TP: Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even The Calls of Certain Birds, by John Murillo

I know it’s not Thursday, but the wonderful thing about shortening ‘Thursday Poem’ to TP is that I can get away with posting this on Tuesday. Also, this is my blog. Also, time is meaningless and so are the days of the week. So let’s get straight into this week’s extraordinary poem, with its extra-long title, ‘Upon Reading That Eric Dolphy Transcribed Even the Calls of Certain Species of Bird‘ by John Murillo.

Take a few minutes now to check it out, because I don’t want to ruin it for you. Go on, I’ll wait. I read it myself a couple weeks ago and I’ve been reading it every other day since, not just because I love it, but because to read poetry of this quality is to dowse yourself in the sweet rushing of a spring river. Is to feel the accumulated muck of the day slough off, and god, how I’ve needed that recently.

It begins:

I think first of two sparrows I met when walking home,
late night years ago, in another city, not unlike this — the one

Hardly the most auspicious opening lines ever, but I love the tone of it, the way it sets up this casual, meandering reminiscence – an informality which does nothing to diminish the eloquence of the lines, and everything to elevate it.

If these past few months editing a poetry journal have taught me anything, it’s that people too often place emphasis on lone extravagant words and not enough on the feel, the voice, the rhythm of the thing. All of you need to read Murillo’s poem, study it, truly, to understand that anything woven seamlessly of the same cloth will always outshine and outlast a weave studded erratically with diamond words, as if in the hope their supposed value would somehow rub off on the rest of it.

It’s more than just rhythm and voice here, though Murillo has enough music in this poem to set a barroom to dancing, it’s the efficiency of the lines. Not a word wasted, the pacing impeccable, the sounds building & bouncing off one another–for a poem so melancholic, the effect is positively ecstatic. Or at least, it is in me.

So, we have a set up with sparrows, one bird attacking/alerting the narrator as its mate is trapped nearby in a car door:

They called to me — something between squawk and chirp,
something between song and prayer — to do something,

anything. And, like any good god, I disappeared. Not
indifferent, exactly. But with things to do. And, most likely,

on my way home from another heartbreak. Call it 1997,

Forgive me for only making broad notes, but if I linger over every single magnificent line, I’ll be here forever. I love the narrative flow of the piece, the easy collapse into another time, another scene; it unfolds as a natural thought would, with all the corrections and interjections and digressions that comes with that, and yet despite this, somehow isn’t irritating and isn’t confusing. It’s just that smoothly done.

his widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.

Anyway, I’m digressing. But if you asked that night —
did I mention it was night? — why I didn’t even try

to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow, I couldn’t say,

‘to jimmy the lock to spring the sparrow’ – pack it up and go home, folks, that’s fucking perfection right there. It straight up dances on the tongue. I bring up this passage not to highlight that line, but because the digressions so frequently mentioned aren’t in fact digressions. This poem endlessly folds in upon itself – some might argue too much, but it’s so well executed I can’t complain – calling back again and again to earlier moments, earlier phrases, sometimes in the same breath, and in so doing, recasting the scene in a different light, recasting the meaning of the line.

As we come to a “random” scene where two shirtless men, lovers or enemies or both, are fighting on the floor–the meaning fluctuating in situ–we learn their tangential relevance to the original moment.

I left/the men where I’d leave the sparrows and their song.
And as I walked away, I heard one of the men call to me,

please or help or brother or some such. And I didn’t break
stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.

From here, we drift still further back in time to the original trauma, the moment the poem was waiting for, where the narrator watches his father beat his mother in the street. And here, even without the direct reference to sparrows, you cannot help but think of the scene the poem started with, cannot help but think of trapped wings fluttering against a car door, the desperate futility of it, and his own refusal to help. Such is the power of that moment, it exists in every ripple it casts back in his timeline, or perhaps it’s the other way around.

I think his name was Sonny, runs out from his duplex
to pull my father off. You see where I’m going with this?
My mother crying out, fragile as a sparrow. Sonny
fighting my father, fragile as a sparrow.

There are two callbacks here I want to highlight. One is the obvious sparrow metaphor which I mentioned earlier, and the lovely repetition which, to my mind, removed any gendered reading of its first instance. We are all so fragile, it seems to say, just breakable bones. The second callback is to the line I quoted earlier ‘I didn’t break my stride, not one bit. It’s how I’ve learned to save myself.’

Sonny did the right thing, see. Sonny got beat for it, just like the narrator’s mother. One of the things I admire so much about this poem, as I’ve said before, is its efficacy – it doesn’t linger, preferring instead to echo as it goes. If this is a dance, it’s a fast-stepping one, short sharp words busting the meaning out. From bloodied wrangling in the street, the scene collapses again into an idyllic picnic:

And in this park was a pond, and in this pond were birds.
Not sparrows, but swans. And my father spread a blanket

and brought from a basket some apples and a paring knife.
Summertime. My mother wore sunglasses. And long sleeves.

Sunglasses and long sleeves. Remember when I said not a word was wasted in the poem? He’s not commenting on her fashion choices here, but the wounds she’s learned to cover. Read that goddamn line again. Eight words is all it took to brutally echo the domestic violence mentioned earlier, how the participants learn to live with it, and just one word ‘summertime’ is all that’s needed to disguise it, so that at first glance, you might just think he’s describing what she’s wearing simply to paint a picture.

but did you know the collective noun
for swans is a lamentation? And is a lamentation not

its own species of song? What a woman wails, punch drunk
in the street? Or what a widow might sing, learning her man

was drowned by swans? A lamentation of them? Imagine
the capsized boat, the panicked man, struck about the eyes,

nose, and mouth each time he comes up for air.

Remember when I said the digressions in this poem are not digressions? ‘His widow said he drowned one morning on a fishing trip.’ Moments presented as meaningless, or if not that, then irrelevant certainly, keep winding their way back into the poem, into the narrative, just as with life.

And so the poem folds back in on itself, again and again, the whole of it a lamentation, yes, but not for the widow, not for the dead man, not even for his mother and not for Sonny and not for Eric Dolphy, but for the city itself–for the place he left behind, and of course for himself. That he has learned not to break his stride to save himself, that he – no, we – do not let anything intrude on our path, no matter the desperation of it, no matter the pain, the screaming. And we shrug and convince ourselves it was for other reasons. We’re ‘not indifferent, exactly.’ We just have things to do.

Either trumpet swans or mutes. The dead man’s wife
running for help, crying to any who’d listen. A lamentation.
And a city busy saving itself.

Something else I want to talk about for a moment is metaphor. Too many poets think of and use metaphors the same way they do unusual words, like a clown determined to show how many different strips of coloured cloth he can pull out of his sleeve. It’s not about how many you use, or how unusual they are, but how right they are for the poem, and much meaning you can wring from them. Murillo shifted from sparrows to swans mid-poem, and he doubles down on that imagery and its associated meanings to exquisite, heartbreaking affect. In the hands of a lesser poet, it would be suffocating and stilted, but in the hands of a master, a river can be wrung from a single stone.

So we come to the last beautiful stanzas, packed again with callbacks, much like, you might even say, the liquid language of birds:

When I left my parents’ house, I never looked back. By which
I mean I made like a god and disappeared. As when I left

the sparrows. And the copulating swans. As when someday
I’ll leave this city. Its every flailing, its every animal song.

While I didn’t exactly sing the praises of the first line of the poem, allow me to do so now. You see how the ending recasts the beginning? He lives in another city already, which is not unlike the city he writes about here. The one he knows he’ll leave, and lament all the while.

Thursday Poem: The Layers by Stanley Kunitz

How shall the heart be reconciled
to its feast of losses?

Today’s poem is ‘The Layers’ by Stanley Kunitz and as you may have guessed from the above quote, it is about grief, about pain and coping with hardships.

It begins:

I have walked through many lives,
some of them my own,
and I am not who I was,
though some principle of being
abides, from which I struggle
not to stray.

Straight away, we have an intriguing opening. The metaphor of life as a road-cum-journey is so boring today that I could barely get myself to compose this sentence, but Kunitz makes it interesting with the simple use of plurality. Lives, not life, he says–imagine that first line again as ‘I have walked through life’ and it is dead on arrival. He doubles down on his plural and even widens the scope of its meaning by following it up with ‘some of them my own,’ which I love.

Of course, he’s saying that none of us walk alone, but in fact in a tangle – I would say it’s inescapable, walking through lives, but he doesn’t present it as such. It’s strong and active, as if by choice. I love this idea of multiple lives for one body, one person; it encompasses all the changes that occur to us, both physical and not. Change is the strong theme of the poem, the transformative power of our experiences–of loss. All grief is change, disguised. All change is a kind of grief.  Given how much we go through over a lifetime, how many selves we leave behind, how many deaths we die, it’s a rich and evocative conceit he sets out to explore: who wouldn’t love to take a walk through the lost snippets of our lives?

He goes on to say that despite no longer being who he was, ‘some principle of being/abides’, a kind of core self, and yet, though he posits it as such, he once again brings into play active choice: ‘from which I struggle/not to stray.’ Meaning that there is no unchanging undisputed self, and that though he recognises it as what remains despite all the change, he could stray from it if he so desired, he could be different. He chooses, and struggles in the choosing, to stay true to his perception of himself.

Let me tell you: if you’re struggling with grief or depression, this poem is an excellent read for you. It encourages you not just to put things into perspective, but to take an active role in perception itself–when it comes to depression, in particular, passively accepting the bleakness is enormously dangerous. Nothing is fixed, nothing is certain, and that is to our great advantage.

Having said all that, I have to say there are some lines in here that are a bit much for me, a bit too dramatic–but given what I’ve recently gone through, it happened to be just what I needed to read. This next line, in particular, has been ringing on repeat in my skull all week:

Yet I turn, I turn,
exulting somewhat,
with my will intact to go
wherever I need to go,
and every stone on the road
precious to me.

The emphasis here is mine. Having suffered losses as he goes, and struggling mightily with them, he turns, exulting in his ability to do so–in the constancy of change–he can go anywhere, and no matter how long or difficult the road, every stone on it is precious to him. I love that line so very much. It is one of those grand acts of poetry, loving the hurt. It doesn’t matter how much the stones have taken from you, doesn’t matter the toll, the way they might dig into the soles of your feet, each and every experience–in helping to form the ever emerging self–is precious.

That kind of grandiloquence will, as I mentioned earlier, be too much for some people. For me, I took it as a reminder to keep things in perspective, to be grateful for what I have, no matter what I perceive as lacking, and to try, always, to love–not simply people and not simply what’s easy, but also the pain, also the loss, also the grit and the dust and the stones.

Thursday Poetics: Ben Lerner on “Disliking Poetry”

So, I’m going to do something a little different today. Recently, I read a fascinating essay by Ben Lerner on Disliking Poetry, which is equal parts lovely writing and interesting thoughts about the nature of poems, so I actually wanted to take some time to respond to that. There’s a lot that he says and I don’t want to be too reductive here but I’m going to break it down into two main points (you should definitely read the whole thing, however) and then talk about what’s being said. The first is:

What if we dislike or despise or hate poems because they are – every single one of them – failures? The poet and critic Allen Grossman tells a story (there are many versions of the story) that goes like this: you’re moved to write a poem because of some transcendent impulse to get beyond the human, the historical, the finite. But as soon as you move from that impulse to the actual poem, the song of the infinite is compromised by the finitude of its terms. So the poem is always a record of failure.

And the second is:

Even writers and critics allergic to anything resembling avant-garde rhetoric often express anger at poetry’s failure to achieve any real political effects. The avant-garde imagines itself as hailing from the future it wants to bring about, but many people express disappointment in poetry for failing to live up to the political power it supposedly possessed in the past.

Either subject is worth its own essay, but I don’t have much time or energy at the moment, so forgive my brusqueness. Here, in short, is my response: I think it’s true that poetry is by definition self-defeating, that no poem will ever completely capture the transcendent sensation or inspiration which first prompts the poet to put pen to paper, which sets the soul to spinning. There is no means of transferring the intangible into a fixed form without necessarily losing something in the process, so yes, when looked at this way, you can say every poem is a failure. This is also true, it must be said, of every artistic process; even the painter cannot replicate the sky as fully or as brightly as he or she might like, and even though a passerby might not be able to tell the difference between the two, the painter will always be dissatisfied, knowing the range of colours available are simply not comparable to the limitless array of pigments effortlessly used by the atmosphere. So it is with the poet – words will never be enough. We are simply no match for the poetry of the everyday; the river, the mountain, the refuse heap.

In terms, however, of poems failing as artistic products thereafter, of never achieving some expected unifying grandeur as extolled by the likes of Whitman, I disagree. This is blaming poetry for something outside of its power — largely, what we think of it and what it should be doing — as well complain about a vacuum cleaner which can’t fix your broken marriage. You might have thought it would when you bought it, but that it doesn’t is entirely your fault. The problem here is the notion that the poem is the end point, is finished when it is written, and so when there isn’t an immediate result thereafter – should the poem have a socially progressive or political message for example – it can seem as if it has failed. However, I — and I think many poets would agree — don’t see a single poem as the end point but rather the beginning. I don’t see it as finished, I see it as always being written.

A poem (with these lofty aims, and as Lerner says, not all have them) needn’t be the change or even the catalyst to dramatic action; I see it as the Kafkaesque icepick we use to hammer open frozen points in local, state, national and global conversations ongoing at any moment. I see it as dialogue, just one spark among many, the brighter and hotter it is, the better, but it needn’t be the sun. Don’t hate it for not being the sun, that way lies madness. Enjoy it instead for its temporary light, which like our lives, is made precious by its smallness, by the knowledge it will flicker out unless it touches something – someone – however briefly and sets off a mirroring flare.

Here is where it matters that poems are always being written; when you read a powerful poem, it carries on inside you, filtered through the lens of your experience and culture, mutating and changing until it comes out in another way, maybe not as a poem but an impromptu speech to a friend which moves them to vote in the next election, or maybe as an unasked for gift to your partner which is not a vacuum cleaner but a night spent appreciating each other or the night itself, or maybe as a painting, as an especially thankful day lost in the rewarding exertion of building houses.

In this way, it could be argued as well that the intangible otherness which first lent itself to the creation of the poem continues forever in others — the originating poet cannot experience it, it is beyond them now — and that its impact when looked at objectively is impossible to weigh. Just as we cannot measure a smile, or what it might offer to a stranger, so too, the same can be said for poetry, this endless evolution of language, this ephemeral light made solid and then not again, every day.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I would hate to leave y’all without a link to some excellent poetry I’ve read through the week, so just quickly, here are a couple of gems I came across:

1. The Robots Are Coming by Kyle Dargan (really, anything by Dargan, he’s great)

2. Three Poems by Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib (powerful & beautiful writing here).

Enjoy!

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.

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 Poems: My God, It’s Full of Stars by Tracy K. Smith

Okay, so I’m a little drunk — this is only relevant because I can’t actually remember which poem I last shared with my friend, and so in turn, I can’t share it with you, the nameless, faceless internet. 

However! I am nothing if not industrious, and so I went to the extraordinary effort of looking to the stack of books by my elbow and the top book on that shelf — Life On Mars by Tracy K. Smith. I read this collection some months ago, and I may have even blogged about it then (I can’t remember that either), but it’s still on my desk, still on top of the book pile somehow. Maybe I just always wanted it close at hand. More likely, though, it’s just laziness, pure and simple.

That said, this particular collection remains my favourite of all the poetry books I’ve read – from start to end, it is a cohesive, beautiful whole. And this poem, in particular, is exceptional, for all that it is just a single limb on this languorous body. I owe my love of it and the book it came in, to poetry editor Felicity Plunkett, I must admit, as she suggested it to me on Twitter. When I read this poem, I feel like I’m reading America, it’s so unmistakably set in that place, and within a set period of time, though it does cover some ground.

Somehow, despite being laden with pop cultural references, despite being so quintessentially American, it also frames questions and ideas that speak to our humanity as a whole, that contextualises us within the vastness of the universe. The poem itself obeys no particular formal constraint, at least not consistently, though it does favour a 3-line stanza by and large, and shines with light musical rhymes that drift in and out.

Now I’m going to shut up, and highlight my favourite part, even though that’s impossible, because it’s entirely fantastic from start to finish:

Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
 
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
 
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
 
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want to be
 
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
 
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
 
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
 
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
 
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
 
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
 
For the first time in the winter of 1959.

 

‘the frenzy of being. I want to be
one notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.’

There are not enough words for how much I fucking love that. Would that I could write something some day with that much grace, beauty and power. Maybe in a decade or two, I should be so lucky. Now, since I am full of duck and alcohol, I’m going to curl up in bed. Oh, and before I forget, go read the rest of that sensational damn poem here. (God, I hope I don’t regret writing this in the morning…Here’s hoping!)

 

 

 

Thursday Poems: Ballad of Orange and Grape by Muriel Rukeyser

Okay, we’re back on schedule (just), and I’m excited to share this incredibly powerful, wonderful poem, which bears the simple title: Ballad of Orange and Grape. It is by American poet Muriel Rukeyser, a political activist whose literary career spanned several decades. Until a few weeks ago, I had never heard of her, and that is why this initiative of finding different poems each week is so very important; it’s a self-continuing education that continues to yield just rewards.

Onto the Ballad, which begins:

After you finish your work
after you do your day
after you’ve read your reading
after you’ve written your say –
you go down the street to the hot dog stand,
one block down and across the way.
On a blistering afternoon in East Harlem in the twentieth
    century.

Immediately, you are drawn into the easy rhythm, into the scene. Note the select details, growing from generalities applying to all – that feeling of ending your work day – into specifics that bring the poem’s location to life. We’re at the hot dog stand one block down, it’s hot in East Harlem, and we have a timeframe, too. No longer ephemeral, we’re locked into a concrete place, and it into us.

Onward now, and those juicy details come hard and fast, absorbing our focus:

Most of the windows are boarded up,
the rats run out of a sack –
sticking out of the crummy garage
one shiny long Cadillac;
at the glass door of the drug-addiction center,
a man who’d like to break your back.
But here’s a brown woman with a little girl dressed in rose
    and pink, too.

What I love about this poem is the ease of the language, the casual conversational tone; all we’re getting is the setting of the scene and yet the effortless flow, combined with the peppering of sharp description, keeps the poem engaging and fresh, even now, so many years after it was written. It could be about anything. It could be about everything. So simple, these two stanzas, yet so very strong for just that reason.

It goes on to talk about such a heavy subject matter, one that lies at the very core of society, and yet never breaks that soft-treading stride, never pushes too hard, or puts on too much weight. Later, and I’m being general now, Rukeyser uses repetition just about as powerfully as I’ve seen it utilised.

This is a poem that illustrates the dark with breathless simplicity; it holds our hand and takes us down a street in East Harlem, just an ordinary street, on an ordinary day, using ordinary words, and does what every poet of every colour and every creed strives to do best: it makes you see clearly. It opens your eyes.

And the magical thing about this signature act is that once opened, you cannot close your eyes to it again. Head on over to the Poetry Foundation to read it for yourself. Go on – tell me I’m wrong.

I dare you.

Poem: Sleeping in Gaza by Najwan Darwish

Having had some time and space to come down from the awfulness of the past few days, I figured I’d put up my belated Thursday poems. This week’s choices are two poems by Palestinian poet Najwan Darwish. The foremost of these is Sleeping in Gaza, as translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid.

It begins:

Fado, I’ll sleep like people do
when shells are falling
and the sky is torn like living flesh
I’ll dream, then, like people do
when shells are falling:
I’ll dream of betrayals

This is a poem of surprising grace and weight, given its brevity. It wastes no time in its autopsy of a city, a time, a people. And still somehow has the space to ask powerful questions with enviable ease: How should you deal with tragedy, how should you handle manifold sins?

there are two types of people:
those who cast their suffering and sins
into the streets so they can sleep
and those who collect the people’s suffering and sins
mold them into crosses, and parade them
through the streets of Babylon and Gaza and Beirut

Here, you might think he is pointing the finger, judging too harshly, but in the very next stanza, he turns it back on himself.

Two years ago I walked through the streets
of Dahieh, in southern Beirut
and dragged a cross
as large as the wrecked buildings

His imagery is simple, yet devastating; born and raised in Jerusalem, he has the iconography of three religions, the history of so many crusades, and oceans of blood and bodies to parse through his poetry. In the hands of a lesser writer, a lesser poet, it would be too much, it would overwhelm his material, but Darwish manages to go one step further and inject his own personal experiences into the landscape. In doing so, he is able to cut through the ballast, to set his poem free and high as a kite skipping on the wind.

All in all, the poem is 31 lines long. It’s brutal, and it still hits me now reading it for the umpteenth time, but beyond the emotional impact, what lingers for me is a true admiration for the skill involved in crafting this piece. You can, and most definitely should, read the whole poem here. The ending detonates in your chest, as all great poems should.

His other poem, ‘Mary’, is simple, beautiful and poignant. I don’t want to take anything away from it – like Sleeping in Gaza, it is also short, but in my opinion, needs to be read from start to finish to be appreciated in full. You can do that by going here.

Hopefully, you’ll find these poems as exceptional as I do, and if you don’t, do feel free to post dissenting opinions! I am not simply sharing my admiration of the various poems I find myself falling into, but also, I hope, starting a conversation. It need not be here, of course – it may only carry on in your head or your heart – wherever it is, so long as the thread of thought is continued, this will not have been in vain.

 

Thursday Poems: The Suspect Corpse by Les Murray

The dead man lay, nibbled, between
dark carriages of a rocky river,

a curled load of himself, in cheap
clothes crusted in dried water.

So begins this wonderful little poem, nestled in Murray’s Taller When Prone collection. I was in a rush to find something to share last week, so I picked up the nearest book and flicked open to a page – this one.

You will find, with every poem I share, one thing binds them all together: the sounds. The poems I love best tend to be the ones with the most dynamic sonics on display, a kind of aural fireworks that dances on the tongue, that delights. Of course, sound is not enough in and of itself, no, I look for those paired with a strong narrative, or else which communicate an emotion most strongly.

Since I’m not sure of copyright laws, I won’t share the entirety of Murray’s poem here and instead, I’ll link you to another poem I found this week — it was a rich week of poetry for me, and I can’t wait till next week to show you more — by Yusef Komunyakaa, a poet I was tragically ignorant of until just a few days ago. This is called Envoy to Palestine.

It’s got everything I want in a poem; searing lyricism, strong narrative, and a sonic interplay with ideas and emotion which should be the envy of every poet. My favourite line — and I could quote the whole damn thing at you — is this:

I know a prison of sunlight on the skin.

Needless to say, I have to buy one/all of this man’s work. I’ve read a few others since I stumbled onto that one, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. Click on over to read that poem on Poetry Foundation, which I also have to give a massive shoutout to — it’s an invaluable resource, a gift that keeps on giving, ensuring I keep getting to dig into the guts of poetry to find these sparkling bloody gems.

Thursday Poems: Faint Music by Robert Hass

A few weeks ago, I enrolled in an online summer poetry course being held by the University of Iowa. Each week involves a different youtube talk by a respected poet, and various exercises and workshops based on said talk. The second week’s presenter was former US Poet Laureate Robert Hass. I had no idea who he was, but his dry wit and razor sharp wisdom really appealed to me, and I thought, ‘I have to get this guy’s books.’

Luckily, I happened across this poem, quite by accident, and now the desire to get his books has become an imperative. It is, in a word, staggering. A poem that tells a story, that has a powerful message, that is rich in situating detail, in placing you beneath the skin of the setting and allowing you to breathe in its atmosphere.

All this, and it’s beautifully composed too. It begins:

Maybe you need to write a poem about grace.

And somehow manages to only get better from there. This is a poem about music (and pain, life, humanity), so I urge you to pay attention to its own internal rhythm, to read it aloud. It renders even the most basic sentences musical, in gentle lifting loops you can catch the first strains of song.

He climbed onto the jumping girder of the bridge,
the bay side, a blue, lucid afternoon.

My favourite part is the ending, which hits like a catapult to the soul, and which I won’t spoil by posting here. I can only urge you to read it in all its majesty.

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In other news, I have a feature non-fiction piece in which I reflect on my grandmother’s dementia and the way my family dealt with it, over at Sajjeling, a nifty, independent site emphasising Arab-Australian narratives. Head on over to check it out. It is by no means my best-written piece; I was more than a little emotional in writing it, and part of me wishes I could go over it now with a red pen, but equally, there’s a truthfulness to that messiness which I would hate to erase.

Also, in the next few days, I’ll be launching a new semi-regular segment, Awesome People, wherein I finally tap into the network of wonderful, amazing individuals I know, and have them feature guest posts here to share a story or anecdote or anything really.

That’s all from me for now, so until next time…

Happy reading, all!