Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

Kazim Ali’s recent American Poetry Review columns have been stunning. His most recent is a bad-assed belletristic constellation of texts (where he makes a common cadre in media studies—Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, Slavoj Zizek, and The Matrix—meet up with Melville & Dickinson), and it transcends the boundary of a “column” to become an essay.

Ali thus reminds me that 1) poetry magazines are indeed the ideal venue for aesthetically gorgeous and intellectually rigorous essays; and 2) the term “belles lettres” has unfortunately come to be used as a derisive moniker for essays that rely on “long, spooling, New Yorker style stuff” (as the fictional Charlie Kaufman says of Susan Orlean’s work in the film Adaptation). The art of the relevant tangent makes some readers—and teachers of college composition—roll their eyes.

But what if the effect of the artful essay could be similar to the most stunning poems? Or, to twist this line of thought to include the work of Kathleen Graber (check out http://pbq.drexel.edu/issue78/content/prose/1.html ), Ciaran Berry (http://www.siuc.edu/~siupress/berrythesphereofbirds.html ), and Gregory Pardlo  (http://www.aprweb.org/bookprize/pardlo.shtml): what if some of the best poems could be described as essayistic?

All of which brings me back to Kazim Ali’s recent APR column, “Write on My Wall.”

When he uses a riot of texts to ponder the body and its boundary(less)(ness) he makes me wonder about the “boundaries” of literary magazines. Does PBQ reinforce or blur its boundaries when, say, I link to APR?


To Henry Israeli at Saturnalia Books?


Or the Crab Orchard Review?


(All of whom have published my essayistic trifecta above—Pardlo, Graber, Berry).

Online, are PBQ’s boundaries rigid or porous? On one hand we engage in a mutually constitutive game: we reinforce the cred of the sites and sources we link to, and by linking to them we reinforce our own. But we also soften our own edges. Building links into this blog I feel like Whitman’s noiseless patient spider; sending out filaments I conjure a web of ideal works, call our aesthetic into view.  But spider webs are virtually invisible things; you’ve got to cock your head to see them.


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Years ago, at St. Mark’s New Year’s Poetry Festival, Bob Holman stood up and spoke this poem: “If you see something / say something: / banana.”

The crowd cracked up.

That was the first successful 9/11 joke I can recall. And, unlike Gilbert Godfrey’s earlier failed attempt at a 9/11 joke at the Friars Club roast of Hugh Hefner (a joke that made the grief-stricken the crowd shout “TOO SOON!” and made the comedian leap instead into a raunchy rendition of “The Aristocrats”— the “greatest dirty joke ever told”– all of which is captured in the documentary film of the same name), Holman’s timing was perfect.

The MTA’s “If You See Something, Say Something” security ad campaign was launched in 2002. New York City had already long been in the grip of Orange Alert, so long that we’d become accustomed to being mobilized. Eyes open, cell phones at the ready: something seen, something said. Unattended baggage on a subway? On it. Notice someone in bulky or inappropriate clothing? Suspicious! Dead guy riding the Q? OK, that one took longer to call in.

[Sure did: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,182321,00.htmlhttp://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,182321,00.html ]

The “See Something, Say Something” public service motto, emblazoned all over NYC public transit has become part of the cultural wallpaper, a comforting refrain for those of us who use buses and subways and occasionally teeter on the edge of the void: what happens if I’m down here and it happens again? London’s subway bombings? Eep?

And just as the heart torques toward hysteria, we recall our role: be a good citizen. If you see something, say something, and that way maybe the whole thing can be avoided. And even better: since everyone else sees those signs too, then they’ll see/say something and that will further expand the force of ground-level urban surveillance, and we’ll all be safe in a web of like-minded onlookers looking out for each other. Force multiplied.

But the MTA’s motto puts us in a tightly restricted position. It’s not asking us to do more than describe what we see. “Be alert,” “Be wary,” “Take notice,” “Report.” And as much as my love of poetry would have me argue that the act of description goes a long way toward conjuring the world(s) we inhabit, it is not an act of explicit reflective interpretation. It is not an act of analysis, or sense-making; it does not ask us to ponder or question or wonder. All of which, granted, might interrupt the crucial flow of information: evidence on the ground must make its way quickly to security forces who can take appropriate action, or we’re all in trouble.

But we’re also all in trouble if we don’t actively practice the art of reflection, analysis, interpretation. Deliberate force expansion is not deliberative democracy. Perhaps the best supplement to Orange Alert is a robust blogosphere—essayistic blog entries where writers perform the act of thinking, enact an urgent expression of idea, critique what we come to take for granted.

“If you see something, say something: banana.”

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As a girl, I loved few things more than I loved the Miss. America pageant. As I remember that oh-so-lucky night of the year, my Aunt Anne would make a swimming-pool-sized batch of French onion dip and pour us each a fuzzy navel, and then, well past any decent bed time hour, we’d sit on the nubbly rug in the cool of the den casting our votes for the winners. Back then, Miss. Texas always seemed to win, and everyone wanted to feed the starving children.

These days, my husband hardly even looks at me when I jump up and down and clap my hands together. It’s on! I yell. Tonight! It’s on and we’re gonna watch it!!! But then night comes and goes, and I completely forget about it until a day or so later when I come across some grainy picture in the Daily News of a woman with flowers and a crown, and oh crap, I say, we missed it again.

I’d imagine we’re not the only people who missed the pageant. (Any watchers out there?) But I’ve been thinking a lot about these tiara-wearers, and I guess what I love most about Miss. Americas is that the only ones we ever hear of are the ones who “disgrace” the crown. Think: Vanessa Williams, that blue-eyed beauty of the 1984 crown who resigned after it was revealed that she had posed (uhm, naked) for some “questionable photographs.” Now, try to think of any other Miss. America winner. Stumped? Me too.

This week, though, we’ve got Carrie Prejean, and while Prejean was not the actual winner of last week’s Miss. USA pageant (she was second to the lovely Miss. North Cackalacky!), she’s got a whole slew of talk going on around her. First, there are her breasts: courtesy—some believe—of California pageant organizers (Thanks, fellas! With these babies I’m unstoppable!); then there are the “semi-nude” shots of her circulating on the ole interweb, but more than anything is a little comment she made during the usually uninspired interview question. Only “opposites” should be allowed to marry, she said, when asked about same-sex weddings. (Clearly, she knows me and my husband because we’re quite the opposites!)

No, readers, trust me, I have no desire to hear what you think about same-sex marriage. I want, instead, to advocate a revamping of the interview portion on television pageants. I want us to compile a list of questions so wild and controversial that they will spin the pretty heads off these ladies, spin the heads off all of us sitting in the light of the den with nothing but our vat of dip and a dream. It’s not that I want it to get ugly, I just don’t want it to be so darned pretty. I mean, heck, it’s easy to want to feed the starving children, but give me a little more meat on the brain-bone. Any suggestions?

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There is much to love about Amy Hosig’s brief poem in this issue (http://pbq.drexel.edu/poetry/hosig-amy_shrimp.php). In its 14 lines, “Shrimp” makes me remember why poetry feels good to read.

Volta. I’m most drawn to the poem’s turns, and the particular nature of what feels like more than a mere turn of thought or change in argument. What Hosig does in a line characterizing her hope that the shrimp she’s about to eat “…spent their life, hopefully, / jetting about” is to hold the reader in a light uncertainty: does she hope the shrimp were hopeful as they jetted about? Or is the hope that they jetted about hers? It’s obviously the latter, but fun as hell to feel the possibility of both before the line breaks and we’re dropped into a more specific thought.

Oddly, it’s like cross-dressing comedian Eddie Izzard’s schtick where he starts nodding his yes, yes, yes, then switches to “oh, no, no” in repeated rhythmic waves.  ( I can’t find the exact scene, but check this out:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WYcnEonB04E&feature=related )

What the nodding Izzard turns into a hoot of indecision appears more subtly in “Shrimp,” obviously, but it’s there in the duality, the lift, the turn at the ends of key lines.

Or in whole lines doing similar work. Take “make me” in her last stanza:

Oh you little shrimp

who involuntarily

died for me,

make me,

like the intelligent whale,

able to change you

into song.

On one hand the poem feels like a classic Christian intercession prayer. But “make me” makes us feel that moment of limbo once more: we expect the next line to be “happy” or “thankful”—the simply statement of the emotion that’s been “jetting about” this poem of gratitude: You make me happy.

But instead, Hosig’s prayer is for metamorphosis– her own, specifically, and ours, by dint of reading the poem as it unfolds. Her prayer for the dead is also a prayer for the living. And it’s in the way the line “make me” makes a promise, makes us wait, and delivers something more than what she’s made us think will come. The experience of uncertainty and surprise gets built into the structure of the poem.

Poesis, vates— poet as maker, seer; dulce et utile, baby, dulce et utile. Happy poetry month.

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Donald Dunbar

You have pretty eyes; your face is the
rust on the side of a lost freighter
and the first mate is jumping overboard.
You’ve got your sealegs now, your bedlegs I mean
know the roll and splash of waterbeds
but regular beds too, even futons
like discount Korean yachts.  This air always
does this to me, the salt wind anchors
in my throat and the peach lights
above the sidewalks moan as we leave the bar,
hum, I mean, like the day janitor
tomorrow who’ll mop the drinks
you’ve spilled; who’ll nuzzle the lipstick
you’ve smeared all over the payphone.

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At Sea

Laura Didyk

My lover naps below
while I sun on the stern
in my sundress and dream

myself a woman born
for building ships.  In the
cushion of sleep I build

this one as I tarry on our
Alaskan island more than a century ago.
My lover is taken at sea

by a striking pirate 
who is, underneath it all,
kind and soft and has

adorned my berth
in silk and jewels from the hold.
He touches me evenly

with kid gloves (twenty-two days at sea
and my thighs are much fleshier stories).
The blue woman and the red woman

etched on his forearms steer
the small of my back.  This dreamed
vessel, its handsome

mate, immaculate sails,
the worldly character of the sun looming above,
are all my doing.  I make myself

the only woman aboard
my bandit gets to win—a bottle 
of port at my hip.  What I pity most is the untravelled

stationary woman who at night 
falls into blank sleep, and awake,
veers from the world’s distant climes


and men.  The breast is a solemn
and familiar place, frightened of setting out—
but the bones, dearheart, the bones want motion.

Map the body’s route then the love you plan
to steal and hoard.  If nothing else
stay shoreless.  The land

husbands your power.
O serious traveler, ready yourself
to dream, to snatch the sable yawl

from the hulled body of the harbored boat
and row. In your berth with your pirate
when the aged ship rocks

fore and aft, there is no other region
you’ll want more than this.  Nothing
as delicious as this old salt in your bed.

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Patrick Carrington

I skitter across the heat of lonely towns 
like a drop on a skillet, stopping only 
to smooth myself out in bars 
with strings of women 
who don’t tie themselves 
to lives like mine. There was a time

when the prophecy of dust clouds rising 
from a young woman’s broom 
made me wonder 
where you hide glass slippers 
in a place this shattered. And when 
she slipped the brass rail on her foot

to swallow the medicine of sour mash 
like a sword, I’d wait for midnight 
and give myself to her as wholly 
as her hundred proof misery. I don’t 
stare anymore at the ripped wallpaper

of upstairs rooms or look to windows 
with the circular reasoning of denial 
and wait for some magic
as her arms flutter above me,

due north. It takes no chimes to roll me, 
no wind to send me limping 
over the world, to the next town 
where no one will welcome me home.

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