Thursday, April 30, 2015

30 of 30: "There Are Birds Here" by Jamaal May

It's the last day of National Poetry Month, so I want to end with birds.

As Jamaal May will be reading tonight with Tarfia Faizullah and Matthew Olzmann at Literati Bookstore at 7 p.m., all the more reason to share my favorite of his poems.

Here is "There Are Birds Here" by Jamaal May:

            For Detroit 
There are birds here,
so many birds here
is what I was trying to say
when they said those birds were metaphors
for what is trapped
between buildings
and buildings. No.
The birds are here
to root around for bread
the girl’s hands tear
and toss like confetti. No,
I don’t mean the bread is torn like cotton,
I said confetti, and no
not the confetti
a tank can make of a building.
I mean the confetti
a boy can’t stop smiling about
and no his smile isn’t much
like a skeleton at all. And no
his neighborhood is not like a war zone.
I am trying to say
his neighborhood
is as tattered and feathered
as anything else,
as shadow pierced by sun
and light parted
by shadow-dance as anything else,
but they won’t stop saying
how lovely the ruins,
how ruined the lovely
children must be in that birdless city.

30 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

29 of 30: "This Your Home Now" by Mark Doty

I was born onto the Earth on a Wednesday, if that means anything.

And just now, at 2:47 a.m., I was woken for the 14th time since March by the shrieking voices of my housemate and his girlfriend arguing in his apartment next to mine.

Those things considered, it feels apt to share this—"This Your Home Now" by Mark Doty—today, the second-to-last day of this cruelest month:


For years I went to the Peruvian barbers on 18th Street
—comforting, welcome: the full coatrack,
three chairs held by three barbers,

oldest by the window, the middle one
a slight fellow who spoke an oddly feminine Spanish,
the youngest last, red-haired, self-consciously masculine,

and in each of the mirrors their children’s photos,
smutty cartoons, postcards from Machu Picchu.
I was happy in any chair, though I liked best

the touch of the eldest, who’d rest his hand
against my neck in a thoughtless, confident way.
Ten years maybe. One day the powdery blue

steel shutters pulled down over the window and door,
not to be raised again. They’d lost their lease.
I didn’t know how at a loss I’d feel;

this haze around what I’d like to think
the sculptural presence of my skull
requires neither art nor science,

but two haircuts on Seventh, one in Dublin,
nothing right.
                            Then (I hear my friend Marie
laughing over my shoulder, saying In your poems

there’s always a then, and I think, Is it a poem
without a then?) dull early winter, back on 18th,
upspiraling red in a cylinder of glass, just below the line

of sidewalk, a new sign, WILLIE’S BARBERSHOP.
Dark hallway, glass door, and there’s (presumably) Willie.
When I tell him I used to go down the street

he says in an inscrutable accent, This your home now,
puts me in a chair, asks me what I want and soon he’s clipping
and singing with the radio’s Latin dance tune.

That’s when I notice Willie’s walls,
though he’s been here all of a week, spangled with images
hung in barber shops since the beginning of time:

lounge singers, near-celebrities, random boxers
—Italian boys, Puerto Rican, caught in the hour
of their beauty, though they’d scowl at the word.

Cheering victors over a trophy won for what?
Frames already dusty, at slight angles,
here, it is clear, forever. Are barbershops

like aspens, each sprung from a common root
ten thousand years old, sons of one father,
holding up fighters and starlets to shield the tenderness

at their hearts? Our guardian Willie defies time,
his chair our ferryboat, and we go down into the trance
of touch and the skull-buzz drone

singing cranial nerves in the direction of peace,
and so I understand that in the back
of this nothing building on 18th Street
                                                  —I’ve found that door

ajar before, in daylight, when it shouldn’t be,
some forgotten bulb left burning in a fathomless shaft
of my uncharted nights—
                                                  the men I have outlived

await their turns, the fevered and wasted, whose mothers
and lovers scattered their ashes and gave away their clothes.
Twenty years and their names tumble into a numb well

—though in truth I have not forgotten one of you,
may I never forget one of you—these layers of men,
arrayed in their no-longer-breathing ranks.

Willie, I have not lived well in my grief for them;
I have lugged this weight from place to place
as though it were mine to account for,

and today I sit in your good chair, in the sixth decade
of my life, and if your back door is a threshold
of the kingdom of the lost, yours is a steady hand

on my shoulder. Go down into the still waters
of this chair and come up refreshed, ready to face the avenue.
Maybe I do believe we will not be left comfortless.

After everything comes tumbling down or you tear it down
and stumble in the shadow-valley trenches of the moon,
there’s a still a decent chance at—a barber shop,

salsa on the radio, the instruments of renewal wielded,
effortlessly, and, who’d have thought, for you.
Willie if he is Willie fusses much longer over my head

than my head merits, which allows me to be grateful
without qualification. Could I be a little satisfied?
There’s a man who loves me. Our dogs. Fifteen,

twenty more good years, if I’m a bit careful.
There’s what I haven’t written. It’s sunny out,
though cold. After I tip Willie

I’m going down to Jane Street, to a coffee shop I like,
and then I’m going to write this poem. Then


29 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

28 of 30: "Invocation" by Ariana Brown

"Invocation" by Ariana Brown was awarded Best Poem at the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational. Thanks to Button Poetry for this great video of Ariana's powerful performance:


"You are your own lesson in commitment."
— Ariana Brown, "Invocation"
28 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Monday, April 27, 2015

27 of 30: "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong

From the December 2014 issue of Poetry magazine, here is the gorgeous poem "On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous" by Ocean Vuong:


i


Tell me it was for the hunger
& nothing less. For hunger is to give
the body what it knows

it cannot keep. That this amber light
whittled down by another war
is all that pins my hand

to your chest.


i


You, drowning
                      between my arms —
stay.

You, pushing your body
                      into the river
only to be left
                      with yourself —
stay.


i


I’ll tell you how we’re wrong enough to be forgiven. How one night, after
backhanding
mother, then taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table, my father went to kneel
in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls.
And so I learned that a man, in climax, was the closest thing
to surrender.


i


Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade.
          Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn.
Say autumn despite the green
          in your eyes. Beauty despite
daylight. Say you’d kill for it. Unbreakable dawn
          mounting in your throat.
My thrashing beneath you
          like a sparrow stunned
with falling.


i


Dusk: a blade of honey between our shadows, draining.


i


I wanted to disappear — so I opened the door to a stranger’s car. He was divorced. He was still alive. He was sobbing into his hands (hands that tasted like rust). The pink breast cancer ribbon on his keychain swayed in the ignition. Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here? I was still here once. The moon, distant & flickering, trapped itself in beads of sweat on my neck. I let the fog spill through the cracked window & cover my fangs. When I left, the Buick kept sitting there, a dumb bull in pasture, its eyes searing my shadow onto the side of suburban houses. At home, I threw myself on the bed like a torch & watched the flames gnaw through my mother’s house until the sky appeared, bloodshot & massive. How I wanted to be that sky — to hold every flying & falling at once.


i


Say amen. Say amend.

Say yes. Say yes

anyway.


i


In the shower, sweating under cold water, I scrubbed & scrubbed.


i


In the life before this one, you could tell
two people were in love
because when they drove the pickup
over the bridge, their wings
would grow back just in time.

Some days I am still inside the pickup.
Some days I keep waiting.


i


It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
          with gnats & summer too early
to leave any marks.
          Your hand under my shirt as static
intensifies on the radio.
          Your other hand pointing
your daddy’s revolver
          to the sky. Stars falling one
by one in the cross hairs.
          This means I won’t be
afraid if we’re already
          here. Already more
than skin can hold. That a body
          beside a body
must make a field
          full of ticking. That your name
is only the sound of clocks
          being set back another hour
& morning
          finds our clothes
on your mother’s front porch, shed
          like week-old lilies.


27 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Sunday, April 26, 2015

26 of 30: "Poem Written Before I Was Born" by Mary Ruefle

For today, I'd like to share brief excerpts of two Mary Ruefle poems. From her book Trances of the Blast (Wave Books, 2013), here's a glimpse of "Poem Written Before I Was Born":
I enter the internectarine world.
The stone is there, at last.
The seed is there, in that.
Now I will eat the rest of the flesh
of the nectarine fruit
the way all things eat each other
in the world at large,
And the last lines of "Ars Poetica," a dreamy poem from the same collection:
Look, he said, nothing remains of anybody,
everything is aimless here.
We wanted to follow a flying squirrel
to the home of time, but everything
exploded into fuzz. 
We knew whose it was.
26 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Saturday, April 25, 2015

25 of 30: "About Face" by Alice Fulton

Happy weekend! I'd like to share an Alice Fulton poem today because it's playful, supersmart, and full of fantastic words.

From her book Sensual Math (Norton, 1995), here's "About Face" by Alice Fulton:


Because life’s too short to blush,
I keep my blood tucked in.
I won’t be mortified
by what I drive or the flaccid
vivacity of my last dinner party.
I take my cue from statues posing only
in their shoulder pads of snow: all January
you can see them working on their granite tans.

That I woke at an ungainly hour,
stripped of the merchandise that clothed me,
distilled to pure suchness,
means not enough to anyone for me
to confess. I do not suffer
from the excess of taste
that spells embarrassment:
mothers who find their kids unseemly
in their condom earrings,
girls cringing to think
they could be frumpish as their mothers.
Though the late nonerotic Elvis
in his studded gut of jumpsuit
made everybody squeamish, I admit.
Rule one: the King must not elicit pity.

Was the audience afraid of being tainted
— this might rub off on me —
or were they — surrendering —
what a femme word — feeling
solicitous — glimpsing their fragility
in his reversible purples
and unwholesome goldish chains?

At least embarrassment is not an imitation.
It’s intimacy for beginners,
the orgasm no one cares to fake.
I almost admire it. I almost wrote despise.


25 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Friday, April 24, 2015

24 of 30: "Things I Didn't Know I Loved" by Nazim Hikmet

I didn't know I loved Nazim Hikmet till I read his poem "Things I Didn't Know I Loved." If you don't yet know it, or if you do, here it is, for all to know:


it’s 1962 March 28th
I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
night is falling
I never knew I liked
night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain
I don’t like
comparing nightfall to a tired bird

I didn’t know I loved the earth
can someone who hasn’t worked the earth love it
I’ve never worked the earth
it must be my only Platonic love

and here I’ve loved rivers all this time
whether motionless like this they curl skirting the hills
European hills crowned with chateaus
or whether stretched out flat as far as the eye can see
I know you can’t wash in the same river even once
I know the river will bring new lights you’ll never see
I know we live slightly longer than a horse but not nearly as long as a crow
I know this has troubled people before
                             and will trouble those after me
I know all this has been said a thousand times before
                             and will be said after me

I didn’t know I loved the sky
cloudy or clear
the blue vault Andrei studied on his back at Borodino
in prison I translated both volumes of War and Peace into Turkish
I hear voices
not from the blue vault but from the yard
the guards are beating someone again
I didn’t know I loved trees
bare beeches near Moscow in Peredelkino
they come upon me in winter noble and modest
beeches are Russian the way poplars are Turkish
“the poplars of Izmir
losing their leaves. . .
they call me The Knife. . .
                             lover like a young tree. . .
I blow stately mansions sky-high”
in the Ilgaz woods in 1920 I tied an embroidered linen handkerchief
                                       to a pine bough for luck

I never knew I loved roads
even the asphalt kind
Vera’s behind the wheel we’re driving from Moscow to the Crimea
                                                          Koktebele
                             formerly “Goktepé ili” in Turkish
the two of us inside a closed box
the world flows past on both sides distant and mute
I was never so close to anyone in my life
bandits stopped me on the red road between Bolu and Geredé
                                       when I was eighteen
apart from my life I didn’t have anything in the wagon they could take
and at eighteen our lives are what we value least
I’ve written this somewhere before
wading through a dark muddy street I’m going to the shadow play
Ramazan night
a paper lantern leading the way
maybe nothing like this ever happened
maybe I read it somewhere an eight-year-old boy
                                       going to the shadow play
Ramazan night in Istanbul holding his grandfather’s hand
  his grandfather has on a fez and is wearing the fur coat
    with a sable collar over his robe
  and there’s a lantern in the servant’s hand
  and I can’t contain myself for joy
flowers come to mind for some reason
poppies cactuses jonquils
in the jonquil garden in Kadikoy Istanbul I kissed Marika
fresh almonds on her breath
I was seventeen
my heart on a swing touched the sky
I didn’t know I loved flowers
friends sent me three red carnations in prison

I just remembered the stars
I love them too
whether I’m floored watching them from below
or whether I’m flying at their side

I have some questions for the cosmonauts
were the stars much bigger
did they look like huge jewels on black velvet
                             or apricots on orange
did you feel proud to get closer to the stars
I saw color photos of the cosmos in Ogonek magazine now don’t
  be upset comrades but nonfigurative shall we say or abstract
  well some of them looked just like such paintings which is to
  say they were terribly figurative and concrete
my heart was in my mouth looking at them
they are our endless desire to grasp things
seeing them I could even think of death and not feel at all sad
I never knew I loved the cosmos

snow flashes in front of my eyes
both heavy wet steady snow and the dry whirling kind
I didn’t know I liked snow

I never knew I loved the sun
even when setting cherry-red as now
in Istanbul too it sometimes sets in postcard colors
but you aren’t about to paint it that way
I didn’t know I loved the sea
                             except the Sea of Azov
or how much

I didn’t know I loved clouds
whether I’m under or up above them
whether they look like giants or shaggy white beasts

moonlight the falsest the most languid the most petit-bourgeois
strikes me
I like it

I didn’t know I liked rain
whether it falls like a fine net or splatters against the glass my
  heart leaves me tangled up in a net or trapped inside a drop
  and takes off for uncharted countries I didn’t know I loved
  rain but why did I suddenly discover all these passions sitting
  by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
is it because I lit my sixth cigarette
one alone could kill me
is it because I’m half dead from thinking about someone back in Moscow
her hair straw-blond eyelashes blue

the train plunges on through the pitch-black night
I never knew I liked the night pitch-black
sparks fly from the engine
I didn’t know I loved sparks
I didn’t know I loved so many things and I had to wait until sixty
  to find it out sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train
  watching the world disappear as if on a journey of no return

                                                          19 April 1962
                                                          Moscow


24 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Thursday, April 23, 2015

23 of 30: "Grief Work" by Natalie Diaz

Two months ago Natalie Diaz came to Ann Arbor to read poems from her book, When My Brother Was an Aztec, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

With her voice still echoing in my mind, I'd like to share a beautifully moving poem by Natalie Diaz called "Grief Work" for today:


I have gazed the black flower blooming
her animal eye. Gacela oscura. Negra llorona.

Along the clayen banks I follow her-astonished,
gathering grief’s petals she lets fall like horns.

Why not now go toward the things I love?

Like Jacob’s angel, I touched the garnet of her wrist,
and she knew my name. And I knew hers —
it was Auxocromo, it was Cromóforo, it was Eliza.
It hurtled through me like honeyed-rum.

When the eyes and lips are touched with honey
what is seen and said will never be the same.

Eve took the apple in that ache-opened mouth,
on fire and in pieces, from the knife’s sharp edge.

In the photo her fist presses against the red-gold
geometry of her thigh. Black nylon, black garter,
unsolvable mysterium — I have to close my eyes to see.

Achilles chasing Hektor round the walls of Ilium
three times. How long must I circle
the high gate above her knees?

Again the gods put their large hands in me,
move me, break my heart like a clay jar of wine,
loosen a beast from some darklong depth —

my melancholy is hoofed. I, the terrible beautiful
Lampon, a shining devour-horse tethered
at the bronze manger of her collarbones.

I do my grief work with her body — labor
to make the emerald tigers in her hips leap,
lead them burning green
to drink from the violet jetting her.

We go where there is love, to the river,
on our knees beneath the sweet water.
I pull her under four times
until we are rivered. We are rearranged.

I wash the silk and silt of her from my hands —
now who I come to, I come clean to, I come good to.


23 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

22 of 30: "Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun" by Heather McHugh

A very Wednesday poem (one of my all-time favorites) by Heather McHugh, "Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun":

A book is a suicide postponed.
— Cioran
Too volatile, am I? too voluble? too much a word-person?
I blame the soup: I’m a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy’s: sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror’s not convincing — that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time’s revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn’t love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you’ll be the death of me — each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I’m halfway to the
third person.


22 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

21 of 30: "If the world becomes so bright" by Keith Taylor

As Keith Taylor, a great poet and my dear friend, is reading this evening at Sweetwaters Cafe on West Washington Street, I'd like to share the following poem from the "Conditions" section of his book, If the World Becomes So Bright (Wayne State University Press, 2009).

If the world becomes so bright
            we can't see the stars,
will they become stories
                         like mythical wars
                                      or old gods?
            Or will we—
                                      all of us,
            the whole world—
                         plan festivals—
say, six hours long,
            on the sixth new moon
of each bright year—
                         when we turn off
            all our lights—
                         every single bulb—
and dance quietly
            beneath temporary stars?

21 of 30. Happy National Poetry Month!