Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"ARK" by Katie Ford

Katie Ford offers up a genuinely poignant poem in the aftermath of the New Orleans floods in her newest collection, Colosseum, from Graywolf Press (2008). “Ark” is an example of how quickly a good poem can take its reader on an intellectual and emotional journey. Ms. Ford’s use of “we” and “us” creates an intimacy and a shared responsibility for looking at the world in this way.


We love stories of flood and the few
told to prepare in advance by their god.
In that story, the saved are
always us, meaning:
whoever holds the book.

I’m reminded of these lines from Czeslaw Milosz’s Preface to A Treatise on Poetry: “One clear stanza can take more weight / Than a whole wagon of elaborate prose.”

Friday, June 12, 2009


While on a week-long trip to Humboldt County along the northern coast of California, I brought along with me a book of nature meditations that I thought might restore my desire to apprehend nature as it is captured on the page in the poem. Sue Sinclair’s Breaker is a book that is long on rapturous imagery and interesting metaphor. Her work is curious and intoxicating in the way it relentlessly takes on markers in the landscape and reflects on them. What it finds in them is that nature is a reflecting pool. Sinclair wrestles with the philosophical implications of simultaneously being in the world and thinking about it.


And overhead, the birds:
chips of bone in the sky, remnants,
fact of the world’s brokenness.

You look up, asking to be forgiven for a crime
you’re still trying to locate. You know it’s out there,
stare toward the edge of the marsh, the welt of bright water
shrinking before your eyes. A sky of pre-worldly clarity
only confirms your guilt, an inherent misalignment
that keeps you from knowing even a fraction
of what you see.

You cross the heat-ridden ground, the sweet brittle scent
of sage rising underfoot. So easy to pretend a single word
will occur to you, and that it will do all the good
anyone could hope. The earth is parched and lonely,
relies on dignity to protect it. Each thing hanging
by the thread of itself. Bleating crickets. Rustle of dry stalks.
The silence pushes you toward yourself:
it’s time to walk deep into the heart of what troubles you

Sometimes what is found is not so pleasant, just like in nature. Sometimes the discovery is troubling. One discovers one’s own deficiencies. It’s a cheap form of therapy. A hike into the woods and a tall conifer can be your analyst.

Many of the poems take a single subject and try to guess at the self through the subject. There is a poem about a pelican that issues thoughts on a vanquished will and the fear of the body and soul separating. A poem about a clearing speaks of a dark tunnel in things that we want to feel. Etc.

Sinclair is very much concerned with a mysterious undercurrent running through all of the subjects she focuses on, even through all of nature itself. It seems to be her self-appointed task to find that hidden vein in all that teems in the great outdoors. She explores this theme in many of the pieces, at times making it feel as though she is seeing all the way through to the back of the head of the animal she is gazing at.

Most of the poems work from “set pieces”. The author frames a scene and then thoroughly explores the intricacies of the scene the way one might observe a photograph by one of the Magnum photographers and look for the detailed elements that might explain more thoroughly what is going on . . . and more importantly, what is going on outside of the frame that is unseen. For this reason, it is no surprise that several of her pieces work off of photographs — Nan Goldin, Edward Weston. In these she explores the world within the snapshot. She gazes long and hard, thinking about them, then, in classic introspective philosophical manner, thinking about thinking about them. More often than not, she does manage to find a strain of the numinous — a Gaian animism.

As often as she does find some mysterious hidden otherworld behind this one that is visible, an elsewhere that beckons like a lost childhood. The speaker seems to long to place herself in that elsewhere “refusing all the blandishments” (as the book’s jacket blurb nicely puts it) of the scene the speaker is witnessing.

In Breaker Sinclair searches for the magic in a place (the way a fantasizing child might). In “Falling from a Great Height” Sinclair suggests that the desire to displace oneself is rooted in the way children want to displace themselves into the world of adults and adults want to go the other direction. The other realm is always luring us away.

Falling From a Great Height

A hardened, varnished afternoon.
Gulls pick at dumpsters
as boys ferry their basketball back and forth
over the centerline, stewards of the court.
Heat pours off the tarmac; they play deeply,
soulfully, until the day lopes off to the western
horizon and the game loses its appeal.

They go inside as darkness trembles
over the neighbourhood like an alcoholic’s hand.
A car passes; the sound of its engine wraps our minds
in its cocoon. We close our eyes, forget at last
what we’re made of and sink into the elsewhere
that cast its invisible shadow all day.
Heat drifts from room to room
not wanting to disturb anyone.

The garbage rots leisurely in the dumpster,
its rich odour attracting raccoons. Inside,
children and adults dream of changing places,
long for each other in the dark.

The world piles up its details as Sinclair antrhopomorphizes it to the point of animism. That “longing for each other in the dark” at the end of the piece is one of the inexplicable essential elements in Sinclair’s universe that defies any further definition. Other readers have noted a sense of brokenness in Breaker that invokes this sense of longing for the other (indeed Sinclair even refers to this occasionally and suggests it in the title). I also got this sense to a certain extent throughout the book. But what prevailed for me was the interest in the mysterious other not the disappointment that a prolonged connection could not be forged with it. Her aim at the mysterious soul of a place and its objects is remarkably true so I never felt like the speaker was overly self-consciousness of her missing that longed-for realm. Yet the speaker is insistent on the partition between the perceived world and its barely distinguishable flip side where mystery lingers.

So why does a poet insist on staring at the soul of a place? This is a fundamental existential question that I would have liked to see Sinclair engage with more fully. I wanted to know if there was some reason other than naked desire that she would send herself out into the landscape to hunt down its inner pulses of spirit. Why this obsession with the unknown/unseen lurking at the edge of her field of vision. Is this the kind of dance she does with a monstrous god when they decide to get it on?

Perhaps the answer to why the poet insists on staring into the beckoning abyss is that she finds it to be a way to be rescued by sleep. In the last piece in the book, “Asleep”, Sinclair’s speaker is tired of the world and sleep appears to be her only way of granting herself a vacation from it.


A wasp-like hum in the room,
the something-going-on that passes for silence
in these quarters, for we want to believe in silence,
that our repose leaves nothing behind, empties all the chambers,
takes the present into our dreams with us and leaves
a void that works like acid on all that was.
Car headlights on the wall mean nothing,
the cramped, ungrowing furniture, nothing,
the church spires, tired bells, nothing.
They are but the residue of the day, less than echoes,
the last creaking stair on the way out of perception.
We have come to an agreement: tired of the world
in its inalienable unlikeness, we will give up coaxing it out.
So the night darkens, the curtain drifts
out the window, the very lateness of the hour ceases.
We sleep side-by-side with eternity, and never touch.

The failure to connect at the end here again belies the anxiety of the speaker about prolonged contact with the ineffable, but what underscores this anxiety is the fatigue the speaker has with the visible world and the “residue of the day.” Sleep is the only thing that can rescue such a fatigued warrior of the philosophical assault on one’s own presence in the world. But even in this sleep, however, there is also distance. In this case, it is specifically with eternity, but there is also the hint of sleep without touch. I’ve never been good at falling asleep within the clutches of someone else. I suspect I’d be a very poor dog. Sinclair’s speaker apparently would be too.

The one aspect of the book that I find extremely heartening about Breaker is that it does not flinch in its discussion of philosophy in the poems. It does not wish to entertain as much as edify, prolong the great battle with a meaningful existence. This is what renders it, I suppose, as particularly Canadian. Canadian poets have not sacrificed their souls to the entertainment gods as much as American poets have, who understand that they better keep their readers lighthearted and lubricated with fun. The philosophical burdens that Sinclair bears are seen as an American excess or perhaps just bad form, some endeavor that losers take on when they aren’t up to moving fast enough. In America it’s do (see “JUST DO IT”) not be. But there is a third option to the age-old contest between doing and being, between stereotypical Americanism and stereotypical Canadianism. This third option is what Sinclair is poised to capitalize on when facing the mysterious, ineffable shadow world — do. be. learn.

Friday, June 5, 2009


The Next Country is a travel book of poems, but it is not the typical kind of travel fare. It travels in two directions simultaneously. It chronicles the observations and experiences of a speaker moving through post-Pinochet Chile as it runs a parallel journey into the interior of the speaker, sorting out past relationships and one’s emotional landscape.

As journeys go, they are both rather sedate journeys, marked by close attention, tenderly deliberate. This is why I initially had trouble entering into the book. I guess I expect most journeys to be madcap, footloose adventures — one of those buddy pictures into the turbulent soul. But these journeys employ careful steps. They attempt to be less wild American than chronicler of a foreign culture where it pays to be careful of what you say for fear you don’t become one of the desaparecido the next time you visit. My expectation for such a journey might be to plumb the depths of the language and cultural idiosyncrasy to produce a kind of Oswald de Andrade-like Pau-Brasil, but Novey’s speaker is content to watch and calibrate the people that she sees moving through their lives. It’s a trip with a sociologist and spiritual seeker more than it is a philologist’s whirlwind tour of the libraries. Novey’s speaker seems to be watching, watching . . . ever vigilant. I imagine sitting next to her in a bus on its way to the Pantanal and saying, “Jesus Christ, would you say something?” as she continues to study the faces.

When I first picked up the book, I was in the middle of a very busy month, but now that I have slowed down for the summer months, I have come back to The Next Country and have begun to tease out the subtleties.

The book begins with “East of Here” and beckons the reader to travel with its last line: “there is a road if you want to go.” So, we hop on. The rest of the first section sets off poems like “The Wailers in Estadio Nacional” where the speaker is watching Ziggy Marley’s band play in Santiago’s largest soccer stadium against poems that detail relationships with family members — mothers, fathers, sisters. The one theme of travel to a foreign country is matched with the theme of traveling to the unexplored land of the familial. In the following piece, one gets a taste of Novey’s world of relationships:

For My Sister, Driving Away

From a picture, no one guesses
the relation until I explain

about our fathers: one black
and one white. Then everyone finds

a resemblance: your cheekbones,
they say. No. it’s your jawline.

Or maybe the eyebrows.
When I think story, I start

with the mother, but maybe
I’ve been telling it backward.

Where the water streamed
swiftest over the rocks, our mother

rolled up her pants, waded in.
Swaying, bell-like, almost willing

her fall, she called for us
and we laughed at her.

Is it possible to have a mother
pitching toward the water,

and alongside that falling
a margin of happiness?

Outside a Cineplex, I spotted a woman
in an ill-fitting dress. She was in line,

but only half-so. People milled
around her, her face like a town

along the Hudson — a mix of prison
and wilderness. I wondered

if she had children, if when they spoke
it was like unstitching

that ill-fitting dress
covering her body, if even then

their talk was a whisper, a sort of scissor
scraping the skin.

“her face like a town along the Hudson — a mix of prison and wilderness”? Wow. I’ve known quite a few people like that, but my empathy has never risen up to provide that level of description. Novey’s speaker is a superior empath. The sister is also briefly mentioned in “Stranger” (“Definition of a Stranger” here) as wilder, so we get the sense that the sister invoked is an actual sister.

Later on in the first section Novey uses a piece called “Trans-“ to suggest a kind of crossing over. The poem uses various different suffixes (-late, -gress, -mogrify, -form, -scend) as section headings. At the end, Novey writes: the whole of a life fits in a coconut / and you can whittle out the slivers / of its immaculate inner meat.

She begins to do just this in the wonderful “Into the Atacama” where once again the reader is placed in the foreign country. The speaker melds with all the personages on the bus — “We . . . became presidents. We became lovers” — and one gets the sense that the speaker’s empathy is spilling out onto everyone, rendering in full her desire to be an everywoman.

There is more traveling in section II, a brief stop in Tikal. Then as the section ensues, there is a shift back to the familial again. There is a delicious piece entitled “The Candidate” which explores the consequences of a woman’s honesty being challenged.

Section III begins with a tribute to Brazilian fiction writer Clarice Lispector with “A Ma├ža No Escuro[The Apple in the Dark]” also the title of one of Lispector’s books. In this poem we begin to see the transformation of the “sister”. One careful sister stays home and is forced to listen to the libertine sister’s untamed ways. In this piece, though, is where I finally got the sense that the “sister” is the stand-in for “the other” in the foreign culture, and this sent a ripple effect throughout the first two sections, all the way back to “Definition of a Stranger.” For me, this piece acts as the pivot in the book for the reader to understand the symbolic significance of the sister/daughter, and it establishes the basic architecture of the book.

A strange little prose-like piece follows that maps the sister/sister dyad onto the mother/daughter relationship. I believe it is Novey’s intention here to reiterate the similarity of female experience, the sisterhood that connects one woman to another despite background and cultural baggage.

Two Women in a Barn

It happens that a mother becomes parchment
and rolls up gradually around the fictions
of her children. That she becomes an almond
softening in the pockets of cotton garments.
Sleeps with her glasses on in her daughter’s house
and vanishes in the morning. That she’s coerced
her grown child into feeding her blind horse, watching it
list oddly in the small paddock. It happens
that a daughter becomes a bottle, filling with twigs
and crinkled bits of leaves. That she likes to glint
in the water the way a glass bottle will.

With the sisterhood comes a disfigurement as well, a turning into glass bottle full of throwaway items . . . yet that glass bottle is given to moments of brilliance as well if we are quick enough to catch it glinting on the surface of the water.

Section IV, the final section, builds on the mother/daughter relationship at the end of section III and starts with several pieces that invoke the theme of dissociated children whose roots have been cut away from them, leaving them to become unmoored.

These lost children become Pinochet’s desaparecidos in “The End of Augusto” where the speaker, removed from Chile, notes the general’s death as a kind of siren echoing on the inside and ready to be uttered.

Moving further into section IV, an octopus , “washed up and gull-pecked,” arrives next, cast out from the brutality of the sea. A painted gourd turns up as a symbol of everything and suggests a certain sense of laissez-faire. A field serves as the metaphor for what one moves through, a country, its history, a family, a marriage, a life.

We see the restless associative movement in this last section where the subjects of the poem are crab-walking into each other. Everything is moving sideways and conflating until distinguishing lines can no longer be drawn. We arrive at the all-encompassing. This is the magnanimous heart, Whitman’s leftover pulse, traveling as it were over Latin America. One almost immediately asks whether Neruda can be very far off.

This is not to say that the associative movement is as frenetic as with the surrealists. It's leaps are not dashes across the riprap in the stream, not sure of where the next footfall will be, improvising. Novey will collect herself on a foothold and figure out where she is going to place her next footfall. Whose approach is more adventurous? They are both crossing the stream. Novey's approach illustrates an understading of what Brazilian singer Rita Lee describes as to chega mais.

Many of Novey’s poems find their objective correlative in objects that are removed from the actual subject she wants to broach. Several of the poems in the final section work this way. Moreover, quite a few over the course of the book use this strategy of the slant, the glancing. If one is not set to the proper tempo, one might miss the the glints, the connections. Yet, what is most assuredly the case is that Novey’s associative movement does provide the reader with a deep image effect. As she herself puts it in “Scenes from Moving Vehicles, IV”:

The sun sinks, its pink rim
dims tangerine — storied light,
where the reckoning comes in.

In The Next Country Idra Novey exemplifies a quiet identification with the everyman, not an exclamatory one. For those of you who come to Novey after Whitman, you might have difficulty understanding her notion of the group hug and how it differs from Whitman’s smothering exuberance. Novey’s embrace is more of a short, firm, passionate clasp (or perhaps a very subtle goose), one that provides bursts of that storied light.

Monday, June 1, 2009


My friend June and I love Paint Your Wagon, the 1969 mining-camp musical that starred two of my childhood movie-heroes, Lee Marvin and Clint Eastwood, and introduced my eleven-year-old imagination to the mystery of Jean Seberg. My nostalgia goes even further. At Gilliland Junior High, my buddy Carlos and I mumbled out a duet from the film in music class. Looking at our feet, we sang, “I was born under a wandering star,” figuring if Lee had the cojones to sing it in public, well, we did, too.

Paint Your Wagon
was shot on location in Pine Valley, Oregon, the hometown of one of June’s and my mutual friends, the late Bill Baird. Bill’s brother was actually on-set as an adviser. Everett was a master of the pioneer art of driving a team of oxen. Bill told us Everett was caught on film driving a team himself. Unfortunately, June and I waited too long to watch the movie with Bill so we had to use our imaginations a bit to identify his big brother.

Right about now you’re probably wondering: how does Paint Your Wagon relate to Mary Oliver? Well, if you’ve seen the movie, you might remember the scene in which Clint sings, “I talk to the trees,” as he ambles through a summer-lit pine forest, pining for Jean Seberg. As for talking to the trees, he laments, "but they don’t listen me." In Ms. Oliver's poem, “When I Am Among the Trees,” not only do they listen, they speak.

I came across this poem in Thirst (Beacon Press 2006) during a break from reading an anthology of contemporary poems that were challenging my abilities as a reader. Simply put, I was exhausted by them. How refreshing it was to read a poem by someone who has been listening so carefully to the world, who is willing to make herself vulnerable by sharing what she's heard, and who can write so well.

I hope you enjoy this poem as much as I did, and you, too, can “go easy” in this world—if only for a moment.

When I Am Among the Trees

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, "Stay awhile."
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, "It's simple," they say,
"and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine."

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

FENCE 10th ANNIVERSARY READING—AWP Chicago [Feb. 14, 2009]

Rodrigo Toscano reads "Clock, Deck and Movement" [5:59]

Eleni Sikelianos reads "Who thinking on Her Legs (Manifesto)" [2:20]

Eleni Sikelianos reads "Essay: History's Tree (Early Greece)" [1:00]

Prageeta Sharma reads "Value" [2:00]

Prageeta Sharma reads "Deliverance" [1:58]

Kristin Prevallet reads "Dream of Financial Ruin" [3:55]

Geoffrey O' Brien reads "Cascade" [0:37]

K. Silem Mohammad reads "Unobstructed and 4 Sonnets" [6:26]

Brenda Hillman reads "Wind Treaties" [0:51]

Brenda Hillman reads "Styrofoam Cup" [0:29]

Brenda Hillman reads "Sediments of Santa Monica" [1:22]

Duriel Harris reads "Short" [3:32]

Dawn Lundy Martin reads "Religion Song" [4:41]

Thomas Devaney reads "They're Fighting in Atlantic City in Atlantic City" [5:25]

Amy Catanzano reads "Chromatica" and "Notes on the Enclosure of Fields" [2:41]

Rae Armantrout reads "Currency," "In time," "Previews," "Hey," "Anchor," "Procedures" and "Number" [6:19]

Cathy Wagner reads "She May" [1:43]

Cathy Wagner reads "Well in The Chasm of Your Faith Opportunity Tree Why Don't You Crampon Up" [0:51]

Cathy Wagner reads "Song" [1:38]

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

After Her Stroke, Our Family Remembers the HurricaneAround the

After Her Stroke, Our Family Remembers the Hurricane
Around the table, she blinks her response
to our questions and listens to the noise
the rest of us make, nodding her head
until someone forgets and pauses halfway
through the story: Tell us what happened next.
Through the window, this year's tobacco
is just visible behind the barn.
The room is bright and everything silent,
even the break of the crop's stalks in the wind.
Someone else picks up where the last
left off, and another interrupts to tell it
better, the afternoon losing itself to rain
that has just set in. She turns away
from us to face the windows, my uncle
visible beneath the thunder as he collects
damaged leaves. When she thinks no one
is watching, her hands rise to the neck
and I see her fingers trace the throat,
the outline where the voice once belonged.

-- Kerri French

Saturday, April 25, 2009

WRITERS CORPS: Anthology Reading

Chad Sweeney reads "The Piano Teacher" [1:59]

Jeffrey McDaniel reads "Day 4305" [4:58]

Elissa Perry reads "Becoming Darla" [8:01]

Maiana Minahal reads "Ordinary" [1:12]

Maiana Minahal reads "You Bring Out the Filipina in Me" [1:56]

Thomas Centolella reads "Transparency" [1:57]

Thomas Centolella reads "Dojo" [2:29] Text of "Dojo"