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 Poems: Brown’s Odd Jobs & Carver’s Happiness

I’ve spent the last little while reading two poems over and over again, and ultimately, I couldn’t decide which to share–or rather, which I had the most to say about, so I’m going to talk about both of them. Let’s begin with Raymond Carver’s poem Happiness, in full:

So early it’s still almost dark out.
I’m near the window with coffee,
and the usual early morning stuff
that passes for thought.
When I see the boy and his friend
walking up the road
to deliver the newspaper.
They have on caps and sweaters,
and the one boy has a bag over his shoulder.
They are so happy
they aren’t saying anything, these boys.
I think if they could, they would take
each other’s arm.
It’s early in the morning,
and they are doing this thing together.
They come on, slowly.
The sky is taking on light,
though the moon still hangs palely over the water.
Such beauty that for a minute
death and ambition, even love
doesn’t enter into this.
Happiness. It comes on
unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,
any early morning talk about it.

#

It’s such a simple, lovely poem. Just two kids out delivering the paper, and in that moment–not thinking about anything beyond it, purely ensconced in the endless present of childhood–they are as happy as they’ll ever be, even if they don’t know it. It is the deep nostalgia of the narrator, of the man by his window, that makes this poem so deeply affecting. I’m typically against the overt naming of an emotion in poetry, I don’t want to be told so cheaply what is being felt, I want only to feel it, but Carver does it twice in this poem and I don’t care. For this poem, I could forgive just about anything–though I’ll admit I’d love to remove ‘palely’ from its line. It’s the one ugly mark on an otherwise gorgeous work, one which, as he says, goes beyond any talk about it really. It’s all there in the moment, the scene, the poem.

Now to Jericho Brown’s brilliant poem, Odd Jobs, which given its brevity, and how much I want to quote all of it, I’ll just put here too:

I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.

#

I love that first line so fucking much, y’all. Why? Because fuck commas, that’s why, it does all the work it needs to do just by placement alone. The muscular economy of it, the way it resists you on first reading, is so damn good. You should study that opening line and look again at your own to see whether you accomplish even half so much with just seven words. The second line is equally good, and the rhythm is so damn tight, especially running off the alliteration-heavy ending of the first line, ‘cuss cutting grass’ is just ace. After that, Brown moves briskly to the heart of it: ‘the loneliest people have the earth to love/ and not one friend their own age.’

But here’s the thing, even with those excellent three lines I just mentioned, this might just have been an okay poem if not for the ending. I’ve said before and I’ll say it again: poems are grenades and by the time they end, there ought to be an explosion. You ought to feel the blast. That doesn’t mean it has to be dramatic or violent, far from it–in fact, I’d say most often it involves an unexpected turn inward, which bursts open the poem and in so doing, sets off a similar impact within us. Brown absolutely nails it, again with breathtaking economy, undoing the earlier bitterness he evoked with his ugly sweating hard work, by adding a quiet touch of longing: I once had something to do with my hands.

In this, actually, there is a commonality between the two poems. Both Brown and Carver look to their childhoods, and both are talking about odd jobs, albeit one from a distance, with the other in the present before shifting forward. Both, I think, are also getting at the same point: our inability to enjoy our present circumstances. We bitch and we moan and we’re hateful and we’re struggling, as if there’s ever going to be a point where we’re not struggling–which simply isn’t true. The nature of the struggle simple changes, it adapts as you adapt, so it may be money now but if it ain’t that later, it’ll be something else. And something else. Until you might wind up one day thinking about something you used to hate, and say damn, I once had something to do with my hands. Then realise hell, happiness, it comes on unexpectedly.

Thursday Poem: County Fair by Mary Karr

This is going to be another small entry, I’m afraid. Firstly, I should belatedly do the thing where I promote some of the writings I have recently published. I wrote about my trip across Australia for Going Down Swinging, and the first of three pieces can be seen here, the second here. A preview of the latter:

I have often heard people describe a perceived sameness as boring: that sky, roads, and even beautiful countryside can become a blur after a while. I don’t think I’ll ever understand those people. Though we had, over the past three days, been on roads that extended as far as the eye could see, they never failed to leave me stunned, humbled by scale, and thrilled in a way I had never been by a landscape large beyond reckoning. A largeness only literature could hope to map in its entirety, to expose not just the outer lines, the broadness of its body, but to interrogate its features, its tiny miracles and incongruities.

I have a poem in the latest issue of Tincture Journal, which sadly isn’t part of the free content but which you can purchase for $8. I also have a poem in the latest issue of Meanjin.

What’s with all this self-promotion, you might be thinking, where’s the poem by Mary Karr? Well, here’s the thing. County Fair is a goddamn beautiful poem. I love it so very much. But I don’t actually have much to say about it. I’ve read it several times now, and each time, the joy garnered from the reading has only increased the buffer around it. Love is resistant to interrogation that way, at least at first. I have yet to pierce that skin. So, at least for now, I’m going to stay away from trying to pick it apart and continue to enjoy its beautiful evocation of this childhood mainstay, of parenthood, and the beauty and ugliness in all of us.

It begins:

On the mudroad of plodding American bodies,
         my son wove like an antelope from stall
to stall and want to want. I no’ed it all: the wind-up
         killer robot and winged alien; knives
hierarchical in a glass case; the blow-up vinyl wolf
         bobbing from a pilgrim’s staff.
Go on and read the whole thing, before I just quote it in its entirety.

Three Poems To Tide You Over

Dear friends in poetry,

I am too tired and too adrift today for my usual ramble. Here instead are three poems I read this week, presented in their natural state.

1.‘Epithalamion’ by Rickey Laurentiis
2. From “Home, Again” by John McAuliffe
3. Some Say by Maureen N. McLane

These are, one and all, stunning in their own unique ways.

Thursday Poem: Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings by Juan Fellipe Herrera

In light of the recent appointment of Juan Fellipe Herrera as U.S Poet Laureate, I thought it would be remiss of me not to talk about one of his poems. Among all the various articles written about him recently, one quoted phrase in particular snagged my attention. It was from his poem Let Me Tell You What A Poem Brings, and it is as simple as this:

Before you go further,
let me tell you what a poem brings,
first, you must know the secret, there is no poem
to speak of, it is a way to attain a life without boundaries
Rather than go through the minutia of what is already a miniature poem (though so breathtakingly large at the same time), I’m just going to use this as a launching point to talk about poetry because it speaks to me on such a personal level and because I’ve been thinking about it a great deal lately.
A lot of people don’t like poems which refer directly to or are themselves about poetry, what it means and why we write it – in fact, some journals explicitly ask you not to submit them. Types like this poem today, in fact. I don’t understand that attitude honestly, and not just because I’m inclined to enjoy them; it just seems to me that reflection is intrinsic to the art itself, and so surely there can be nothing more natural for the poet than to look closely at what compels him or her to write it. It’s also, in this deeply commodity-obsessed capitalist culture, an oddity, an aberration; it pays little-to-nothing, and yet here we are devoting our lives to it.

Continue reading

Thursday Poem: Shoulders by Shane Koyczan

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:

Thursday Poems

I meant to post this yesterday, but was overwhelmed by a very busy schedule, so let’s all just pretend it’s still Thursday, okay? Great. Now, my housemate and I have had a standing challenge for the past few months: that every Thursday, we each must find a new great poem to share. ‘New’ here merely means something we haven’t read before.

The purpose of this is twofold. Firstly, it forces us to look further and further afield to find excellent poems, and in the process, discover poets we’d never have otherwise come across. There’s just so much out there we’ve yet to read, and this is a great incentive to range far and wide. Secondly, it keeps us engaged in a field of writing we both love – it ensures we aren’t simply passive in our readership, that we’re both investigative and critical.

It’s also just a fun, lively way to spruik what might be an otherwise ordinary day or night. It’s something I’ve grown to love, and while we’re not zealous in our application of it – sometimes we miss the day, or forget – we always catch up. And if we don’t get to share it because we’re busy, we’ll still have read more poetry during that week than we otherwise would have, and that’s a win in my books.

So I thought it’d be a good idea to start sharing the poems I find on this blog, so that everyone can have a look at what I’ve stumbled into. The last entry, which I’ve read a half-dozen times, and is fast becoming one of my favourite poems ever, is an absolute delight. I’m talking about Bill Manhire’s ‘Hotel Emergencies.’ It’s evocative and powerful, mixing mundane observations with an ever-widening ripple of connected thoughts, taking branches both logical and poetic, and always, always building its rhythm beautifully.

I highly recommend you read it aloud.

You will not regret it!

World Poetry Day

Given World Poetry Day was yesterday, the 21st of March, I figured I’d write a little something about poetry. Which, of course, led me to the very first and most obvious question. Below, you’ll find both question and answer (sort of, not really, maybe, ask me again, and it will change.)

What is poetry? 

It’s life.

Poetry has taught me to be concise but if you need more than that, I suppose I can elaborate. Poetry is akin to the ocean. We’ve lived in and around it for thousands of years, we’ve explored it in every way we know how, and as the years go on, the more we realise how little we know. There are unplumbed depths we may never reach. Every time we think we know all the different kinds of poem in the ocean, we see a new poem – a poem that changes gender before our eyes, a poem with a killer neurotoxin beyond our science to counter, a poem with lanterns for eyes, a small poem which breeds thousands more with every breath, a poem that pollinates the very water itself, a poem so perfectly camouflaged we don’t think it’s poetry at all, an infant poem capable of devouring the oldest.

Despite this, people keep asking the question. What is poetry? Has it been catalogued and categorised in its entirety? Have we captured enough poets, tagged them with little yellow numbers, and sent them back into the wilds whence they came and observed how they lived and loved and bred? Ask the wild poets themselves, those hanging from eucalyptus trees, or sailing on the wind, and even they cannot come close to a complete answer. This is because poetry is in constant flux, it is always changing, along with what we know of it. Much like life, you could say.

At least, that’s my spontaneous response. I’m only getting started in the world of poetry, so I’ll keep asking myself the question, and keep answering it, to see what grows and changes and is new in thought or feeling.