X is for Xie – Third in a Series Featuring a Reverse Alphabet of Poets Beginning at Z for Zwicky, Y for Yasmin

Chinese American poet Jenny Xie. Photo Credit: Teresa Mathew

Melancholia

The black dog approaches?
I pry open the crooked jaw.

Inside?
A heady odor, elemental.

And then?
I spin through my life again.

How so?
Slow and fast, fast and slow.

What follows?
Time, the oil of it.

What direction?
Solitude throws me off the scent.

And what lies ahead?
Even the future recoils, long as it is.

What points the finger?
All of my eye’s mistakes.

And what were they?
Level.

Jenny Xie from Eye Level, Graywolf Press, 2018

I first came across the idea of using an “undervoice” or interrogator in a poem through the American poet Carl Phillips. It helped me add a torque I felt was missing in the introductory poem of my first full-length collection. And I use the word torque because that’s the word Jenny Xie uses to talk about how how  adding the interrogator to her poem on melancholia torqued it up, added tension.

Jenny Xie came into the full limelight of the poetry scene in the US in 2017 when she won a number of accolades for her her debut collection Eye Level including being short-listed for the National Book Award. And in 2020 she was recognized with a prestigous Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise. Currently she teaches at Bard College in New York State.

Here are some of her thoughts on her poem from the Poetry Society of America website:

This formal structure, the mode of interrogation, had a certain charge. You can hear the echoes of an analysis session in it, but I was also drawn to the dance of riddling there, too.

In riddling, the slant ways of describing or approaching an object seem more pleasurable than arriving at an answer. What animates the exchange is the deferral of understanding, with descriptive lines revealing but also further obscuring the object. The back-and-forth, and the feeling around the shaded contours of something, felt like the right form for a poem aiming to locate the nature of a loss, which remains concealed and unknowable. I liked the drawing out of tension, the probing. The questions open to answers, which keep opening.

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Y is for Yasmin – Ouch! Ouch! The Tough Truths – “Confront the Complexities” – in Seema Yasmin’s Must-Read Poetry Collection: “If God is a Virus”

Seema Yasmin M.D. (1982 -) British-born American doctor and journalist who in recent years now adds poet to her “other” accomplishments!!!

(Starting with Z for Zwicky this blog post, Y for Yasmin is now the second in a series of blog posts to feature contemporary poets by going backwards through the alphabet according to the initial of their last name. Next: X for Xie!)

MY SISTER TEACHES ME HOW TO ULULATE

Yallah habibti, move your tongue like the sea
easy. My big sister teaches me to ululate, rolls
her tongue in waves. Dips thin fingers inside
my mouth to pull out mine, stretches it long
and pinches the tip. Watch, we move tongues
like this. I see the walls of our father’s house
collapse and we swim free leleleleleleleleleee

On the ferry to Tangier I shriek across the sea.
Practice how to sound like a real woman. Old
aunties grab my buttocks, smush their breasts
against my back and sing leleleleleleleleleleeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee
Don’t cover your mouth habibti! Only women
on the upper deck, only sea. We move tongues
like this to tell the waves stay back, tell men

stay back, tell the dead stay gone, tell runaway
wives stay gone. They turn me into wisteria
woman, limbs wrapped around poles and thighs
as they guide me. Throw back your head, epiglottis
to the breeze. Salt air burns my hot membranes,
scratches at the tight knots of my chords.
All my life I was told

women must swallow sand
unless we are sounding
a warning.

Seema Yasmin M.D. (1982 -) from Foundry magazine, 2017 and from If God Is A Virus, Haymarket Books, 2021

What a musical spell of a poem. What a cry of feminine freedom. Of power strong enough to still waves, keep men, the dead and runaway wives back, away and gone! And the hammer blow of the last stanza set apart in line length and stanza length so tellingingly from the stanzas and lines that come before. This shortening of a woman’s life, her importance, her voice.

women must swallow sand
unless we are sounding
a warning.

This poem comes from an important book for our time published just weeks ago. In this pandemic time. And the title of  this book say so much. In so many ways if you see a god or gods as a prime mover of events of the world what a god Covid-19 is. Fierce and deadly. And it’s as if so much of the author’s life prepared her especially for this moment. I can think of few, if any, people who could with such authority pen this book and bring disease, as personified by a virus and its unexpected consequences, so to life!

What a woman, what a poet I say. And yet what I now know to say also is what a heck of a life this woman, this poet has had. Born in England to a mother who came to England from northwest India this woman became a doctor and then transformed her life as a high-profile medical activist and journalist, television and print analyst and academic in the United States. All in thirty-nine years! And now with her debut full-length poetry collection she is also a notable (I say) poet! In this she joins other notable contemporary doctor poets Rafael Campo and Amit Majmudar. And going back some, of course William Carlos Williams!

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Three on Trees by Merwin for Earth Day 2021 and a Quote by Terry Tempest Williams, A Cry Out For Us To Be Attached to Our World, Its Nouns!

American poet W.S. Merwin among his palm trees on Maui

PLACE

On the last day of the world
I would want to plant a tree

what for
not for the fruit

the tree that bears the fruit
is not the one that was planted

I want the tree that stands
in the earth for the first time

with the sun already
going down

and the water
touching its roots

in the earth full of the dead
and the clouds passing

one by one
over its leaves

W.S. Merwin (1927 – 2019), from The Rain in the Trees. Alfred A. Knopf, 1988

To celebrate Earth Day 2021 how better than with three poems by exceptional American poet W.S. Merwin who died two years ago last month.  Not only is it appropriate to feature Merwin because of these poems but especially considering how he restored 19 acres of ruined land on the north coast of Maui, deforested and part of a former pineapple plantation, into a lush garden/forest of more than 800 species of palm trees. A life’s work with his wife Paula over more than forty years.  Yes, a man who loved this earth with his body, his, mind, his hands. A perfect icon to feature on this Earth Day when so many parts of the world are going the other way – from garden/forest to disturbed if not ruined land.

What an elegiac tone in this well-known poem of Merwin’s featured above. But also the hope in this man, the stubborn hope of a man who planted thousands of trees.  We know through recent research in the past years how interconnected and remarkable trees are. How appropriate on the earth’s last day to plant one. A living gravestone.  Yes!
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Z is for Zwicky – A Poem from her 2020 Poetry Collection! And Hello to National Poetry Month!

Canadian poet Jan Zwicky. Photo credit: National Post 2012


Lullaby

Don’t let grief frighten you.
Standing outside, in the mind,
its silhouette is winged and cavernous.
But what brought you here: is past.
No need to lock the door.

Don’t let grief frighten you.
Bring it in to sit down by the fire.
In the hearthlight, you will see its face
is human, its hands
are empty like your own.

Jan Zwicky from Fifty-Six Ontological Studies, Barbarian Press, 2020

Canadian poet Jan Zwicky is one of our Canadian literary treasures. A philosopher, a musician, a translator, a former professor, she takes these specialties and brings them so alive in her non-fiction writing and her poetry! Maybe a good sobriquet for her would be: poet polymath! To see a previous blog post on Jan please click here.

What else sets her apart is her collaborations with Barbarian Press one of Canada’s most outstanding creators of limited-edition letterpress books based in Mission, B.C. The husband and wife team who run Barbarian, Jan and Crispin Elsted are longstanding friends of Jan and her poet and letterpress book-loving husband, Robert Bringhurst who has also been published through Barbarian.

Barbarian has published at least two limited edition runs of Jan’s books including the most recent in 2020: Fifty-Six Ontological Studies. In 2000 they published 21 Small Songs, an exquisitely distinctive small chapbook. Books as art objects! (Another specialty press but with a broader trade-book presence, Gaspereau Press published one of Jan’s most celebrated books Wisdom & Metaphor in 2003 which has become a collector’s item and in 2006 published the full-length collection Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences.

The word disorientation came up this morning as my dearheart Somae and I were having our morning coffee. The disorientation we are feeling from the Covid-19 pandemic. A disorientation that has a strong dose of grief in it for me. Grief at all that has been taken by Covid-19 and also the griefs of deaths of loved ones from cancer and the grief over climate change, a rise in prominence of authoritarian regimes and a breakdown of kindness and respect for others all over the globe.

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On Swimming – Remembering Adam Zagajewski and A “Swimming” Poem by Maxine Kumin!

R.I.P Adam Zagajewski – 1945 – 2021

On Swimming

The rivers of this country are sweet
as a troubador’s song,
the heavy sun wanders westward
on yellow circus wagons.
Little village churches
hold a fabric of silence so fine
and old that even a breath
could tear it.
I love to swim in the sea, which keeps
talking to itself
in the monotone of a vagabond
who no longer recalls
exactly how long he’s been on the road.
Swimming is like prayer:
palms join and part,
join and part,
almost without end.

Adam Zagajewski (1945-2021) from Mysticism for Beginners, Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997

After sending off my tribute to Adam Zagajewski last night after hearing he had died earlier in the day I remembered he had been on my mind last week after a friend had said she had read a great poem about swimming but couldn’t remember the author. It turns out the poem my friend was thnking about was “Morning Swimby American poet Maxine Kumin (1925-2014). (I have included it below.) In a strange way the two poems do talk to each other. Swimming as a prayerful or spiritual exercise.

It was only this morning that I made the time to find Adam Zagajewski’s poem above – On Swimming. This series of gentle declarative grammatical sentences slowed down by their line breaks. The pace feels almost hypnotic to me until the last sentence. And such sweetness and sunlight in this poem yet also a sense of vulnerability and fragility. The image of a vagabond (so unexpected) and a fragile fabric of silence around old churches. So fragile even a breath could tear it.

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He gave Us Astonishment and a Flame, High, Bright! R.I.P. Adam Zagajewski ( June 21st,1945 – March 21st 2021

R.I.P Adam Zagajewski – 1945 – 2021

A Flame

God, give us a long winter
and quiet music, and patient mouths,
and a little pride – before
our age ends.
Give us astonishment
and a flame, high, bright.

Adam Zagajewski,translated by Renata Gorczynski and Clare Cavanaugh from Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002

Oh, Adam Zagajewski was given astonishment and gave astonishment. And he was a flame! High, bright. Now that flame is snuffed out. Zagajewski, the great Polish poet dead at seventy-five in Krakow on Sunday night Polish time. Such a loss! And only five years ago The Toronto-based Griffin Trust gave him its prestigous lifetime achievement award.

I will let the celebrated American poet Mary Oliver, gone last year, sing his praises: [He] is now our greatest and truest representative, the most pertinent, impressive, meaningful poet of our time. High praise indeed. This poet, born on my birthday June 21st, whose passing hurts me, truly. I loved his poetry. This poet, who came to prominence in North America especially after the tragedy of 9-11 when the New Yorker published his now famous poem Try to Praise This Mutilated World:

Try to Praise the Mutilated World

Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June’s long days
And wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
The abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world –
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
One of them had a long trip ahead of it,
While salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
You’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
In a white room – the curtain fluttered
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
And leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
And the gray feather a thrush lost
And the gentle light that strays and vanishes
And returns.

Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Clare Cavanaugh from Without End – New and Selected Poems, 2002

To read a discussion of this remarkable poem from my blog post in June 2012 please click here.

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In a Dry as Dry Desert Time – A Poem by American Poet Jessica Jacobs Plus Two Others from Her 2019 Memoir-In-Poems

American poet Jessica Jacobs. Photo Credit: Lily Darragh from Jessica Jacobs’s Website.

When You Ask Me Why We Took So Long

I could tell you
again how tired I was then, how
disillusioned. The real answer,
though? I have no idea. But I do know
        this:

             Even with evidence
of recent rain, a desert
says only dryness. Its low bushes brittle,
its cracked earth red as rust.

    Yet this hides the land’s proclivity
for flooding.
             For after weeks, sometimes
months, of empty skies, when
        rain finally arrives,
      it’s repelled.
                       
            No matter how thirsty
the ground, after so long
     without water, it has forgotten
               how to drink.

Jessica Jacobs from Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going, Four Way Books, 2019

Thanks to the Palm Beach Poetry Festival last year I became aquainted with Jessica Jacobs and her wife, Nickole Brown. They were stand-outs for me.  But, and if you could see my office/library you might understand this, I didn’t go back through Jessica’s 2019 latest poetry collection until a few weeks ago when I was shelving heaps of poetry books!

Jessica’s latest collectionTake Me with You, Wherever You’re Going  has a tenderness combined  with a fierce honesty that brooks no sentimentality. This is an inside look at love, eros, longing and a love story before and after marriage. This book/memoir captures the “is-ness” of the everything a deep relationship is including its seismic shakes, its fragility and its strength. It’s all here.

I knew I was reading the kind of poetry book that matters to me when its deep fragrances of words and emotion stayed with me. Little hauntings that tied me back to the compelling longing and vulnerability in this book. To write about love in a way that does not mush down into an ice cream soupiness but bites hard first and lets the tart sweetness seep in second is a skill. I leave this book its poems feeling as if I have breathed in bigger breaths.  This book two big lungfills!

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The Stirring “Occasional” Poem of the 2021 U.S. Inauguration Poet, Amanda Gorman

U.S. 2021 Inauguration poet, Amanda Gorman

from The Hill We Climb

And so we lift our gazes, not to what stands between us,
but what stands before us.
We close the divide because we know, to put our future first,
we must first put our differences aside.
We lay down our arms
so we can reach out our arms
to one another.
We seek harm to none, and harmony for all.
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew.
That even as we hurt, we hoped.
That even as we tired, we tried.
That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious
not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.

Amanada Gorman, U.S. Inauguration poet, January 20th, 2021

Just how real this poem is, written by twenty-two year old Amanada Gorman was proved to me in a comment in marked contrast to this poem’s wisodom, geneosity amd hope. What made the comment worse was that it came from a white credibly-published American poet in California. His response to my Canadian friend’s excited and positive post of Gorman’s reading at the inauguration was to call her “a moron.” Someone who became Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S. and goes to Harvard, a moron? Oh dear. I think it says more about the man than it does about Gorman.

The comment and the post has been removed but it was a singular reminder that the divide Gorman calls closed may be far from it. At this moment. What would it take for that man to be able to say:  ” We lay down our arms/ so we can reach out our arms.”  I wonder about imagination. Gorman’s imagination is on full display in her poem. That she can imagine a country where divides and divisions end. Where arms can be put down so arms can reach out. Wade Davis, the noted social anthropoligist says” imagination is the enemy of dispair.” I would say that male poet beset with his own version of despair may be lacking the imagination to fight it. What could change him? What can change any of us stuck in a “I am right, you are wrong” place? That’s the answer we all need today.

When I saw Amanda perform her poem I was moved by its intelligence and power. And by the way she delivered it.  Like a “spoken word” piece. That energy and focussed impact.  At twenty two to write a “spoken word” piece like this is beyond commendable. Bravo! I found it compelling in its hope and its truth telling. It was finished the night of the Capitol riots on Januray 6th. If it could even open one heart dead set against the Biden presidency that would be a victory in my mind. The entrenched mindsets that would dismiss her poem can bring me close to despair. Then I have to remember. Put down arms, reach out your arms! Thank you Amanda.

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[Not So] Silly Old Man, Wet and Laughing in the Rain – Bill Cunningham (May 16th, 1942 – January 12th, 2020) R.I.P. And You Did Not End Up Having Simply Visited This World!

Bill Cunningham (1942-2021) in Florida in 2018 – A man for all seasons, wet or dry!

When Death Comes

When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse

to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;

when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,

I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering
what it is going to be like, that cottage of darkness?

And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,

and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,

and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,

and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

Mary Oliver from New and Selected Poems Volume I, Beacon Press, 1992

With a burdened heart I say good-bye tonight to one of the greatest gifts poetry has brought me – Bill Cunningham. An extraordinarily fine human being by any measure. Dead today from cancer. And for sure this man, this dearest of dear friends, did not as Mary Oliver writes: end up simply having visited this world. He went eyeball to eyeball with it, stood tall, up to his elbows in the beauty and mud of this world! And in one of his latest poems featured below he imagined himself as a silly old man wet and laughing in the rain. That kind of eyeball to eyeball!

And one of the great beauties and gifts of this world for him was the birth of his grandson Jad almnost three years ago. We all got a great laugh when his daughters remembered how he said he would not be an available-all-the-time kind of grandfather if he ever became one. Well, within weeks if not days of Jad’s birth he was showing up pretty well daily to help out! And when Jad’s mum, Ali, went back to work Bill was there dutifully and happily at 7 in the morning  every day, except weekends, for a long time! And was a constant visitor after that time as well until Jad went daycare where Bill would often pick him up and take him home!

One of my first memories of him was at Surfside, Texas when he joined a poetry retreat I was leading there in 2011. A retreat organized by other dear friends from poetry, the late Andy Parker and his wife Liz. Imagine this: he is in Texas and comes to visit dear friends, nine months after his beloved wife Liliana had died of cancer. They bring him to the retreat! I still remember the beautiful poem he wrote about the last days of his wife and also him reciting Rilke in German and then in English.

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Everything Itself Even More So – The Poetry of American Poet Dion O’Reilly

American poet Dion O’Reilly from California


Burned Body Contemplates the
Bottom Sheets

Not razors exactly, more like
powdered glass. Gunpowder.
Asbestos maybe. Superglue,
so when I moved it wrenched
the dendrites of my skin.
I had no skin. I’m sorry.
I had no skin.
What I really mean is
the sheets were slim silver
whips. As slim and silver
as millions of threads, stitching
their silver through
what shouldn’t be seen.
The undergarments of flesh
should be secret.
I mean the body is a fruit
that should never be peeled.
Never eaten by air.
Never touched behind
the thin curtain of its cover.
The sheets were touch.
Not touch. There was no
touch. There was a diamond-
bright rake and flay
I sank from. Into the dark-
red halls and caverns
of my guts. To the proper hush-
and-flow machine
of a living girl.
Breath. Nephron flow
of urine. Pancreas
ooze of insulin. The wish
wish wish of the heart
crying itself out
to the sheet.
The sheet holding me.

Dion O’Reilly from Narrative, Fall, 2020

If I had bruises from reading some of the hard-hitting poems in Dion O’Reilly’s recent poetry collection, Ghost Dogs, published last year, then from her new poems published on-line in Narrative in its Fall 2020 issue, I have more and they aren’t shadowy marks, they are purple-blue. And don’t get me wrong, these are good bruises not the ones the speaker in O’Reilly’s poem shares from Ghost Dogs. And oh the fierce cry of her escape from all that:

Her mother with whatever she used
against her children’s shining faces-
flat of the palm, butter knives,
thin branches pruned from apple trees.
Her father watching, grim and satisfied-
they can’t catch her.

Dion O’Reilly from her poem Eighteen from Ghost Dogs, Terrapin Books, 2020

Okay the bruise in me from this has purple in it, too. But it is the kind of brusing I want from a poet giving me an is-ness in her writing that makes the words burn. The kind of experience Charles Wright writes about in his poem Clear Night: I want to be bruised by God./ I want to be strung up in a strong light and singled out./I want to be stretched, like music wrung from a dropped seed./ I want to be entered and picked clean. Read More »