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 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.

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 No Show

So, you may have noticed I didn’t post about a poem this week and since I have an hour to kill in an airport, I thought I’d explain why, which is that I embarked on an impromptu roadtrip across the Australian countryside a few days ago. We drove 3,000km before accidentally smashing into a kangaroo on a desert highway, rendering the car undrivable. We were unhurt and managed to hitch a ride to the next major city, Perth, where I’m about to catch a flight home to Sydney.

While there’s no poem this week to talk about, I do have some poetry news of my own to share: I’m very pleased to say that one of my poems has been shortlisted for the ACU Poetry Prize 2015 and will be published along with the other shortlisted entries in their annual chapbook. Aside from that, I have a poem in the forthcoming issue of Tincture Journal and the September issue of Meanjin, so keep an eye out for those!

Until next week,
– Omar

Thursday Poems: Dooms of Love Grayed In

You would think that since my day job ended last week, I would have had ample time to find a poem this week, and that I would for once not be tired while I did so, but life is nothing if not a constant nuisance, a child made for the trampling of plans, expectations, hopes and dreams with equal dispassionate ease. Which is to say that I’m only getting to it now, and if that weren’t insult enough, I am not here to showcase one poem but two.

It may be because I was sitting here in my chair nodding off, or because my housemate is playing his guitar and singing in the next room, making it hard to focus on each line, but I found myself drifting in and out of these poems, occasionally caught and tangled again on a beautiful line or sharp thought, and so by the time I was done, I didn’t feel up to reviewing either work – my father moves through dooms of love by E. E. Cummings or Grayed In by Martha Collins – in full. They had meshed in a weird way in my skull, a fact I think would please Collins in particular, with her penchant for presenting simultaneous possibilities in the same moment – things are always about to happen happening happened, falling (still) rising, etc.

Her poem begins:

1

Snow fallen, another going
gone, new come in, open
the door:
                  each night I grow
young, my friends are well
again, my life is all
before me,
                   each morning
I close a door, another door.

That second stanza is electrifying; I sat up in my chair, tried to recover my breath. I love it for its contradiction, growing young with time, but also for its aching delusional optimism — too often I feel just the opposite, that each night marks a closing, not an opening. But it’s true as well that all life is before you all the time, and that is a thought to treasure.

Collins is fond of playing not just with words and spacing but also time, linear constructions, place and self in a kind of breathless cascade down the page. It doesn’t always work for me, personally, although that could be the tiredness talking, but the speed with which she diverges from one stanza to the next can be jarring.

For example, we go from this:

6

down buildings walls houses
schools, no one building only

bombing, months of little in,
now nothing no one out, only

down: bodies arms legs in Gaza

to this next section, with no connecting tissue offered:

7

On this day, this birthday, I wish
myself for the first time (who
would be a child again?) back

at that dining room table with
him, his years of little more less
back,

Everything weaves together in this poem and even if it didn’t capture me a hundred percent of the time, the moments it did were frequently stunning. Her imagery though sparse never fails to conjure a complete and striking picture. At the same time as I was reading through this poem and my housemate was singing and I was thinking I should probably go to bed and leave this for tomorrow, I saw Cummings’ superbly titled poem and dove into it.

It begins:

my father moved through dooms of love 
through sames of am through haves of give, 
singing each morning out of each night 
my father moved through depths of height

Typically, I’ve struggled with older, classical poetry. I often find it to be archaic in its formulation, or overly sentimental, etc. This poem, however, is unique in that the language Cummings uses is so singular, the phrases so adroit in pairing juxtaposing concepts or emotions like the titular “dooms of love”, that for once I wasn’t obsessing over the rhyming metre. Many poets twist themselves into knots with rhyme, taking the poem in a direction it doesn’t want to go purely to achieve the desired couplet, but I didn’t notice that here and if I did, wouldn’t care anyway – how could I when joy burgeons out of this poem so strongly?

Yes, it can become a bit much at times, but it’s worth it to move through “griefs of joy” with “wrists of twilight”, “singing desire into being” as “septembering arms of year extend.” That last phrase almost split my skin with delight I grinned so fucking hard. It’s so goddamn perfect. Nothing more need be said to bring that picture to life, and more than that, it’s such an efficient marriage of time and image to take us into the next stage of the poem, of his father’s life.

Both poems tonight are exemplary in their deployment of language, their dissection of time and place and personhood, albeit in different ways; though both most clearly deserve to be looked at on their own, I can’t bring myself to regret the way exhaustion spliced their oddities into one. The overall effect was is will always be beautiful.