Poetry Friday: “The Grackles” by Betsy Sholl

Poetry Friday Grackles Poem BigHere is a poem that silently enacts a conversion.  The poem starts off with a string of scornful terms for the speaker’s new neighbors, culminating in the almost mean pun on their child’s “grin” as “grim.” But right after this, the speaker begins to soften her terms: she notices a “warmth” in this noisy, dirty, low-class family. Then by the start of the fourth stanza, a switch in point of view has occurred: the speaker sees herself through their eyes. So when the poem’s title image enters (in the inner-rhymed “racket grackles”), the poet intentionally leaves ambiguous whether it’s the speaker or the previously demeaned family who are the bullying grackles. Whoever they are becomes irrelevant, though, in the poem’s closing lines, which focus on the birds themselves. As the sunlight strikes them, the speaker’s previously negative terms for them turn glowingly positive: “they’ve got the spectrum’s full iridescent gleam.” The poem is ultimately suggesting here that whomever or whatever we demean will—when seen in a new light— shine with this richly full gleam.

—Peggy Rosenthal


The Grackles by Betsy Sholl

Down the block, our new neighbors, not unlike
the old, could be named the Grackles, given
the way everything they have is loud: cars,
children, stereos, parties. It all spills out
into the street—broken bikes, pizza boxes,
a nasty looking dog with nothing to restrain it

but the owner’s curse. Giving the mutt wide berth,
stepping around a rusty bike rim, I glance
at the weary-looking man, the angry woman,
sullen teen, younger girl with a smudged grin.
Grim, it seems. But there’s a warmth here, too,
the father teaching his son to make the car

loud by tweaking something on the exhaust,
as the mother spit-washes the baby’s face,
laughs through smoke and sunken eyes
at her barefoot daughter’s new skip rope trick.
When the son grabs the dog’s collar—sorry
the stupid pooch frightened me—I watch him

slowly size up my jog-reddened face,
amused disdain on his for the type I am,
flitting around the block in ragged sweats
as if life’s a matter of tips from slick
magazines. Such a racket grackles make,
like castanets, scolding the song birds

they’ve chased up into the trees, giving them
flack for not even trying to bully back. Now
the sun flashes on them its brightest beam,
so it’s clear from light’s point of view,
however drab they may look in the shade
they’ve got the spectrum’s full iridescent gleam.

 

Betsy Sholl’s most recent book of poems is Otherwise Unseeable (Wisconsin). She teaches in the MFA program of Vermont College of Fine Arts and was poet laureate of Maine from 2006 to 2011.

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Finding Another World in Winterkill

Winterkill by Todd DavisThere is another world, but it is in this one.” —William Butler Yeats

Reading Yeats’s line, I think vaguely incarnational thoughts: heaven enters earth with Christ’s Incarnation; God dwells within our world, not separated from it; and so on. I believe these statements. Yet these formulations give me nothing to grasp onto, nothing to engage my imagination.

How astonishingly rich, though, the other world “in this one” becomes in Todd Davis’s latest collection of poems, Winterkill, which takes Yeats’s line as its epigraph. For Davis, “this world” is the world of nature—particularly the mountainous woods, streams, and wildlife around his longtime central Pennsylvania home.

From what I’ve just said, you might think: oh, so his poems are about nature. But, no: something much more enlivening is going on in Davis’s poetry. He doesn’t write about nature; rather, he writes from deep within nature. The natural world is his ambiance: he so immerses himself in it that he breathes it, he prays it, he caresses each minute detail of it with his eyes and hands, his heart, his soul, his language. From within nature, life’s meanings speak to him.

Take fish and the water they live in. Davis spends a lot of time in these poems fishing. And sometimes it seems as if he catches fish specifically in order to handle them with delicate awe: to trace their wonders with his fingers and words. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Smokers, Sunday Morning, 1975” by Bobby C. Rogers

Bobby Rogers Poetry FridayThis poem seems at first to be a straight-forward narrative: a childhood recollection of the men who smoked outside of church on Sundays. But the poetic shaping of the narrative adds another dimension. Those very, very long lines, the end of each spilling over grammatically into the next, even between stanzas: this gives the sense of the entire narrative as a single long breath—like the deep inhale and exhale of a drag on a cigarette. And finally, in the closing stanza, a colon. Here, to the child of ten, was what manhood looked like, and the child admires it. Despite the health hazards of smoking that he knew of even then, despite the preacher’s sermons on “the body is a temple,” the child has a certain respect for this image of manhood: its daring, its stoic acceptance of consequences, its self-confidence in not really caring “how long before the sermon started.”

—Peggy Rosenthal


Smokers, Sunday Morning, 1975 by Bobby C. Rogers

Three or four of them congregated outside the sanctuary of the First Baptist
  Church in McKenzie, Tennessee, savoring
the last cigarette before service, voices low and knowing, a slight rasp-edge to their laughter. Cigarettes would kill you—
I was ten years old and could read what it said right on the pack—but ignoring warnings was just another habit
these men couldn’t kick. Once or twice a year the Reverend O.M. Dangeau singled them out, preaching against tobacco

with a spewing disdain he usually reserved for the package liquor ordinance coming up for a vote. “The body is a temple”
was the sermon text, and he hollered his exordium and exposition until his veins bulged. But the smokers were firmly in the grip
of this world and none of them seemed to mind it, a soft pack of Camels soon to be retrieved from the inside pocket
of their Sunday suit, an unfiltered cigarette shaken loose, the clack of their steel lighters becoming a kind of music. They were polite

even when preached at, but they had commitments this side of heaven they aimed to keep. These were not the deacons, never the ones
praying earnestly into the pulpit microphone—they sat the pew next to their wives on Sunday and all through the week drove Towmotor forklifts
or pulled electrical cable, not once clocking in red. A lit cigarette looked like a paper trifle in their work-hardened hands. They exhaled jets
of milky smoke and greeted everyone who greeted them and some who didn’t. Mr. Fowler died of lung cancer, but I’m still not sure

it proved all the preacher said it did. To me, manhood looked just like this: stand up straight and take what you had coming, there
in the shade of the sycamore tree, no need to glance at a wristwatch to figure how long before the sermon started.

 

Bobby C. Rogers is professor of English and writer-in-residence at Union University. His book Paper Anniversary (Pittsburgh) won the Agnes Lynch Starrett Poetry Prize and the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts’ Arlin G. Meyer Prize. His work appears in the Everyman’s Library Poems of the American South.

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Refugees Are People, Not a Crisis

APTOPIX-Hungary-Migra_HoroSometimes the horrors in the news are so overwhelming that I’m left speechless. This is how I feel now—have been feeling for months—about what is being called Europe’s “refugee crisis.”

Refugee crisis. Encapsulating massive human suffering in those two simple words strikes me as demeaning: a slap in the face of every refugee from the endless wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya….

I imagine a woman who was evicted from the French refugee camp at Calais, sleepless with worry over the sick toddler she holds in her arms. I imagine her staring at me in numb despair when I read her a news story about “the refugee crisis.” I hear her scream back, “I’m not your crisis; I’m a person, a person who is pouring all my energy and money into trying to save my family from the brutalities of war and the indignities of being classified as a low-class refugee.”

I have no answer for her. I share her pain—to the extent that it’s possible for a comfortable U.S. citizen to share the pain of a despairing country-less person. But I don’t have the words to express my sharing. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Meditation on the Evangelista” by Karen An-Hwei Lee

Meditation on the EvangelistaWhat if God turned up at your door in the form of a brush salesman? That’s the premise that Karen An-Hwei Lee’s prose-poem plays with. Mystery and comedy merge in this delightful meditation. First, an unnamed “He” does not do certain everyday things, like shampooing your carpet. Then “God” slips into the poem as the essence of love. Soon the brush salesman is speaking in tongues and the poem’s speaker is wafted heavenward. Although “without a psalmist,” the speaker utters some words of a psalm. In closing, she implores the God who is love to “brush me,” as if she were the salesman’s carpet—a final play on the wild sudden entrance of the divine into our most ordinary doings.

—Peggy Rosenthal


Meditation on the Evangelista by Karen An-Hwei Lee

He does not shampoo your carpet or show you how to brush it clean.
He does not shower you with roses for Sunday’s wedding or funeral.
He does not put his hand in your hair or ask if your spouse is at home.
He only opens a book of words in two columns, one in your language.
He is the salesman with a suitcase of brushes—no gospel tracts.
No, not uncertain whether God loves you from one moment to the next—
your being is love, moves in love, as God does. Man with a case of brushes
shows up at the door. Leans on the frame, whispers a word, evangelista.
Soon he speaks in tongues, but you do not know where this utterance
will go. Upstairs to heaven or sideways, as though sleeping in holiness
on the man’s sleeved arms. You never see the sky open, a ladder of angels
ascending and descending. Instead, a book closes, and the glory-cloud
engulfs you. Without a psalmist, you say—O God, you touch my heart
with love. If I find shelter in the shadow of your wings—brush me.

 

Karen An-Hwei Lee is the author of Phyla of JoyArdor (both from Tupelo), and In Medias Res (Sarabande), winner of the Kathryn A. Morton Prize and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. Her work has appeared in The American Poet, PoetryKenyon ReviewJournal of Feminist Studies and ReligionGulf Coast, and Columbia Poetry Review.

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