Poetry Friday: “The Grackles”

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.

GL banner

Charles of the Desert

By Rebecca A. Spears

charles-of-the-desert-a-life-in-verse-5One early June, traveling to a wedding in San Diego, I’d taken the long way from Dallas by train. I wanted to see the Southwestern deserts. Two days later Amtrak’s Sunset Limited broke down in the Mojave Desert.

Pretty quickly it became clear: We are not so great. Nature is. God is.

Perhaps this is one reason why Charles de Foucauld went to live in the Sahara: not only to offer the people there hospitality and love as Jesus had, but also as a way to empty himself of the temptations of civilized life, allowing himself to be humbled by the vast universe.

The Christian hermit and martyr Charles of the Desert (1858-1916) is a complex, puzzling character. William Kelley Woolfitt’s new book of poems Charles of the Desert develops a full portrait of this mystifying cleric from childhood in 1863 to his last day in Algeria’s Hoggar Mountains. The poems, written in first person, proceed on a timeline, zigzagging geographically from France to the Holy Land to Algeria.

For over a decade, Père Charles lived a stringent life in the Sahara, a life that would kill most of us. He lived and worked among the Tuaregs, who saw him at best as an eccentric, at worst as an enemy. In 1916, he was assassinated by rebels attempting to rob and kidnap him. He left to the world a four-volume dictionary of the Tuareg language, a new order—the Little Brothers and Little Sisters of Jesus—and a public fascination for his austere life among the Muslims, whom he hadn’t been able to convert. [Read more…]

A Strange Season for Inter-Christian Families

3438325081_caa9a19ee1_oAmerican culture, at this late and plural hour, seems to have pretty well normalized the notion of the interfaith family, to the extent that if your environs are urban and/or coastal, and your circles revolve around the ranks of top- and second-tier universities, then the multiple-faith union is almost a given, and certainly not a problem.

There’s now the cliché—which the Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network made a joke about—of Jewish boys and Chinese (Baptist? Confucian?) girls. There’s another pattern, mostly in my experience in the Northeast, of Jewish young adults finding their bashert among a certain kind of generationally-sanded, now-affluent Irish Catholic (cf. Caroline Kennedy and Ed Schlossberg, to cite another generation).

Families that truly number two (or more) faiths have a kind of flexibility that can seem infinitely elastic: The Christmas tree gets rechristened into a “Chanukah bush”—with attendant blue-and-silver tinsel and a Star of David on top—a trope that comes in for annual December scorn among both my Jewish and Christian friends. (Except for those evangelicals of my acquaintance who avow a special relationship with the state of Israel.) [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Smokers, Sunday Morning, 1975”

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.

GL banner

Poetry Friday: “Creed in the Santa Ana Winds”

Bronwen Poetry Friday Pic 2Growing up in southern California, I experienced the uneasy allure of the Santa Ana’s hot fall and winter winds that swept down from Nevada’s Great Basin. They whipped up the dust and screamed against the windowpanes. In the drier mountain areas, they ignited fires; in my coastal town, they seemed to blow the stars through the air. As legendary as the full moon, the winds sparked dangers physical and fantastical. Did the fault lines lose their grip in the heat of these gales? Did we? In “Creed in the Santa Ana Winds,” Bronwen Butter Newcott captures—or, shall I say, chases—the fury of the Santa Ana’s in the shadow of an even more powerful, and incalculable, Creator. Her exacting imagery blows those winds through my soul again, two decades after I left.

—Tania Runyan


Creed in the Santa Ana Winds by Bronwen Butter Newcott

You believe He’s stronger than the desert wind
butting against the fence, wind that ignites sagebrush,
tears through the hills and strips the houses to ash.

Despite your lips that crack till blood comes,
skin that grows rough between your fingers,
you believe He will be solid to your touch

the way the bay is slate each dusk, broken only by fish
that hurl themselves toward the pearling sky.
The wind that takes a voice in the night

makes the house uneasy, shouts as the fence flattens.
You stand watching the junipers thrash and knit pleas
into the darkness; you believe He hears. In the morning,

there are six dead kittens on the driveway, a cat
moaning beneath the house. You pick them up by the neck
and put them in the trash. One day, you believe,

God will blow this all down, skin the world
to dust and water and make something new, but for now,
the noise of trees thrashed and cracked covers the ground.

 

Bronwen Butter Newcott grew up in Washington, DC. After completing her MFA, she moved to southern California with her husband where she taught high school, art journal workshops, and had her first two children. She now lives in the DC area with her family. Her work has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Smartish Pace, Poet Lore, and other publications.

GL banner


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X