Poetry Friday: “In Tandem”

a blurry shot of a rim of the top of tree branches on the bottom of the image, with a giant white sun sending rays out from the center of a black sky, rimmed with a halo of light.Here is a poem that takes aim at our clichés about aging and death. It does so with subtle cleverness, by putting “in tandem” an old spruce tree and the nursing home resident to whom the poem is addressed. Though there’s no stanza break, the poem divides into two parts, each of nine lines. The first part is all negatives: the clichés (like “it had a good life”) that we would not apply to the tree if it toppled over dead. The second part is all positives: how we “would have marveled” at the “pale corona of roots, / like arms uplifted and exposed.” The tree is anthropomorphized here: its uplifted arms make it more human than the nursing home resident of Part One. And more full of rich life: “we would have breathed in / earth smells and the inner life of the tree.” The poem’s final three lines again contrast the responses to the toppled tree versus the nursing home patient. The imagined tree evokes in the speaker and patient a “curious” scurrying happiness, while they know that any “small talk” of the patient’s “recovery” is fantasy. This is a poem that seems simple in its accessibility, yet it draws me into meditation on the ways our culture thinks about human frailty and mortality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme”

a woman sits in a room lit by a single lamp, the rest of the room is shrouded in shadows. she has her hand up and is holding a cup, her face is turned away and bathed in shadows. on the wall sits images and postcards, and a desk is full of books and small papers.It’s fairly common for a poem to be inspired by (or be in conversation with) a famous painting. Less often, though, do we find poems engaging with a musical work. Yet that’s just what happens in Carol Davis’s poem “Grief Daybook: A Love Supreme.” Fans of the brilliant jazz saxophonist and composer John Coltrane will immediately recognize in Davis’s title the name of Coltrane’s masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” And a line from the final movement of this work, “Psalm,” is quoted in the second stanza of Davis’s poem. For Coltrane, the “Love Supreme” is God. For Davis’s speaker, it’s less clear. The poem opens with disturbing images of bodily disintegration. Coltrane’s piece then enters the poem, offering the speaker the possibility of “another pulse in me.” Hopeful musical images continue into stanza three, with the church’s organ heard from across the street. But then, in the final stanza, musical images merge with the (apparent) loss of a loved one. “Where you’ve gone,” psalms like Coltrane’s ecstatic praise of God are abundant. Yet on the cello’s neck, “fingers [wait] / above a stalled note”: the poem’s speaker longs to connect with the lost one (“ear of my ear”), but can’t. Something is stalled; loss finally overwhelms the speaker. So the poem gives in to the grief of its title: “Grief Daybook.”

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]

Dinner with Dona Adélia 

Jessica Goudeau’s translations of the work of Adélia Prado, Brazil’s foremost living poet, appear in issue 91. 

The night I met Dona Adélia, she told me my husband was the perfect man. She came to the University of Texas for a poetry reading with her longtime translator and editor, Ellen Doré Watson. At almost eighty, Dona Adélia had aged with the grace of a self-possessed movie star, Sofia Loren as a Brazilian poet. Ellen, several years younger than she, translated her words with the ease that exists between women who have been friends for decades. They were traveling together with Dona Adélia’s statuesque daughter across the United States and came to Austin to read to a packed house.

The reading was a week after my dissertation defense. Kurt, my graduate advisor, had known Ellen since they were in school and had planned the evening. Dona Adélia lingered over one of her long poems dedicated to the figure of Jonathan, who sometimes stands in for the ideal man and sometimes Jesus, and about whom she has written dozens of poems, which differ from the earthier poems about her husband, Senhor José. When she heard that my husband’s name was Jonathan, she grabbed a pen to write in a copy of her book of poetry: “With happiness, for Jonathan (the perfect man) and his kind wife, Jessica.”

Over dinner at an intimate Italian restaurant, the scent of garlic and spicy wine mingling with candle smoke, we comfortably mixed Portuguese and English. Jonathan grew up in Brazil; we lived there together for a few years before graduate school. Ellen and Kurt and other translator friends joined us. Dona Adélia leaned in, breaking garlic bread delicately over her plate, asking questions in her melodic voice. We asked her about her poems, but she waved our questions away. She wanted to hear about what it was like for Jonathan to grow up in the western part of Brazil; they discussed fishing in the Pantanal. Dona Adélia’s children are older than we; we talked about how much she loved being a grandmother. When Dona Adélia asked about our children, we paused and looked at each other. [Read more…]

Poetry Friday: “The Cartographer of Disaster”

Sometimes a poet will take a familiar story but re-tell it from the point of view of a minor character. That’s what Kathleen L. Housley is doing in “The Cartographer of Disaster”: she gives us the biblical story of Noah and the Flood from the viewpoint of the raven that Noah sends out after the waters have receded until mountain tops become visible. In the Scripture story, the raven is mentioned only in the line that Housley takes as her epigraph, and its return to the ark is never noted. So Housley imagines the raven’s experience when “it went back and forth, to and fro” over the waters. First it becomes aware that the assignment Noah gave it isn’t appropriate for a land bird like itself. It weakens as it “tries to glide on stiff wings.” But it forges on, surveying the remnants of life poking up from the receding waters. The raven begins to map the coordinates of visible remains, “while grappling / with the problem of how to plot bearings as straight lines / that drowned mariners can follow to reach safe harbor.” With those “drowned mariners,” who of course will never reach safe harbor, an eerie darkness enters the poem. This climaxes, to my mind, in the final stanza, with “a child’s arm caught between fence posts.” God does not come off well in this poem. His announcement, in Genesis 6:7, that because of all the wickedness that humans have descended into, “I will wipe from the face of the earth the human race I have created” had sounded legitimate and general at that point. But when Housley’s raven takes note of the “drowned mariners” and the “child’s arm,” we see the effects of God’s destructive action in a new and disturbing way.

—Peggy Rosenthal

“The Cartographer of Disaster,” by Kathleen L. Housley

And he sent forth a raven and it went back and forth, to and fro,
until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
—Genesis 8:7

To traverse open water searching for signs of life,
a seabird is more suited than a land bird,
which needs the trustworthy stubble of wheat fields
and faithful hills that never drift to find its way.
But the raven, weak from long restraint, does its best,
trying to glide on stiff wings as the albatross
and seeking updrafts as the fish hawk.

First it scouts the contours of a submerged city
from which towers rise to the surface like water lily stems
in a placid pond. Then it surveys a herd of ibex,
their recurved horns tangled in a mass of drifting reeds.
Expanding its search pattern, it marks the longitude
and latitude of a wine vat snagged on a pyramid’s tip.
But nowhere does it see a single living thing.

Come nightfall, the raven, wing-weary and famished,
rests on the floating carcass of a bull elephant,
passing the time till dawn pecking topographic lines
into its bloated belly, pondering the great circle distance
of mudflats now turned into seafloor while grappling
with the problem of how to plot bearings as straight lines
that drowned mariners can follow to reach safe harbor.

When sunrise brings no hope of finding an olive branch,
the raven wonders what Noah will do with a damage tally
that includes a child’s arm caught between fence posts.
Better to become a cartographer of disaster inking
a cartouche of ill omen than to return to the ark.
After all, what use are casualty figures to the dead
or promises of repair? Too late for them—rainbows.

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Kathleen L. Housley is the author of Firmament (Higganum Hill). Her poetry has appeared in the anthology Writing the World (Terra Nova), Christian Century, and online at Nimble Spirit.

Poetry Friday: “Erasure”

In dark trees by Alberto Garcia on flickrHave you ever felt that your own existence is being called into question? That you might be real but in the next moment disappear? Robert Cording explores this feeling in his poem “Erasure.” At first the poem’s speaker decides that his life is “too neatly drawn” and needs some erasure, some subtleness. So he goes out into a field as night falls. His experience there becomes more, though, than he can comfortably handle. Cording dramatizes this through masterful repetitions. Watch what he does with the word “here.” In stanza one, it refers generally to life itself; I’m “here” in the living world. In the following line (the beginning of stanza two), “here” is a specific place: the field. But by the final stanza, “here / I am” sounds a note of panic, as the speaker senses death taking him over. Death’s approach, meanwhile, is marked by repetitions of “dark/darkness.” At first, in stanza three, it’s the speaker’s own choice to place himself outside at twilight, with “darkness rising up.” As night comes on and shadows take away the names of oaks and ash trees, “the dark adds the slightest chill.” But “It’s then / that the invisible hearse of darkness / waits for me to get in.” The speaker feels his life slipping away as darkness overwhelms him. He calls out for “someone” to verify his living reality.

—Peggy Rosenthal [Read more…]