Places in My Bones…

Though I have not had cancer or breast cancer for that matter, it probably would seem odd that a memoir about a cancer survivor would get to me that much, but it did. I may not have cried while reading the book, but Carol Dine’s Places in the Bone reaches into the soul of the reader and pulls at the heart strings and a number of other senses through poetry, journal entries, and prose.

This book is not only a journey through her cancer ordeal, but also through her familial struggles with her father and mother. The distance between her sister and herself as a result of these struggles and how she copes. I have one of her poetry books slated on my to read list, but this memoir gives the reader a clear perspective on how these struggles infuse her poetry with palpable imagery and insight. For example, “When the heel of my father’s hand/pounds my back,/I focus on the bedroom wall./I am walking beside the reservoir./ The oaks are giants/taller than him;/”

Her past relations with the likes of Anne Sexton and Stanley Kunitz also play a significant role in her ability to cope with the realities of her treatment and her growing frustration with the relationship she had with her father, mother, and sister. I admire Dine’s ability to connect words to express her frustration, her anguish, her hopelessness, and her resilience.

Dine teaches at Suffolk University, my alma mater, though I never had the pleasure of her company in the classroom. However, I will never forget her generosity in helping out a fellow poet, floundering when her mentor turned her down; she agreed to sponsor my poems for an emerging writers contest for Ploughshares. Even though I did not win the contest, her kindness inspired me to keep going.

Chinese Food, My Favorite

Billy Collins, the Poet Laureate between 2001 and 2003, makes an appearance in the July-August 2007 Issue of Poetry with “Old Man Eating Alone in a Chinese Restaurant.” Ashamedly, I admit I have never previously read any of Billy Collins’ earlier work. However, anyone who knows me has seen my obsession with Chinese food, Crab Rangoon in particular.

This poem, however, does not delve into the nuances of appetizers or of entrees like Moo Goo Gai Pan. At the beginning of the poem, the reader is told the poet had thought about writing a poem about an old man in a Chinese restaurant sitting alone at a table, but he did not write the poem when he was younger. However, now that he has aged, he opted to write the poem. It begs the question how different would the poem have been had it been written when he was younger, rather than when he was older.

Collins expresses his opinion on the matter: “I would have gotten it all wrong/ thinking: the poor bastard, not a friend in the world/and with only a book for a companion./”

Collins takes his watercolor brush and paints the scene, from the big windows filling with light to the supple hair of the waitress. From the lines in the first stanza it would seem Collins thought he would have had a more somber view of the lone man in the Chinese restaurant.

Rhyme This

Traditional forms of poetry often leave me cold; but on occasion, a poet will surprise me. Wendy Cope’s “Some Rules” in the July-August issue of Poetry uses an ABA rhyme scheme with an ending couplet in the final stanza. The rhyme scheme provides a sarcastic and sort of whimsical undertone to the poem.

“Don’t fall for an amusing hunk,/However rich, unless he’s kind./Don’t answer e-mails when you’re drunk.//” Sounds like pretty solid and practical advice to me. The rhyme is a bit elementary, but I think it works here, especially since the rules are simple. The main rule in this poem seems to be not engage in activities with heavy consequences when drunk. However, the poet explicitly reminds the reader not to answer emails when drunk. As a reader, it makes me wonder why this rule is particularly important to remember.

The fourth stanza is full of regret, or so it seems to me. “Don’t live with thirty years of junk–/Those precious things you’ll never find/Stop, if the car is going ‘clunk.’//” Car troubles, plus rising piles of junk seem to get the poet down. It’s almost like the poet has created a list of New Year’s resolutions to follow.

Just for Fun

Back to the July/August issue of Poetry magazine. “Blues for Oedipus” by X.J. Kennedy amuses me. The words chosen by the poet to run through the tragedy of Oedipus in two short stanzas, moving the reader quickly through the major conflicts. The words and phrases are short and bounce from line to line like a hip-hop song. “Oracle figured/You’d come a cropper,/Kingdom-killin/Mammyjammin/Poppa-bopper!//” The first stanza is the most fun, and it made me want to dance. The second stanza is more explicit about the events in the tragedy, but with the flare of a spoken-word poet. It reminds me of April poetry month events held in Bethesda, Md.

Rough Draft, Lost, Not Forgotten

By now, everyone has heard about the latest Robert Frost poem found at the University of Virginia. “War Thoughts at Home” was published in Virginia Quarterly Review’s Fall 2006 Issue. Upon hearing the news about the once unknown poem, I rushed to the bookstore to pick up the issue. I’ve had the volume for almost a year now, though it has been in and out of my possession on occasion. I’ve read the poem many times, like I’ve read many of Robert Frost’s poems in the past.

Unlike many of his poems, it would seem this one is not finished. It is not as polished as some of his other works. But beyond that, the voice of the poem is not sure and steady. “So someone heeds from within/This flurry of bird war,/” Who is within watching? The next lines indicate it is a woman, but she seems ambivalent about watching given the sewing in her lap. It is the birds in the fifth stanza who are adamant their fight is not over like the war in France. The poem is dated January 1918, which suggests it was written during World War I, though the war ended that same year.

The thoughts of the birds now migrate to the woman who drifts into thoughts of camps where soldiers are groomed. My favorite and most haunting lines come at the end of the poem. “Shed behind shed in train/Like cars that long have lain/dead on a side track.//” Not only do these lines resemble the Frost I know and love, but also they signify a greater understanding about war and that it is never truly over. In fact, the lines of sheds mirroring train cars could allude to the later transportation of Jews to concentration camps during World War II. However, the poem was left as is in a book, so whether Frost had an epiphany or vision of the future will never be known.

****Here’s a little article from VQR that could shed light on this poem and topic for my readers.

Unfinished Business

No, not Poetry magazine again. This time a poem from Issue 44 of Columbia–a Journal of Literature and Art caught my attention. “A Death in the Snow” by Julianne Buchsbaum reminded me of all the to-do lists I have lying around, which may or may not get finished in my lifetime. Not only will these lists possibly live on without me, but I will also not be attached to them in any meaningful way after I have passed. “my list of things to do, leave it lying//in the snow like an old book/” I suppose I could put my name on these lists before I die, but what would that accomplish, except to raise more questions with the person finding them.

While the discoverer could simply shrug off questions as unanswerable, they could also be consumed with a compulsion to find the answers. Would I want to be responsible for that kind of obsession? Would I really incite that kind of devotion in another human being? Those too are unanswerable questions.

Instead, this poem forces me to take an introspective look at the reasons I make these lists. Do I make them simply because I cannot remember all that I want to accomplish or is it that I am too afraid to actually take the plunge and do some of the items on these lists? Right now, this poem unleashes an urge within me to burn, shred, and otherwise to destroy these lists so they can never be connected to me. I would rather everyone coming after I have passed to simply remember “Epitaphs covered with mold,/” A bit morbid I’m sure, but true. When we pass, unless someone cares for our graves throughout eternity, they will indeed be overgrown by nature, making the cycle complete.

Interpretive Dance of Moonlight

Again, the summer issue of Poetry magazine has captured my devotion. Brad Leithauser’s “Furnishings of the Moon” in the July/August issue of Poetry is not a single poem, but a connected sextet of smaller poems. What are the furnishings of the moon? Leithauser postulates in his mini-poems that those furnishings are a “Telephone,” a “Claw-Footed Bathtub,” a “Refrigerator,” a “Neighbor’s Radio,” a “Tree,” and an “Old Furnace.”

“Telephone” starts the sextet of poems with an aloof voice hoping for mere quiet as the lights go out. Once the metaphorical house is dark, readers are taken on a journey from one room to another. We follow the guest down the hallway like shadows; and in the bathroom, we come upon a “Claw-Footed Bathtub.” “find the switch–and hesitate./They’d vanish at a touch./” These lines intimate the guest is aware of our presence as if we are ghosts from the past or memories the guest is trying to hold onto–relish in. The mini-poems twist the realistic purpose of these mundane objects to highlight the inner struggles of the voice and a guest.

“Refrigerator” draws parallels between an insatiable guest and an empty icebox in need of fulfillment. “Its sleepy hum’s the sated hum of someone who/Ate nearly everything.” Insatiable voids in the kitchen sweep through open windows on the current of radio sounds. The narrator wants to remain cut off; but at the same time, curiosity takes over and the narrator cannot help but listen to the “Neighbor’s Radio.”

While the “Neighbor’s Radio” is outside the primary space I envision the poet discussing and the guest walking through, it really only has to do with the voice’s inability to ignore the outside noise. However, there is one mini-poem outside the structure, “Tree.” The tree vacant of its leaves still makes contact with the guest in the house when the wind is just right. “the bony branches bend/To the glass, tap-tap a few lines,/” Is the tree making contact or willing the guest to come outside and be inspired by its musings. Perhaps the tree is the poet–tapping out lines of verse. There are multiple interpretations here. While the title “Furnishings of Moonlight” can be interpreted literally, it also can be taken to mean how moonlight cascades upon items. In these poems I view the moonlight more like a lens through which the voice views given situations. “Old Furnace” caps off the sextet with a retreat into the supposed silence of darkness, but “Outside the cave’s mouth, predator/Howls after prey.”

Full Circle of Faith

“Inheriting My Grandmother’s Nightmare” by Anne Stevenson, recently published in the May 2007 issue of Poetry magazine, comes full circle from a grandmother’s struggles with aging to a grand-daughter’s similar experiences. The journey starts with an open drawer of heirlooms gazed upon and the memories they spill forth of an aging matriarch. “She who was always a climate in herself,/who refused to vanish.” A resilient woman ignored as she aged and time marched onward. The admiration for the narrator’s grandmother is obvious. The final lines of the poem circle the reader back to the beginning, only with the grand-daughter drowning and fading behind the smoke and the noise.

Another poem in the May 2007 Poetry magazine issue that struck me with its unique perspective and image twists was Maurice Manning’s “A Blasphemy.” The story begins with a man outside societal norms worshipping, generating faith, and praying for others’ happiness. “and calling God/the Elder Sweet Potato, shucks,/that’s pretty funny, and kind of sad.” The concise images help demonstrate the simple man, who seems to be the subject of the poem. Rereading the language, the poem seems to dig at the crux of religion in terms of its arbitrary idols and symbols, though not intentionally dragging the idea of faith through the mud.

These two poems depict the different struggles humans go through in their lives and how they can overcome them to prosper and beat the odds, still living happy lives. I like to think of these poems as a sort of redemption for the reader. The poems also highlight the darker underbelly of human interactions, particularly within families and in society as a whole. To treat an aging matriarch with such disdain and disrespect is unfathomable to me. Reflecting upon the idols and names revered by religions are interchangeable between forms of faith, and yet to outsiders, some of these names can be viewed unfavorably by those not in the same circles.

Coney Island Hot Dogs

I know, I know…I haven’t posted any literary activity in a long while. Sorry about all that. I have posted on my other blog about mundane activities if you are interested in those.

Today’s post is about a book of poetry, which many people have probably already read or at least should have read some of the poems in various journals by now. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “A Coney Island of the Mind,” instantly brought me back to my days in Worcester, Mass., and its Coney Island hot dog restaurant/stand. Yes, the title is the instant memory recaller for me, not so much the poems. The title reminded me of pre-college and the first couple years of college when friends and I would stop by and get cheap hot dogs with mustard and other condiments and the giant dill pickles for $1. We stuffed ourselves silly, only to be hungry again later.

Enough of my reminiscing, let’s get back to the poetry.

One of my favorite poems in this volume is “Dog.” As a dog owner, who often personifies her pet, I can completely see my dog acting in the same way the dog in the poem does. For instance, “The dog trots freely in the street/and sees reality/and the things he sees/are his reality.” However, this is not just a dog, but a metaphor on some level for the working man, though Ferlinghetti does not make this abundantly clear to the reader until the latter portion of the poem. “He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower/but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle/although what he hears is very discouraging, ” and “He will not be muzzeled/Congressman Doyle is just another/fire hydrant/to him.” I like the simple language the poet uses to set the scene of a dog walking down the street and what he sees, but it is how he views the world that intrigues the reader.

Another of my favorite poems in the volume is “9,” with its amusing language to accurately pinpoint the reality of drunken encounters. Many of the other poems in the book are explicit in their depiction of adolescent fumbling in love and lust, but the language often has a lighter tone to prevent the reader from believing the poet or poem lectures them about human interaction. In fact, the lighter language helps to alleviate anxieties about sexual situations and human interactions to display the more amusing side of these encounters. In poem “9,” Ferlinghetti writes “but then this dame/comes up behind me see/and says/you and me could really exist/wow I says/only the next day/she has bad teeth.”

Also unique in this volume are several poems, which the author specifies should be spoken to jazz accompaniment, rather than merely read on a printed page. One of them, titled “Autobiography,”contains the song-like language: “I rest/I have travelled./I have seen goof city./I have seen the mass mess./I have heard Kid Ory cry./I have heard a trombone preach./I have heard Debussy/strained thru a sheet.”

I highly recommend this poetry volume to anyone interested in amusing language and human interaction commentary. I love the imagery of these poems as well.

Grammar Lesson…I Think Not!

Previously, I discussed how poets can turn readers onto another perspective regarding a given topic. The poem I selected from Poet Lore’s Summer 2007 issue highlights another quality of poetry–the imagination.

“On the Origin of Punctuation Marks” by Elizabeth Klise von Zerneck, the poet postulates how punctuation came to be as we know it. As a writer, I fully understand the power of words, but without punctuation, much of each word’s emphasis could be lost in breath. Klise von Zerneck suggests these punctuation marks fell from trees, like branches, bark, or acorns would, and bent or rolled upon hitting the ground.

As the poet discusses the random ways in which these marks are shaped by the environment into which they fell, the reader can picture the periods, question marks, and exclamation points as much more than grammatical elements. “The bent twigs paused, and wavered, caught against/” and “pods burrowed deep, and deeper, then reversed/ and grew up toward the sky…some straight as reeds/” Too many of us forget the beauty of punctuation, not only as a means to provide meaning and power behind our words, but also as aesthetic adornment on the page.

So ends my grammar lesson.

The Nuances of Spoons

Poets have a unique job to highlight the beauty of the mundane, the grotesque, and the world in general. However, many view poets as the keepers of emotion and profound insight, which may or may not be true. As part of my new poetic strategy to keep up on contemporary poetry, I have subscribed to several literary journals. In the Summer 2007 issue of Poet Lore, published by the Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Md, “Spoons, An Appreciation” by Tim Barnes caught my eye.

In the lines, “but to spoon is to make love, cuddle together” and “but spoons are the shapes of breasts and buttocks” Barnes forces the reader to check the utensil drawer, pick up a spoon, and view it with a different perspective. To make the sensuality of a spoon more clear, he sharply contrasts spoons with knives and forks. He illustrates how knives and forks, poke, jab, and sever meat and vegetables, while spoons covet, cup, and hold food gently in an embrace, like a lover.

The light-hearted poem reminds me how powerful words can be, especially in changing readers’ minds about various subjects, whether it be a spoon or war. I think too often these days, readers and writers are reliant upon cliche and fail to view the world afresh.