Poetry Friday: “Daybreak, Winter” by Betsy Sholl

23666248919_9ed672e6e0_zI have a complicated relationship with the sun, having grown up in southern California and now making my home in the moody Pacific Northwest. I swerve between desperation for even an hour of brightness and a stoic claim that my poet-soul finally feels at home in this rain-soaked climate. So Betsy Sholl’s poem about the longing for light—and its frustration by winter’s darkness—feels like it’s speaking directly to me, even as the lengthening days pitch us toward summer solstice. The poem’s four movements cast me out into the big questions, then draw me back in with quiet, simple sounds: “Now light…In my dream… Dawn in winter…” I love the stepping-stone quality of this poem’s thinking, how it steps carefully from image to image, as if the speaker were groping along the walls of some dark hallway while tracking a dream-truth. I stumble along holding tight to this poem’s unsure but deeply curious and trustful voice, as it moves from room to room. Here are familiar worries like “moths done with hunger, / white as tiny brides,” and a tree bearing fruit “only the birds, / and just a few of them, want to eat.” The poem is in some ways a procession of earthly failures, a meditation on the ways in which everything falls just short of oblivion—and yet finds light and grace again and again.

—Melissa Reeser Poulin
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Poetry Friday: “Tenebrae” by Anya Krugovoy Silver

hospital-600x450This is a dark poem, raising a profound question about suffering. Its title, “Tenebrae,” is in fact the Latin word for “darkness”; and its setting is Holy Week, when we follow Jesus’ suffering and death. The poem’s first six lines paint in painful detail the immense suffering of a particular woman known to the poet. But the speaker’s tone is all: he says explicitly to God “I know that the bitterness is for her own good.” The words state pious assent, yet their tone undercuts simple acceptance of suffering as God’s will. The same complex tone carries through lines 7-8, beginning “Thank you, God for your wisdom that widows” (that is, creates widows by the death of their spouses). Then in the final four lines, the speaker begs to be spared God’s will. He’d rather be free from suffering, even if this leaves him ignorant of God’s wisdom. What I treasure about this poem is that it gives voice to my own fears of suffering. And implicitly it poses a stark question that makes us ponder: does God truly will our suffering? If so, what sort of God must this be?

— Peggy Rosenthal


“Tenebrae” by Anya Krugovoy Silver

Holy Wednesday

Lord, I know that the bitterness is for her own good.
Through the numbness that has made her quadriplegic,
she has drawn nearer to you, has been purged
as with bloodroot of whatever sins still grieved you.
Her pneumonia has sent her to hospice.
Her descent was rapid. She sleeps her morphine dreams.
Thank you, God, for your wisdom that widows,
for the orphans who continue to praise you.
But Lord, whom I love, close your eyes to me.
Pluck her soul from her tumor-choked body.
But spare me your will and secret knowledge.
Let me continue to live, ignorant and erring.

 

Anya Krugovoy Silver is the author of three books of poetry, The Ninety-Third Name of God, I Watched You Disappear, and From Nothing(all from Louisiana State). She was named Georgia Author of the Year in poetry for 2015. Recent poems have appeared in Harvard Review, Georgia Review, New Ohio Review, Saint Katherine Review, and Five Points. She teaches at Mercer University.

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Poetry Friday: “Quantum Theory” by Victoria Kelly

Room, Christ iconsA friend said to me once, if time were flat, if everything were always happening forever concurrently (this is very hard to imagine), then all the versions of us throughout the years would be something like flip-book animation: everything drawn out already on every page, only seeming to dance or shuffle due to a trick of perspective. This is about as far as my understanding of quantum theory goes. Victoria Kelly proposes a similar thought experiment in her poem “Quantum Theory,” collapsing the past and present of her family history into a handful of “moments that go on forever— / somewhere else, on another plane.” Whether or not this is literally true, it strikes me as a common experience; it’s the way I feel that memory works. It’s the way we seem to grapple with trauma (always forever concurrently with the present), as if the darkest things that have happened to us exist even on our sunniest days. What’s surprising in this poem is that Kelly points the concept away from trauma and toward awe. I am slow to remember when I have been awed, when I have had faith in anything. I am easily convinced by every version of me that is lacking—who has been wronged and has wronged others—that the state of things is like “the sun…going down.” Yet if it were true that all the people I have been are still with me somehow, right now, then the version of me who believes, he is real—he is always, forever, concurrently, really here.

Tyler McCabe


Quantum Theory by Victoria Kelly

Fifty years ago, in Catholic school,
a nun gave my mother a ribbon
said to have been touched by a saint.
This was when her brother was still alive,
and masses were still read in Latin,
and people still wandered across the street
to other people’s houses in the evening.

Now the school is coming down, and, six blocks away,
my grandmother forgets to brush her teeth.
The years are upon her, but they say
there are moments that go on forever—
somewhere else, on another plane.
If it is true
I wonder if somewhere out there
my mother is still being given that ribbon,
and my uncle is waiting for her in the hallway
with his coat slung over his shoulder.
The sun is going down.
They are about to walk home,
and neither of them knows yet
about the cancer, or the English masses,
or the war that is looming.
She is going to show him the ribbon
and they will believe it is real.

 

Victoria Kelly received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and her M.Phil. in creative writing from Trinity College, Dublin, where she was a United States Mitchell Scholar. Her poetry has appeared in Southwest Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Prairie Schooner, and is forthcoming in Best American Poetry 2013. She teaches creative writing at Old Dominion University.

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“Translation Back into Native Tongues” by Nicholas Samaras

fire - Poetry FridayThere’s a sub-genre of poetry in which the speaker’s persona is a long-ago figure or a fictional character. Here, in “Translation Back into Native Tongues,” the speaker is John of Patmos, purported author of the biblical Book of Revelation. His subject in this poem is language, languages: always a perfect subject for poetry, that prime crafting of language. I like how the speaker longs for his childhood language but also hears language in the natural world: the “keening” of Patmos’s “olive-green wind”; the remembered language of birds. He hears even Jerusalem itself as a language. I feel myself wafted through the poem’s lines evoking various languages—until suddenly in the final stanza, I’m brought to a full stop. Here is a contrast I must pause over, ponder. Why is “metaphor” for God, while humans get what seems lesser—“simile”? Might it be that metaphor is open-ended, while simile (X is like Y) offers only a single, bounded comparison?

—Peggy Rosenthal


Translation Back into Native Tongues by Nicholas Samaras

Sometimes, I miss the Aramaic of youth.
Then, the personal flame came over us

and we spoke to the numb nations—
until the nations winnowed and muted us,

but not breaking the spirit of our speech.
Now, I live in the breeze’s murmur,

the native tongues to which the soul responds,
a language that comforts us where we are.

Here on Patmos, the olive-green wind
is tethliménos—bereaved, keening its dialect

over the lee. Sometimes, I miss the Aramaic,
the Hebrew, the language of birds

in my father’s courtyard.
My permanent sadness and permanent joy.

There will be new countries, a clarity of experience
only when you step out of it.

A clarity of Jerusalem found only on Patmos.
It is a language of gesture and longing.

Metaphor is for God.
Simile, for the extent of humans.

 

Nicholas Samaras’s newest book is American Psalm, World Psalm (Ashland). The poems published here are part of a new manuscript of poems in the voices of John of Patmos and his scribe, Prochoros. He is currently completing a memoir of his childhood in nine different countries.

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Richard Wilbur’s Poetry Captures Our Days

Minolta x-370

Last night I read a poem that showed me in a flash why I save evening-time for listening to classical music while I knit, or browsing through an art book, or reading fine poems like this one.

I’ve said in a previous post that I keep a volume of poems by my bed for evening reading. But I hadn’t known why until, with Richard Wilbur’s New and Collected Poems the current volume, I opened last night to his poem “C Minor.”

The poem begins with Wilbur and (presumably) his wife having breakfast while the radio plays something of Beethoven’s. Something passionate and angst-ridden; something typical of the C minor tonality which was Beethoven’s favorite for expressing dark, turbulent moods.

The poet’s wife turns off the radio. He writes: “You are right to switch it off and let the day / Begin at hazard…”

What follows for most of the poem is an account of some typical “hazards”—that is, chance happenings of a day.

The morning’s newspaper will present “sad / Or fortunate news.” Then:

The day’s work will be disappointing or not,
Giving at least some pleasure in taking pains.
One of us, hoeing in the garden plot
(Unless, of course, it rains)
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