Some poems about apples

Years and years ago, I started a writers’ group that met once every three weeks. We’d read and comment on a poem or a piece of short fiction written by one of us, which more often than not led to a piercingly intimate dissection of the bad breaks or bad lovers which inspired us. Then we’d drink several bottles of wine and play one or two silly writing games, such as “Dirty Napkin,” which yielded a great deal of wine-soaked laughter. These are very fond memories.

I still wrote the occasional poem in those days, when I was reading more poetry and the habit of it came more easily. Among them was a suite of poems inspired by René Magritte paintings–and also by a crushing break-up, which supplied the melancholy tone. I always thought about sending these to one of the food magazines I’ve written for, but since I don’t write poetry regularly it didn’t make sense to try to publish them. But then I put together a Magritte-inspired Food Music Playlist, and I thought, Why not? This is my blog, I can do what I want. Public and yet not published, here lies the fruit of a wounded younger version of myself.

apple1 apple2 apple3 apple4 apple5

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Words and Pain: two poems by Miroslav Holub

This post is modified from the original on Peachleaves.

When I was teaching an introductory literature course organized around the concepts of comedy and tragedy, one of my toughest sells was that it is possible–desirable, sometimes–to take apart a joke to see what makes it funny. Thinking critically about humor really brought home the overarching point of my course–which was that language is instrumental in constructing how we understand the world, and that while we surely do construct sentences and create meaning, sometimes the meaning is already there before we get there, meaning all kinds of things above and beyond what it sounds like. (Undergrads hate this, at first.  “Aren’t we reading too much into it?” they plead.  Once they start noticing patterns themselves, they’re all over it.)

And yet it’s even harder to break down the perception of the tragic. Our impulse to laugh that feels so instinctual that we resist breaking it down into smaller parts, but it’s easy enough to get a roomful of undergrads to giggle and then to talk about how it’s done. It’s rather less desirable to lead them into a bodily experience of sadness or pain.

Around that time, I was scanning a book about modern drama and came across this beautiful poem, used to illustrate a point about the difference between the way we understand language in novels vs. plays. The title is translated as “Brief Reflection on the Word Pain,” by Miroslav Holub, a Czech immunologist who also publishes poetry.

Wittgenstein says the words ‘It hurts’ have replaced
tears and cries of pain.  The word ‘Pain’
does not describe the expression of pain but replaces it.
Replaces and displaces it.
Thus it creates a new behavior pattern
in the case of pain.

The word comes between us and the pain
like a pretence of silence.
It is a silencing.  It is a needle
unpicking the stitch
between blood and clay.

I sought out Holub’s collection, Vanishing Lung Syndrome, much of which continues to play on the tension between scientific knowledge and visceral knowledge, and between the metaphors of language and the metaphors of (yeah, I said it!) science.  This is the first poem in the volume, called “1751.”

   That year Diderot began to publish his Encyclopedia, and the first
insane asylum was founded in London.
So the counting out began, to separate the sane, who veil themselves
in words, from the insane, who rip feathers from their bodies.

Poets had to learn tightrope-walking.
And just to make sure, officious dimwits began to publish
instructions on how to be normal.

Get Excited, and Get Lucky

Hello friends. Have a poem for this hot, hot summer day:

Getting Lucky With Jamie

by Nicole Steinberg

If you want to go a tiny bit hipster, here’s how:
Grab a romper and go to town on the all-natural train
from Jackson Heights to lower Manhattan; mask
any contempt for the matchy-matchy girls under
your straw fedora and un-meltable hair. Always
have Kate Moss’s precise address and phone
number at the ready; indulge in vanilla soft-serve
and run wild through dressing rooms, completely
guilt-free. Hide your arbitrary fears and Connecticut
weakness; call forth your tough, punk rock shine.
Stay pretty in the heat of the New York chill
you’ve dreamed of since you were a teenager, even
after you’re no longer new. Lick your black pearl lips,
telegraph a dose of danger. Let it come, dripping wet.

This poem, like the other poems in Nicole’s Lucky series (here’s a few with audio at Moonshot Magazine), lifts language from the pages of Lucky magazine. I always find myself imagining pages covered with cut-out words like a cartoon ransom note, wondering where the scissors snipped–did Lucky ever recommend a black pearl lip for a dangerous look? Is “Connecticut weakness” a verbatim or collaged phrase? But obviously the poems tell their own stories, create their own characters. That’s what I like about them so much: they use the language of fashion and shopping in a way that sounds both familiar and strange, expressing both the power and self-expression that style can offer as well as the yearning and lack that drives the industry. The poems are critical of the kind of femininity constructed by fashion, but they are also of and inside that discourse–as are we all. The candy-lipped and ballerina-skirted women who emerge from these poems tempt us to identify and aspire to them even when we recognize their impossibility.

Cool, right? Luckily (sorry!), you can now contribute toward a fund to help bring a whole book of these poems into the world! The publisher, Spooky Girlfriend Press, has just about met their goal for publication, but it was a modest goal. The more poetry-lovers contribute, the better exposure and circulation they can get for the book.

If you follow the IndieGoGo link, you’ll also see a short book trailer, featuring a mash-up of several different lines from different poems, read by a number of friends of ours. That’s me jamming gigantic false eyelashes onto my lids, for example. It was great fun to film–and I’m very excited to see this collection get published, since I’ve been reading the poems and hearing them read since I met Nicole a few years ago. I hope you enjoy them too.

 

 

NaPoWriMo Week Four Point Five: Sarcastic Sonnets

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This is a short week at the end of a challenging month, so I decided to treat myself to some sonnets by Edna St. Vincent Millay. As I used to tell my literature students, Millay offers great break-up poetry–she gives a great kissoff, as in “I being born a woman and distressed,” but she also conveys the sadness and loneliness of being beautiful and popular and having many lovers. So relatable!  But in any event, sonnets are fun to read aloud in general, and these are delicious in particular.

Millay’s sonnets are all over the internet, so I’ll just post a couple here in entirety and with little comment. Enjoy!

Monday

This one has been my favorite for many years. It’s a little bit of a tongue twister to speak aloud–that’s a long clause!–but when you do so, you can really feel the long, langorous, meditative lull of the first eight lines compared to the swift candle-snuff of the last six.

Only until this cigarette is ended,
A little moment at the end of all,
While on the floor the quiet ashes fall,
And in the firelight to a lance extended,
Bizarrely with the jazzing music blended,
The broken shadow dances on the wall,
I will permit my memory to recall
The vision of you, by all my dreams attended.
And then adieu,–farewell!–the dream is done.
Yours is a face of which I can forget
The colour and the features, every one,
The words not ever, and the smiles not yet;
But in your day this moment is the sun
Upon a hill, after the sun has set.

Tuesday

This sonnet appeared in the anthology I used to teach my last Intro to Literature class, so I borrowed it to make a playful point about skirting the line between comedy and tragedy. It’s a sad poem, sure. But it thwarts our expectations so wildly–even in the 21st century, my students were a little surprised to read a female poet writing about how many conquests she’s had, and comparing male lovers to birds. I like to think that the sonnet doesn’t take itself too seriously.

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why,
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain
Under my head till morning; but the rain
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh
Upon the glass and listen for reply,
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain
For unremembered lads that not again
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry.
Thus in the winter stands the lonely tree,
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one,
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before:
I cannot say what loves have come and gone,
I only know that summer sang in me
A little while, that in me sings no more.
Thus concludes the first part of my committment to NaPoWriMo! 30 days, 26 poems, plus a few bonus poems linked by way of discussion. I’m languidly polishing up my poetic responses to the verses discussed here–I’m no hurry to share them, but I am trying to maintain some integrity of purpose here.

NaPoWriMo Week Four: Aleatory Selection

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For this sextet of poems, I will not make a pretense of having read one per day. In truth, I felt a little at sea after week three; I wanted to leave more up to chance and to be surprised, but I wasn’t sure how to invite random poems in. I asked friends for recs. I followed links and favorited poetry tweets. Some of these poems I read once during the week, others I read over and over again.

One

“Today,” by Walter Butts, arrived in my inbox exactly when I needed it. I was fielding some Emails from an aggressive, bullying author, and though I could laugh off his bad behavior while it was happening, this poem made me tear up a bit and want to commit to pursue more beautiful, more delicate ways to pass the time. Because I haven’t seen it posted in too many places and because Butts has very recently passed away, I will reproduce it here in full.

Today is your lover, asleep
and dreaming the continuous fountain.
It is your body
dying without you.
It is the darkness
of distant trees
poised on the horizon,
like those strange shadows
of small animals
that danced across the moonlit ceiling
of your childhood.
It is a long-tailed kite,
or random bird.
It is a child
grasping the tenuous cord
of delight.
Today is the desire
of sudden rain, or it is you
driving through that rain,
not knowing the difference
between curved road and sky.

Two

“Currying the Fallow-Colored Horse” by Lucy Brock-Broido was posted on The Hairpin earlier in the month, while I was still flipping through my Imagist anthologies. My mind kept coming back to it, though. It’s an odd, spiky poem, written to a “you” in terse lines, almost couplets in that almost every two lines concludes a thought, but the links between the thoughts and their relevance to “you” isn’t totally clear. It’s like a secret message. Yet, I like it, and I kept coming back to it, because I found some of the images so memorable: I feel sympathetic to the narrator who “did not like the wool of him” and kisses her fragile lover “blondly on the mouth.”

Three

Through a Facebook friend I learned that Apiary Magazine was celebrating NaPoWriMo with various Philly-area folks’ favorite poems. One of these led me to Louise Erdrich’s “Advice to Myself,” which I am tempted to print out and pin up as advice to my self too. “Leave the dishes,” the poem begins, and then advocates the leaving of numerous other small household chores in favor of cleaning out that far more neglected space, the heart. It’s a powerful poem, even when humorous–“Pink molds will grow within those sealed cartons/in the refrigerator. Accept new forms of life,” the narrator advises  None of the dusty things, decayed things, or messy things mean much when the more powerful organizations of language, writing, and passion are at stake.
I think I’ll enjoy reading that one out loud periodically in the way I occasionally revisit Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” which I find placating when I’m ruffled. In truth, though, I don’t want to lose so many things or leave so much undone. The small household chores can be an annoyance, but living alone, I do them for myself and no one does them for me. They are small ways of reminding myself that I am cared for. (By me.)

Four

Speaking of “One Art,” I read a parody in Berfrois during the week: the timely “NaPoWriMo Suite” by Daniel Bosch. His parodic “Two Arts” is not the most skillful villanelle you’ll ever read, but I am willing to forgive much for the hilarious line suggesting that getting a Master’s permits you to glide through a few years “on casters.” Clever!

Five

Someone on my Twitter feed linked to “Cat in an Empty Apartment” by Wisława Szymborska on the NYReview of Books website. It’s a fine balance between humor and sadness, with the titular cat experiencing ennui and a bit of existential angst (“what can a cat do/  in an empty apartment?/ Climb the walls?/  Rub up against the furniture?”). Someone is still feeding him fish, but the timing is all wrong. Through the cat’s unease, one gets the idea that something sadder is going on–perhaps his person passed away–yet there is the cat plotting how to theatrically convey his offense and displeasure when his person returns.

Six

While I was poking around for biography links for an earlier cited poem, the Poetry Foundation website slyly suggested I read “Gravitas” by Sara Miller. A thoughtful image for someone like me, whose griefs tend to manifest in physical heaviness, both real and imagined. But for the heavy words of ghosts and nightmares, the narrator rose anyway.

If anything, the accidental theme of this week’s poems–all brought to me by the good offices of friends and social media feeds–is the struggle to regain levity: the balloon of hope, the relief of shedding petty concerns, the busywork of planning ahead in the face of the gaping maw of uncertainty.

NaPoWriMo Week Three: That’s the way it is with me somehow

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A busy week that I began in one state and finished in another, playing catchup all the while. I decided to pick up my Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams this week, since reading H.D. put me in the mood for another Imagist-ish poet, and I particularly enjoy the short descriptive verses from WCW’s earlier collections. Besides, spending time with family in Memphis put me in mind of Monday’s poem.

Monday

I went looking for “January Morning” before I flew back home to Philadelphia. It’s longer than most of the WCW poems I love, but arranged in short stanzas with roman numerals. It’s a little bit ars poetica–opening with the odd claim that the domes of a Weehawken can be just as beautiful as more celebrated European cathedrals and most of the subsequent stanzas offer snapshots of life in a small New Jersey town–in keeping with WCW’s lifelong commitment to writing what he saw. He writes himself into the poem as a gleeful figure, the “young doctor dancing with happiness,” which is really how I see him when I read his poetry. I hear the final section, XV, in my mind whenever I am thinking about what I want to do with my expensive and sometimes burdensome education or when I am explaining my passions to the people I love.

All this–
was for you, old woman.
I wanted to write you a poem
that you would understand.
For what good is it to me
If you can’t understand it?
But you got to try hard–
But–
Well, you know how
The young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well,
That’s the way it is with me somehow.

In my mind, I nearly always hear the last line as “That’s the way it is with me sometimes.”

 Tuesday

“Transitional” is one of my favorite poems, period–it’s short and simple, and its argument still bears a lot of relevance. The narrator begins: “First he said:/ It is the woman in us/ That makes us write–” (note the rather Dickinsonian dash at the end there. I like to imagine “he” is Ezra Pound, a fried with formative influence on WCW’s young life and early literary explorations. “He” goes on to suggest that their “two sides”–the masculinity they were born with and the femininity they experience in writing, presumably–essentially makes them better writers. The narrator is scandalized by this suggestion, but the poem ends on a vague but positive affirmation: “he” answers, “am I not I–here?”
This idea–that writing is somehow a feminine thing to do–haunts more than one early twentieth century writer. I’m not quite sure why; women’s writing wasn’t very well celebrated at any point in history. I suppose that male poets have often been depicted as womanish, or perhaps the surprisingly modern poetry of Amy Lowell had her modernist male contemporaries on edge. In any case, the poem’s “he” is not the only one to declare himself somehow superior for being male with feminine powers of poesy: Henry Miller, the classic image of a hardboiled novelist, sometimes depicted his writing process as birthing. I was reminded of this when one of my own press’s authors did the same thing in a recent Email, which is only the second weird way he has appropriated female experience to describe his book.)

Wednesday

To a Poor Old Woman” used to disturb me, because I didn’t like the thought of WCW watching and pitying the old woman sucking on fruit in sensual enjoyment. But re-reading it, I like it more. I don’t read pity in his repetition of “They taste good to her,” and if he’s a little patronizing in his projection that she finds comfort and solace in them, at least the whole poem is given over to her pleasure.

Thursday

Apology.” [Link goes to a JSTOR viewing window.] Writing about writing, with very little embellishment or mystification of the writing process. “Why do I write today?/ The beauty of/ the terrible faces/ of our nonentities/ stirs me to it.”

Friday

Flipping through idly, I found “Mujer,” a quite short poem with a quite simple premise: his black Persian cat is pregnant again. What makes this a poem? It rolls easily off the tongue, but its rhythm is not finely calculated, nor does it have much of an argument. It feels as though the poet said to himself, “Oh, black Persian cat. Was your life not already cursed with offspring?” and then, noting the meter of what he just said, jotted it down in a notebook with line breaks. (I am projecting: this is how I wrote many haiku for a haiku year once I got sufficiently in the habit of counting syllables.) I like this poem for its brevity and directness, as well as the reminder that a poem doesn’t have to reach for a higher argument about the condition of life. It could just be a sublunary lyric, an everyday chant.

Saturday

Finally a weekend at home, and time for a longer poem from one of WCW’s later collections, playing more wildly with form (wide open spaces) and punctuation (or lack thereof): “Rain,” which caught my eye because of its beautiful last lines.

                But love is
unworldly

and nothing
comes of it but love

following
and falling endlessly
from
her thoughts

The poem compares (but does not equate) love and rain; both fall everywhere, into anything that’s open. But not everything is open; the narrator describes the dry rooms “of  illicit love” which contain beautiful objects (and “all the whorishness”) but are not “washed” (he writes “wash” more than once) by the rain. It’s hard not to read a contrast between marital love and extramarital love there, especially considering the ongoing speculation about WCW’s faithfulness or lack thereof–he writes so openly and frankly and greedily about admiring beautiful women. But though he writes about seeing the rain fall from the window of the dry room, and admits so much of his life is spent “to keep out love,” he also writes of the “kind physician” “running in between/ the drops” of love, which falls like rain.
I find this poem lovely, but sad and exhausting. I’ve watched love from the dry room of worldly objects, and I’ve also been the female natural world dripping seemingly inexhaustible love always and everywhere. Both positions were unhappy, and I read of the kind physician running in the rain with envy, though I think it’s just as impossible a position as the rest of this yearning poem describes.