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Poetry Special – Five Poets (August 2016 / 16.8)

Kingdoms of Light

A Vanishing, for Michael Powell

Photo, A Vanishing, for Michael Powell by Sam Rasnake, near Hatteras Village, Outer Banks, November 2014

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Vinita Agrawal

Friendly Advice

She said I’d become dust
if I didn’t step out of the house,
didn’t meet people.
I’d be like a yak-tail fly whisk –
different, but useful only to drive away flies.
As boring as a whale bone,
as dull as a lesson in syntax.

She said she’d make me a palanquin
if that was what it took for me
to go out and mingle,
leave the cage, the social apoplexy.

A woman needs wiles.
Needs to be pagan – like a flagon of old rum.
Gracefully rapacious
like the rainbow that wants both ends of the sky, she went on.

After I’d put down the receiver,
I concurred silently,
I gazed at the sagebrush plains outside my window.
Knew that life didn’t grow back without roots.
Good air and sunshine were just not enough.

Vinita Agrawal, an award winning poet based in Mumbai, has authored two books of poetry: Words Not Spoken and The Longest Pleasure. She was awarded the Gayatri GaMarsh Memorial Award for literary excellence 2015, a US based award for south Asian writers. Her work has been published in Asian Cha, Fox Chase Review, Poetry Pacific, Mascara Lit Review and others.

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Sherry Stuart-Berman

Inis

We fight and swim in circles,
you say I am away like
a body apart—
though we are here in this
body apart, green with mamey,
dragonfruit, mangoes heavy,
long-stemmed. I grow pointed
like melaleuca, leaves spiked,
bark papery to the touch. You rinse
the sting of salt from your skin.
We miss the ferry to Sunset Key.
At night we watch lightning
shock a far sky.

On a lounge chair I read that in midlife
infatuation returns, but this time
we look at each other and love
ourselves
, seeing with the other’s eyes. I close mine,
iris blue-green and burning,
drugstore eye-drops back in our room.
You point out the swift iguana
has no predator here, sunning
securely on his rock.
Digging for poetry in my straw beach bag
I find an island
where killing the other
is rooted.

Our differences magnify in water,
become shark-toothed, rash,
the god-bath dry.

Sherry Stuart-Berman is a therapist working in community mental health. Her poems have appeared in Earth’s Daughters, Paterson Literary Review, Atticus Review, Knot Magazine, and the anthologies Malala: Poems for Malala Yousafzai, Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, and 2 Horatio. She lives in New York with her husband and son.

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George Moore

Biophobia

You slip something into the mail
and notice a finger missing
from your right hand. Then, wake
at night thinking “I should have
dotted that i.” The i’s like ewes
bouncing across the screen.
Should have, could have. A chant,
ghosts in the machine: the semi-colon
was a comma, was a semi-colon?
There is no sleeping on this bed of
verbs, the text is texture, postmodern,
impossible to feel. You were black
and are now white, a piece on a board
or the hand lifting the ivory, or have
you given up the game? Each move
understood as if lost in a funhouse?
Nothing you do will bring back
the father, more valuable if dead.
If only we might share that tragedy
in a parallel universe. To have
and have not all at once.
To quell the burning itch in the
ghost finger, you read, and read,
late into the night. The world is
the plaything of Moby-Dick, or
as captain, you sacrificed the ship.

George Moore’ latest collections of poetry are Children’s Drawings of the Universe, published by Salmon Poetry (Ireland) in 2015, and The Hermits of Dingle, published by FutureCycle Press in 2013. His work as appeared in The Atlantic, Poetry, North American Review, Colorado Review, and a number of international journals, including Blast and Fiddlehead.

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Melissa McEwen

Oh Baby Promises

Young, we let those slow songs— those oh baby baby
don’t you know you mean the world to me ones—
do all the sweet talk, whispering sweet nothings
and promises for us (our mouths were occupied).
And though we knew those until the end of time I’ll be
there for yous were probably untruths, our bodies behaved
like every word was actually said, meant, believed.
Sometimes we gave in, gave it up, and lost it
in backseats, bedrooms, and basements. We could not
help it. Prince’s high-pitched promises coming
through the radio speakers made us weak, made us
soft, made us melt, made us confess to wanting
to have teenage boys’ babies, forgetting we would
become teenage mothers with responsibilities, reputations,
ruined lives, and ruined bodies with sagging breasts and loose
vaginas, forgetting everything our mothers said to scare us
into celibacy with stories about when we were born
(the contractions, the pain, the pushing) and about no-good,
sorry ass, boy acting men who only wanted one thing
and it wasn’t a baby or forever either.

Melissa McEwen is a poet from Hartford, Connecticut and her poems have been published in various literary journals, anthologies, and magazines such as Rattle, MiPOesias, and Black Magnolias.

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Rufus Skeens

Now, Write Me a Poem

So few desire rain, white noise
along a ridge, leave’s dance
to indecipherable rhythm as

puddles become graph sheets,
disturbed lenses like an open eye,
ear’s red drum. Sensuous wet

wet skin. Easier to prefer sun,
warm days, blue sky, like
casual poetry whose lack

dries up the mind. Rather
imagine rain desires
so few of us to brave the weather,

find the miracle of God’s psyche
in the luminous synapses—rain drops—
snared in a spider web.

Now, write me a poem
about desire, I ask you.
Tell me about the rain.

Rufus Skeens is a retired coal miner who lives and writes in Bristol, Virginia. Late last year his first volume of poetry, Lost for Words was published by James Ward Kirk publishing, and is available on Amazon Books in print and e-book versions. He loves words, art, and music, and works at poetry and art, while listening in rapt fascination to Pink Floyd.

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Quarter Notes: Essays, Reviews, Interviews

Review: Angela Narciso Torres on Rochelle Hurt’s The Rusted City

The Rusted City by Rochelle Hurt
White Pine Press, Marie Alexander Poetry Series, 2014
Salmon Poetry, bilingual edition, 2013
108 pages

Rochelle Hurt’s devastatingly beautiful poetry debut The Rusted City: a novel in poems is an intricate weaving of historical and narrative threads into a magical, surrealist novel-in-parts, braided together by the power of metaphor-making, which is clearly one of Hurt’s greatest poetic gifts. The book’s structure itself is a braid: alternating sections consisting of three parts that trace a family’s story and two intervening sections that recount their city’s decline. But the braiding also happens on a formal level: narrative sections, written primarily as prose poems, are interspersed with historical sections in verse form.

The setting, as the title suggests, is loosely based on the author’s hometown in the Ohio Rust Belt, a region of the United States that was once its most powerful manufacturing sector, but which declined rapidly during the deindustrialization that began in the ‘70s. Hurt was raised in Youngstown, Ohio, one of the country’s largest steel manufacturers. But when the city’s main steel factory folded in 1977, Youngstown’s population dropped by half, and the area never regained its former prominence.

The author, who grew up in this period of economic decline, population loss, and urban decay, recreates the Youngstown of her youth, rebuilding it as a surreal landscape. Rust permeates everything in this former city of steel, signifying not just the decay of a metropolis, including its once majestic structures such as the Old Mill and the Grand Ballroom, but the natural world and its inhabitants as well. Rust clogs the rivers, nestles in the birds’ feathers, pollinates the flowers. It sheaths and enters people’s bodies, becoming part of them. In the opening poem, “The Old Mill,” birds eat rust from their wings. In another poem, a daughter “watches as red dust brushed loose falls from her mother’s head and collects on the kitchen tile, already stained a dull orange.” The pervasiveness of rust, as insistent as the weather, intensifies as the narrative unfolds. Rust, like the power of place over both writer and her work, inhabits and transforms the citizens of this broken city.

The archetypal cast of characters—the quiet mother, the smallest sister, the older sister, and the favorite father, reinforces the fairy-tale quality of this book-length poem-in-parts. The main character, the smallest sister, propels the narrative forward as she comes of age while both family and city are crumbling around her. Like the author herself, the smallest sister uses metaphor to make sense of her world. She observes, collects objects from the rubble, and stores images and words, salvaging a kind of beauty and redemption, fragile as that may be, from her corroding world.

        The Smallest Sister Spots an Iris

        she must have. This one is still blue, a late new bloom, not yet clothed in red. Every
        flower in the scrap garden is red— bluebells, lilacs, daffodils, except this iris.

        …

        Red dust has already begun to collect in its center like an idea. A bright red heart has
        formed on the head of the yellow pistil, pumping through her with dread.

Left to her own resources, the smallest sister forges meaning and gives shape to childhood’s private griefs: a mother’s silence, a father’s flawed love, and a family’s futile struggle to keep it together amid the disintegration of their city. And so, in “The Smallest Sister Decides to Make Herself Red,”

        … She crushes the sun into her collarbone. She strings corroded washers into a
        necklace. She dresses her lips in the sanguine river water and sucks the stain from
        pipes behind the aluminum plant, leaving a trail of crust down her throat. Her words
        emerge already weathered with rust, and she feels older with each one—older than the
        oldest sister, older than the quiet mother, older even, she thinks, than the mill the
        favorite father loves so much. When he touches her, she is as old as the city that folds
        in like a fist around them.

While the smallest sister is the poetic voice of “narrative truth,” her older sister is the voice of “historical truth”—distorted by the trick mirror of memory, the subjectivity of retelling. These sections, the second and fourth in the book, recount the city’s history in poem-chapters whose titles are prefaced by the phrase “In the Century of. ” The titles, along with the lineated form, give these sections a biblical magnitude which releases both speaker and reader from the bonds of historical fact, resulting in myths of creation and deconstruction that gain epic proportion as amplified by the speaker’s imagination and memory. Here is one section depicting a period from the city’s “history” with characteristic lyric beauty and musicality:

        In the Century of Lunch Pails

        the city sprouted silver flues
        like glistening ears on a wrinkled tuber,

        which listened as coverlets of wind, cut
        from the sky, dropped through them.

        Everywhere the chew of pipes branching
        through copper soil could be heard.

        …

                                                      And every evening,

        the clinking, ever nearer the doorstep, of coins
        inside all the hollowed-out fathers as they walked.

In this blending of worlds, the family’s story becomes the city’s story. Just as the familial walls cave, the city has nothing left to offer but corroding structures, torn scraps, and hollow promises. Here we see the rich intelligence of the book’s central image and ruling metaphor. Rust connotes neglect, decay, disuse, age. But rust is also the color, smell and taste of blood, which signifies both life and death. As Tony Hoagland says in “The Unarrestable Development of Sharon Olds,” “the poetic nature of image is that it cross-pollinates, refracts, and echoes in ways that are quicker and stranger than rationality, evoking a host of intersecting contexts and subtexts that would take a discursive writer much longer to explicate.” Rust is the air the family lives, the air the family breathes in. The characters imbibe it and thus become the very city that once fed them but now is hard-pressed to sustain them. But it is also from the scraps of this disintegrating metropolis that a flicker of uncertain hope emerges.

Ultimately, the smallest sister, the most defenseless and vulnerable character in the book, becomes its most vital character, finding agency through metaphor. In the book’s penultimate act and poem, she embodies the remains of a former boom town fighting its way back to survival:

        The City Opens

        along its river-seam like a swollen belly, expelling antiques. The smallest sister makes
        a list of what she finds on the banks.… Every night she finds more, so she begins to
        build herself a home from them. Every night another wall, every week another room,
        every month another house—her new city birthed from the refuse.

And finally in the book’s last poem—

        The Smallest Sister Is Radiant

        inside. Patient under her tongue, a word waits like a grenade of rust, fool’s gold, and
        what else she can’t say.
                                    She can’t say why she swallows the word, but when she does she
        knows it will burst in her throat one day.

        ….

        She can’t say when it will arrive, but she knows at the moment of death, she will be
        brilliant. Her body will shine like a city inside.

Such is the power of metaphor, of art, of the word—to transform rubble into new life, embodying the poet’s own re-visioning of her city from the ashes. Such is Hurt’s power to create a world that, outlasting the slow corrosion of time, endures in the reader’s memory.

Angela Narciso Torres’s first book of poetry, Blood Orange, won the Willow Books Literature Award for Poetry and was published by Willow Books/Aquarius Press. Recent work appears or is forthcoming in Kyoto Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Colorado Review, and Drunken Boat. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently resides in Chicago, where she teaches poetry workshops and serves as a senior poetry editor for RHINO, a publicity coordinator for Woman Made Gallery Literary Events. and a reader for New England Review.
Rochelle Hurt is the author of two collections of poetry: In Which I Play the Runaway (forthcoming in fall 2016), winner of the Barrow Street Book Prize, and The Rusted City (2014), published in the Marie Alexander Series from White Pine Press. Her writing has been included in the Best New Poets anthology series and awarded prizes from Crab Orchard Review, Arts & Letters, Hunger Mountain, Poetry International, and the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fund. She is a PhD student at the University of Cincinnati.

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Review: Edward Morin

“Deteriorating Genius”

A review of Robert Lowell: A Biography by Ian Hamilton
(Random House 1982)

[This review appeared in The Detroit News on December 19, 1982, and is reprinted with permission of the author.]

The literary career of Robert Lowell (1917-1977) had a public scope unique for an American in this century. His famous New England family, which included the poets Amy and James Russell Lowell, brought him attention from many beside the readers of his seventeen books of poems, plays, and translations. Applauded for inspired teaching at universities worldwide, he also publicly took on Franklin Roosevelt (after the saturation bombing of Hamburg in World War II) and Lyndon Johnson (during the Vietnam War).

This first and full-scale biography by the British editor and critic Ian Hamilton, who knew Lowell well in his later years, is candid, fair, thorough and sometimes humorous and suspenseful in the manner of a good novel. Hamilton’s rare knowledge of Lowell’s writing increases our access to facts and intentions that the poet sometimes obscured in what he called “my verse autobiography.”

Prominent in Lowell’s story were his father, a sometime Navy captain of “weak character and strong lineage,” and his Victorian mother who believed Napoleon a good role model for her son. Robert had other ideas. He nicknamed himself “Cal,” for the cruel emperor Caligula and Shakespeare’s misshapen villain Caliban. Cal’s movie-star looks and unusually mild manner clashed with his slovenly dress and occasionally uncontrolled rages.

After a failing year at Harvard, Lowell attended Kenyon College and learned from John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate how to write classic poems on large subjects in traditional rhyme. His brilliant Lord Weary’s Castle (1946) won a Pulitzer Prize and other awards, including the post of poetry consultant at the Library of Congress.

His emotional problems grew with his successes. A six-year marriage to Jean Stafford ended with her hospitalization for alcoholism, and his own mental state was, at best, unstable. (After a visit from his manic protégé, Tate said, “Cal, in his emotional dependence, has caused us more anxiety in the past twelve years than our own child has caused us in all her twenty four.” In 1949, Lowell was hospitalized with a nervous breakdown; shortly after his release, he married journalist/critic Elizabeth Hardwick. For twenty years thereafter, he experienced breakdowns and hospitalizations about once a year; the extensive electroshock treatments he received may have contributed to his later problems.

In his next major book, Life Studies (1958), Lowell converted to a looser, more autobiographical “confessional” style that influenced John Berryman, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, and other poets whom Lowell called his doomed generation. This book, which won the National Book Award, is generally recognized as Lowell’s last critical triumph in poetry. Yet his stage adaption of Melville’s story Benito Cereno won five Obie awards in 1965, and certain poems in For the Union Dead (1964) and Near the Ocean (1967) have merit.

By the mid-1960s, Lowell’s judgment in life and art seemed to disintegrate badly. His illnesses included childish marital infidelities and grandiose idealizations of Attila, Alexander, Hitler, and other “despotic gangsters.” Said his victimized wife Elizabeth: “This thing doesn’t seem to be under control of the will at all….They tell him at the hospital that they think it is an organic affliction and it doesn’t have to do, except in the most indirect way, with what one does.”

Lowell’s last decade was pathetic. When he and the public found his collection of poems, Notebook (1969), to be an intractable blunder, an assistant helped him throw together recombinations as if they were experimenting with protoplasm. Relocating to England and taking a new wife in 1970, Cal grew his hair long to look rather like Walt Whitman and incorporated passages from Elizabeth’s letters and phone calls into poems about their breakup. Against the advice of friends, he published these insults in the badly-written The Dolphin (1973). He left his third wife in 1977 and, on the way to Elizabeth’s New York apartment, died of a heart attack.

Hamilton’s well-wrought study of a gifted personality in protracted deterioration supports Norman Mailer’s assessment of Lowell as “the most disconcerting mixture of strength and weakness.” It helps us understand the intensity behind lines like these from the most highly-regarded poem in Life Studies:

         My mind’s not right…
         I myself am hell;
         Nobody’s here—

Edward Morin is a poet, translator, and song writer who was born and educated in Chicago. Collections of his poems include Labor Day at Walden Pond (Ridgeway Press, 1997) and The Dust of our City (Clover Press, 1978). Transportation: Hot Tunes and Blues from Motor City (1988) is a recorded album of his original songs. He has edited and, with Fang Dai and Dennis Ding, has co-translated an anthology, The Red Azalea: Chinese Poetry Since the Cultural Revolution (U. of Hawaii Press, 1990). He also co-edited, Before There Is Nowhere to Stand: Palestine/Israel: Poets Respond to the Struggle (Lost Horse Press, 2012). He has a chapbook forthcoming from Cervena Barva Press in 2016.

 
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