Poetry Friday: “Visitation Rights” by Jeffrey Harrison

funeral flowers by Elvert Barnes on flickr_with writing edited outI sometimes talk to friends who have died. Especially to friends who acted as spiritual guides for me during their lives here. I continue to ask their advice when I’m in distress or need guidance.  I believe there’s a very thin and permeable line between mortal life and eternal life. This is why Jeffery Harrison’s “Visitation Rights” resonates with me. The poem melds the living and the dead, past and present, in ways deeply true to psychological and spiritual reality. I also like the poem’s play with the word “visitation.” Its primary meaning here is the appearance on earth of someone who has died. But hovering within the word are always its supernatural reverberations—its meaning of an appearance to us of the divine—as well as its etymological kinship to “vision.” So it feels right that the poem closes by appealing to “visions,” expressing a desire for them that (the poem has argued) is fully justified.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The News”

11793323376_2b9390cd6e_zWhat do I do with the daily news of disasters? Do I mumble a quick prayer for the victims, then turn to my day’s to-do list? Do I ever pause and ponder: this disaster might have struck those I love, or even me? These are the questions that Shara McCallum turns over in “The News.” Her imagination doesn’t flinch from detailing the horrors. Yet she is also self-protective, and she knows this. I admire how she keeps her eyes both shut and open to the dreadful events that life can deal us. And I admire especially the painful closing two stanzas: the piercing image of that mother somewhere whose “hem of life” will be “snagged, /from here forward”: from the instant she learns of her child forever lost.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Margo Jefferson’s Negroland

negroland-jefferson-650

In her photo on the jacket flap of Negroland: A Memoir,  Margo Jefferson looks to me like an attractive white woman in her late sixties.

In the chapter where she delineates beauty standards for African American girls in the 1950s, when she was a child, her list of skin color options astounds me:

“Ivory, cream, beige, wheat, tan, moccasin, fawn, café au lait, and the paler shades of honey, amber, and bronze are best. Sienna, chocolate, saddle brown, umber (burnt or raw), and mahogany work best with decent-to-good hair and even-to-keen features… Generally, for women, the dark skin shades like walnut, chocolate brown, black, and black with blue undertones are off-limits.”

Off-limits? As Jefferson knows, she’s slyly implying the impossible: that women have a choice about their skin color—that they can decide whether to stay within limits or not. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Embrace”

piano-by-Ralf-Nolte-on-flickrPoetry can recall us to the sensuousness of ordinary experience. Elizabeth Smither does this in “The Embrace” through the pointed choice of particular details. We are invited into a room in which almost nothing is happening, yet the room fills with sumptuously imaged life: two pianos which seem to be playing (though literally they’re not); two people leaning joyously into each other; a meal appearing in all its lusciously itemized dishes. All of this takes place in only two sentences—for it’s in the dashes that Smither makes the poem work. Each pair of dashes holds within it an instant of event, while holding still the surrounding objects. What these dashes manage to do, I’d say, is hold aloft the simultaneity of music and meal and human embrace. The poem leaves me feeling richer, yet also wondering what rich details I’m missing in each moment of my own experience.

-Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Recovery”

sunflowers by Nick Page on flickrWhat I like about this poem is how it slides almost unnoticeably from a simple, upbeat view of life into increasing complexities and ambiguities. The title and opening stanza announce that this will be an unequivocally optimistic poem. But something a bit unnerving happens in the second stanza: that glorious golden sunflower’s head seems to start choking (“grasping / its cowled neck”)—because, the following single line stanza tells us, its head is “outweighing its stalk.” It’s an image of discomfort, distress, almost of disease. The next stanza “recovers” the poem’s opening optimism, with the sunflower now “full bonneted” and turning toward “absolute light.” The “light” is the sun, of course, but it also hints (in “absolute”) at the divine; and, further, it seems to counterbalance the heaviness of that head outweighing its stalk. “What wonders are these,” the poet continues; and we think we’re back in full recovery mode. But no: the “wonders” are a “struggling” and a confusion of contradictions. Those birds’ chirps: are they joy or sorrow? They “could be” either; we just can’t know. Then in the final three lines, the poet pulls back from nature’s phenomena to “this world,” where ambiguity reigns. In this world of ours, the weak get stronger—or maybe not: maybe gradually, painfully, inexorably (“a day at a time”) they drag to a snail’s pace, drying out till they “crack.” I’m amazed at how, in so few short lines, Judith Harris has imaged with such nuance the push and pull, the downs and ups, of being alive.

-Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]