire thing:

I started leaving poems in her shoes in the morning. She had used the shoes as a form of quiet protest, so I decided I would use them to make a quiet stand for hope. When one of your primary strategies as a parent involves leaving Wendell Berry’s “Mad Farmer Liberation Front” in your child’s shoe, it’s clear things aren’t going well. What I wanted her to know is: People have been in pain before, struggled to find hope, and look what they’ve done with it. They made poetry that landed right in your shoe…

One of the joys of writing this weekly blog, of this challenge to find a new poem to talk about every week – generally from authors I haven’t read before – has been the feeling of discovery. The way I seem to just trip over a poem at the last minute, or when I am least expecting it, as if it was some kind of house cat — something we think domesticated, but which is still wild at heart, and always getting underfoot, always making itself the centre of attention —  thrills me to no end. I love being surprised. I think this is why this idea of finding a new poem in your shoe each day resonated so strongly with me.

You will have noticed the poem linked to in the quote above is Wendell Berry’s ‘Made Farmer Liberation Front’, which is itself a truly exceptional poem propelled by furious rhythm; it is a manifesto for living and I can’t recommend it enough. However, I didn’t choose to make it the focus of this piece, I chose Wild Geese, referenced later in the above article, partly because above all, I favour simplicity, and partly because it ties in so well with the theme of the article, with the anguish of adolescence, and the crushing nature of depression.

Because, most of all, it offers hope. It begins:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

I fucking love these five lines. Forget the rest of the poem, lovely as it is. Let’s linger here. Poetry is all about lingering, anyway, staying in a moment long after the moment is gone, luxuriating in it, exploring, finding more and still more beneath the surface. That first line alone is a clarion cry – so much of our everyday struggle is to be good, whether we realise it or not. When we are children, what are we told? Be a good boy. Be a good girl, you wouldn’t want to be a bad one would you now? Shudder. Perish the thought.

There are times, however, as an adult, where this isn’t possible. You aren’t being bad, in the absence of good, you’re just unable to reach the ideal, to shoulder the constant, exacting burden. It’s too much. You struggle, you fall. If you’re lucky, in time, with help, you get up again and the struggle begins anew. This is why the opening line, ‘You do not have to be good’ is a clarion cry – it slices right through the bullshit, right through that notion that you must be anything, it frees you from expectation, unhooks the anchor lodged in your spine. As far as necessity goes, you need only concern yourself with the last of those five lines.

All you have to do is let yourself love what you love without discrimination, without judgment. Love it, and let it end at your love. Remember, too — this line is so fucking good — we are animals. There is something so delightfully undercutting about that, in the best possible way. We have a tendency to self-aggrandise, to attribute everything to our own actions, and in so doing, tend to judge ourselves on an equally obscene scale, which can only end badly. We’re just soft meat, in the end, like the geese in this poem.

Like them, too, we are always looking for home.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Thursday Poem: In Defense of Small Towns by Oliver De La Paz

Hello and welcome to my new followers! I don’t know where you’re all coming from, and I’m struggling to keep up with the notifications honestly, but I’m glad to have you on board. Normally, I post something on Thursday, but as my last post indicated, I’ve been in nine kinds of hell recently, some of which I had neither the energy or strength to expound upon then. My point is this: I’m late, and I’m sorry about that. I’ve just finished work and I have a friend over, so I still have no time to do this, but luckily, said friend is busy finishing a book, so I get to quickly introduce you to another gem (or remind you of it, if you’ve already read it).

This week’s poem is In Defense of Small Towns by Oliver De La Paz, and it is simply delightful. It begins:

When I look at it, it’s simple, really. I hated life there. September,
once filled with animal deaths and toughened hay. And the smells

of fall were boiled-down beets and potatoes
or the farmhands’ breeches smeared with oil and diesel

as they rode into town, dusty and pissed.

I often think of great poems like rivers; when I step into one, when I cede control, I expect to be taken gently downstream, for its flow to be inexorable and constant in its beauty. A less than great poem will pause, a clumsy line will snag my attention, prick the bubble and release me back into the world before its end. De La Paz’s poem has no such loose logs, no sudden outcropping of stone.

From beginning to end, I was drawn along, lost in the small country town he evokes with such ease. It didn’t surprise me, this town he spoke of, nor did the emotions, the need for escape we all feel for the places that bore us – so huge and endless while we were small, so confining and tiny as adults – and the conflicting surge of nostalgia we have once we’re gone from them. Despite the lack of surprise for this oldest of experiences, he still made it seem fresh. Each line sings with something specific, and like light hitting the water, it transforms the ordinary and mundane into priceless treasure, common pebbles glinting brighter than diamonds.

Even the cliche is given no room for purchase here, in a country town dominated by football:

The radio station

split time between metal and Tejano, and the only action

happened on Friday nights where the high school football team
gave everyone a chance at forgiveness

See how swiftly familiar terrain becomes divine? I adore that line. Of course we all have a chance at forgiveness during a football game: to forgive the players who mess up, and the referees for being referees, and each other, for hurling insult and hate at ordinary boys and girls whose only mistake was being born someplace else and wearing different colours.

We each of us have a chance at forgiveness every day, in most actions of our lives, no matter how small. It’s such an unexpected thing to be thankful for, to have the mere chance to experience it, and yet having read that line, it doesn’t seem so unexpected after all. It seems instead like I should have known that all along. That is just one example of the incisive way De La Paz cuts through the at-first-familiar skin of this landscape and shows us something new, something timeless and beautiful all at once.

I wish I had more time to rave about it but I don’t, so I leave it to you to discover at your own pace. Come back and tell me what you thought; I’d love to hear it.

Being Broke Fucking Sucks

Headline of the year, I know: “Man Discovers Lack Of Money Is Unpleasant, News at 11!” I’ve been poor before, actually, but that was while growing up, when it was out of my hands. During my teenage years, we went from poor to working poor to lower middle class, and I’ve largely stayed around there as an adult. I have had a privileged life, make no mistake, and I retain privileges even now that many poor people don’t. But these past few months I’ve been struggling in a big way, on the brink of being totally broke and having to move back home (which would only be temporary anyway, as my mum is being evicted soon and will be homeless herself), and it’s brought to mind some things I need to talk about.

These past few weeks, while unemployed and looking for work as the last of my savings drain away, have felt like a noose slowly being taut. Sure, I made jokes about it because that’s my first reflexive response to anything, but gradually, even that stopped. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve stopped taking public transport, stopped visiting friends and family, and with only a few exceptions, basically only gone wherever my feet can take me. Depression, which is always lurking around the corner, always waiting in the back of my mind, has surged to the fore and I am once again finding it easier to stay in bed, harder to speak, harder to look people in the eye.

I remember a couple years back, when I was properly suicidal, and I literally couldn’t look people in the eye. It was because, I thought, I was afraid they would be able to see my intent, as if depression and a desire for death was writ across my corneas. Actually, I see now that it’s just shame. I’m ashamed. It crystallised for me yesterday, when I was organising one of the two necessary exceptions I’ve taken, and a friend said the place we were meeting might cost $5 to enter. I objected. She laughed and said she couldn’t tell if I was joking. I wasn’t. I cancelled the lunch part of that trip when I looked up the menus nearby, and I felt a surge of something ugly in my chest. Shame. See, when you’re in the first phase of being broke and unemployed, you pretend nothing’s changed. At least, I do.

I don’t like to admit it, but I’ll go out, and I’ll order the same food as I would otherwise and justify it somehow in my head — that’s future-me’s problem, paying the rent and whatnot, current-me wants desperately to be on the same level as his friends. I’m not though. That’s the second phase: owning the truth of the situation, and severely restricting your spending. Coming to terms with that has helped me break through the bleakness I’ve been under lately, enough so I could write this anyway, so I could look at things a bit more objectively. A few months back, when the downward slope was beckoning, I actually wrote a letter to my friend outlining my situation and certain truths I had learned. Here’s part of what I wrote:

Continue reading

Thursday Poem: Over and Over Stitch by Jorie Graham

As with last week, I’ll begin this post with some great personal news: the Emerging Writers’ Festival has selected me as one of two writers to be sent on a Cultural Exchange program to the Bali Emerging Writers’ Festival in Indonesia, in a few weeks’ time. I did a quick Q&A with them earlier today, which you can read here if you’re interested. Needless to say, I can’t wait to get over there and meet new people, make new connections, and learn a great deal.

This week’s poem is Over and Over Stitch by Jorie Graham, who I had the pleasure to hear read live last year at the New Yorker festival. I read this a few days ago, and I’ve had it tumbling around in my head ever since. This is a poem loaded with resignation and reluctance, trembling on the edge of precipitous change, one resisted at all costs. It begins:

Late in the season the world digs in, the fat blossoms
hold still for just a moment longer.
Nothing looks satisfied,
but there is no real reason to move on much further:
this isn’t a bad place;
why not pretend
we wished for it?

The tone and theme are set up immediately in that first line, with the world digging in late in the season. Change is waiting, change is constant, yet it is late and the world is not giving in to it yet. Honestly, I could talk forever about those first seven lines, never mind the rest of it. It says so much without seeming to even try; the hallmark of great writing.

‘This isn’t a bad place;/why not pretend/we wished for it?’ This line, in particular, kills me. Why can’t you be happy with your lot, why must we be forever dissatisfied? Forever looking over our fence, forever wondering if we’ve done enough, forever busy wasting emotion and time and energy being resentful of what we don’t have and of those who might have more. This line reminds me of another from the recent Oscar-nominated film Whiplash, in which J. K. Simmons’ character says something to the effect of, ‘there are no two worse words in the English language than “good job”.’

He, like all of us, seeks greatness. Being satisfied with good is anathema to him; complacency kills the artist, whether the artist is aware of it or not. Graham, here, is hardly talking about the artistic process, her net is broader and more encompassing than that, but nonetheless, she angles in the opposite direction.

To have experienced joy
as the mere lifting of hunger
is not to have known it
less.

One could argue that the lifting of hunger, while the simplest joy, brings about the most intense experience of it – one we lucky few take for granted, perhaps inured to it by repetition – but that is not what Graham does here. She is not setting it up in competition with any other joy, no matter how rare the achievement or experience which sparks it, she is instead saying they are qualitatively the same. Joy is the great leveller.

There are moments in our lives which, threaded, give us heaven—
noon, for instance, or all the single victories
of gravity

The poet, having personified the world as reluctant, stubborn and sullen, is urging it/us to consider the miracles of the every day; the miracle of not being hungry, the divinity of noon, the wonder of gravity being just right constantly, without which we would be crushed prone or else lost to space, or any other number of horrible fates. This is a simple but powerful message, delivered with exacting skill, with consummate wisdom. Graham reminds us, too, that no matter how bad things seem now – to set us so at odds with the world, with the season, to have us digging in our haunches – “nothing again will ever be this easy”.

It’s a reminder I desperately needed this week. As bad as things are for me financially, as difficult as I’m finding the increased attention to my work, I am phenomenally lucky; I still have my health, my mind; I am still willing and able and physically capable of doing everything I want to do. Time will gradually rob me of these things, and nothing again will ever be this easy. It’s a difficult truth to swallow, but it is of vital importance that I remember to enjoy this moment, one of many which, if threaded together, make up heaven.

You can read this beautiful poem here.