A Wonderful Contrariness! – Guest Poetry Blog Series # 16 – Part Two of Two – Canadian Poet Kate Cayley Reflects on Poems by Wendell Berry and Philip Larkin

American poet Wendell Berry


The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer

I am done with apologies. If contrariness is my
inheritance and destiny, so be it. If it is my mission
to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it.
I have planted by the stars in defiance of the experts,
and tilled somewhat by incantation and by singing,
and reaped, as I knew, by luck and Heaven’s favor,
in spite of the best advice. If I have been caught
so often laughing at funerals, that was because
I knew the dead were already slipping away,
preparing a comeback, and can I help it?
And if at weddings I have gritted and gnashed
my teeth, it was because I knew where the bridegroom
had sunk his manhood, and knew it would not
be resurrected by a piece of cake. ‘Dance,’ they told me,
and I stood still, and while they stood
quiet in line at the gate of the Kingdom, I danced.
‘Pray,’ they said, and I laughed, covering myself
in the earth’s brightnesses, and then stole off gray
into the midst of a revel, and prayed like an orphan.
When they said, ‘I know my Redeemer liveth,’
I told them, ‘He’s dead.’ And when they told me
‘God is dead,’ I answered, ‘He goes fishing every day
in the Kentucky River. I see Him often.’
When they asked me would I like to contribute
I said no, and when they had collected
more than they needed, I gave them as much as I had.
When they asked me to join them I wouldn’t,
and then went off by myself and did more
than they would have asked. ‘Well, then,’ they said
‘go and organize the International Brotherhood
of Contraries,’ and I said, ‘Did you finish killing
everybody who was against peace?’ So be it.
Going against men, I have heard at times a deep harmony
thrumming in the mixture, and when they ask me what
I say I don’t know. It is not the only or the easiest
way to come to the truth. It is one way.

Wendell Berry from Collected Poems 1957 – 1982, New Point Press, 1984

A poem I keep returning to, for guidance and for delight and to laugh in a way that feels satisfying, is Wendell Berry’s poem featured above. The Mad Farmer is one of Berry’s recurring narrators, a wild man who speaks the world. He’s a bit like Zbigniew Herbert’s Mr. Cogito, another stand-in for the poet who hilariously and profoundly meditates on what is and punctures holes in acceptable pieties.

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Repetition as a Form of Attention – Guest Poetry Blog # 16 – Part One of Two – Introducing the Latest Contributor, Canadian Poet Kate Cayley


Canadian poet, short-story writer and playwright, Kate Kayley. Photo Credit: from her Website.


And if repetition could itself be
a form of attention, folding along the crease
until the crease finds itself
hollowing out the groove, as in marriage,
studying the same face, the same
permeable body, as in children, their fury, their
fraught going forward thinning out your life
like a membrane that will not break, lives
that alter in the telling, theirs outstripping yours
and stripping you of anything they find useful yet
carrying you always with them, a husk pinned to their inside
pockets, as the poet when she wrote on the back of recipe cards
attended sternly to the rising bread, attended to each
blade of grass on her Amherst lawn, then I will
believe that language rose up in us
as praise.

Kate Cayley, from Lent, Book*hug Press, 2023


I first discovered Kate Cayley through her winning twelve-part poem for the $20,000 2021 Mitchell prize. Its memorable last line in part eleven: That we are a  form of praise. Then I found her new poetry collection with that prize-winning poem at the book table of her publisher Book*hug Press at the huge American Writers’ Program convention in Seattle earlier this year. After reading it I was so taken by it I featured Kate and Lent in a blog post you can find here.

In that post I gave a bit of the rundown of her successful writing career:

For those not familiar with her work, Kate is a celebrated Canadian playwright, poet and short-story writer whose books have garnered many accolades and prizes including the prestigous Trillium Prize and was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award for Fiction and was a finalist for the CBC Literary prizes in fiction and poetry.

And just a few days ago Kate was announced as the 2023/24 Writer-In-Residence for Sheridan College in Ontario. With all these achievements it is a true pleasure and privilege to feature Kate in the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series. The post below, Part One of Two, will be followed by Part Two which will feature a poem each by contemporary American writer Wendell Berry and and U.K. poet Philip Larkin (1922-1985).


I wrote Attention, featured above and the first poem in my collection Lent, in response to two stray thoughts that came my way. Poems usually start like this, for me and I imagine for most poets: not a clear intention or problem but a thought or image that pushes up unexpectedly and sometimes inconveniently, which then (sometimes slowly and sometimes quickly) becomes a poem.

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Why Is The World Like This? Guest Poetry Blog Series # 14 – Part Two – American Poet Christopher Locke Features American Poet Denis Johnson

American poet and novelist Denis Johnson (1949-2017). Photo Credit: Cindy Lee Johnson

Guest Blog Post by Christopher Locke, June 22nd, 2023


The world will burst like an intestine in the sun,
the dark turn to granite and the granite to a name,
but there will always be somebody riding the bus
through these intersections strewn with broken glass
among speechless women beating their little ones,
always a slow alphabet of rain
speaking of drifting and perishing to the air,
always these definite jails of light in the sky
at the wedding of this clarity and this storm
and a woman’s turning—her languid flight of hair
traveling through frame after frame of memory
where the past turns, its face sparking like emery,
to open its grace and incredible harm
over my life, and I will never die.

Denis Johnson from The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations Millennium General Assembly: Poems Collected and New, Harper Perennial, 1995

What I write about is really the dilemma of living in a fallen world, and asking: Why is it like this if there’s supposed to be a God?”—Denis Johnson from A Bookworm’s World, May 8th, 2009

Before American writer Denis Johnson went supernova with his cult classic short story collection Jesus’ Son, and years before his meditation on the Vietnam War, the novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, Johnson was a simple poet blowing his mind out with drugs and alcohol by the age of 19.
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Griffin Prize Shortlist – Winner Announced Tonight, June 7th 2023 – A Look Back on My Blog Posts on some of the Nominated Books and Authors

Canadian poet Susan Musgrave and her poetry collection, Exculpatory Lilies, one of the nominees for the 2023 Griffin Poetry Prize

I left this somewhat late! A quick look at blog posts I have written on four of the five shortlisted nominees for the Griffin Poetry Prize – Susan Musgrave, Ocean Vuong, Roger Reeves, Ada Limón and Iman Mersal (translated by co-nominee Robyn Creswell). When I say I left this late it’s because the winner will be announced (in a few hours) tonight in Toronto! The winner receives a lot of attention and a $130,000 prize, said to be the largest of its kind!

Here below is a bit of a mash up on four of the five nominated books!

In 2022 I profiled Canadian poet Susan Musgrave’s poetry collection Exculpatory Lilies and featured two complimentary poems by Ocean Vuong and Roger Reeves based on a poem by Frank O’Hara. And back in 2020 I profiled Ada Limon.

Here an excerpt from my post on Susan:

SEPTEMBER 14th, 2022

The day you are cremated, a girl modelling a black hoodie
like the one I’ve chosen for you to wear, lights up my Facebook page:
I survived because the fire inside me burned brighter than the fire
around me. I hear you laugh at the irony as they fire up the retort,
a laugh dragged through the ashes of a thousand cigarettes, tokes
of crack, my sweet dangerous reckless girl, what could I do
but weep, the way I did when you were four, butting out
a Popeye candy cigarette you scored from the boy next door
for showing him your vagine through the split cedar fence.
I told you, next time baby, hold out for the whole pack, trying
to be brave, the way only a mother could. Now I carry you home
in a plain cedar urn, the remains of all you were reduced
to this smaller, portable size. Not even you could survive
the fire this time, your light in ashes now.

Susan Musgrave from Exculpatory Lilies, McClelland & Stewart, 2022
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Version 2 – Moving to Delilah – Guest Poetry Blog Series – Contributor # 15 – Canadian Poet Catherine Owen – Part One of Two

Canadian poet Catherine Owen: Photo courtesy of Catherine Owen.

Sunflower, August

The mammoth is its own planet.
Each day, for months, it grows inches, thickens,
its pedicel like obese bamboo, leaves plattering out,
shading tomatoes and peas, quashing the cedar’s spread.
Height attained, the fleshy receptacle expands,
florets first petaling within, the whole head
a conjunction of spikes, fortress grin or alien apparition.
Every morning, turning in a different direction,
before its inflorescence, from the dark seed, already prepared
to breathe in the rays, transform bract into corolla.
The mammoth is its own planet or a satellite of seeds, each
lipping from a sepal, an anther, but what is most flagrant,
hard to say: the jungle-vast leaves, trunk ridged as night’s
spine or this inflorescence, all the stigmas melded, fastened
in florets, the whole a corolla of twisting always
towards the light.
The mammoth is its own planet. Its face uninhabited
by grief. Now, growth peaked, it forms seeds within each
eventual unsealing and release. Its scent a honey-musk
that weighs your leaning towards, your burial in the past.
Redeems it. In part. You’ve lashed it to the deck as if a siren
on the mast but it never stops widening and, at night, floats over
the lawn, a soft moon in prickly carapace.
Believe that it is beyond you and it is.

Catherine Owen from Moving to Delilah, forthcoming in 2024 from Freehand Books, Calgary


What a delight when Catherine Owen said yes to joining the Recovering Words Guest Poetry Blog Series and, again, when her two posts arrived a few days later! She blamed that quick turn around on the smoke from the awful wildfires in Alberta.  A good but unfortunate excuse to write inside on a smokey day! Her post below is the first of two. And her second  features the celebrated American poet Victoria Chang and her 2020 masterwork: Obit which won a number of prestigous national American prizes and was nominated for others including the National Book Award and the Griffin International Poetry Prize.

Catherine Owen is no stranger to these pages. I have included her in a number of posts, the most recent featuring her poetry collection: Riven published by ECW Press in 2020. To read that blog post please click here.  And I continue to consider her 2014 collection Designated Mourner a must-have in any poetry collection. This book-length elegy made up of individual poems was triggered by the death of her spouse, Chris, in 2010 as a consequence of the damage to his body from a long-term drug addiction. After reading this collection it is no wonder Catherine picked OBIT to feature in her second post.

Designated Mourner captures Catherine’s overwhelming loss from Chris’s death, one of the huge losses captured inside Catherine’s haunting last line to her poem above: with two cats, everything I owned, except for all I had lost. Some of that loss is caught so viscerally in this poem from Designated Mourner: Read More »

We Can Always Praise – Three Poems – A Meditation on Horseradish and Radishes – Lysheha, Harrison, Issa

Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha (1949 -)

Song 352

When you need to warm yourself,
When you are hungry to share a word,
When you crave a bread crumb,
Don’t go to the tall trees —
You’ll not be understood there, though
Their architecture achieves cosmic perfection,
Transparent smoke winds from their chimneys.
Don’t go near those skyscrapers —
From the one-thousandth floor
They might toss snowy embers on your head..
If you need warmth
It’s better to go to the snow-bound garden.
In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish..
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish..
Is there a light on inside? — Yes, he’s always at home..
Knock at the door of horseradish..
Knock on the door of his hut..
Knock, he will let you in..

Oleh Lysheha, translated by Kames Brasfield from BBC Radio, 2012

As so often happens I get inspired by a Facebook post by Ilya Kaminsky. Today, he posted lines from the poem above by the Ukrainian poet Oleh Lysheha. On a horseradish of all things. Knowing the darkness overshadowing Ukraine these days this whimsical poem above is a delight. As Ilya says in his post referring especially to the last five or six lines: There is a curious combination of luminosity and playfulness here.

In the farthest corner you’ll find
The lonely hut of the horseradish..
Yes, it’s here, the poor hut of a horseradish..
Is there a light on inside? — Yes, he’s always at home..
Knock at the door of horseradish..
Knock on the door of his hut..
Knock, he will let you in..

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Guest Poetry Blog Series #15 – Canadian Poet Catherine Owen Features American Poet Victoria Chang – Part Two of Two

American poet Victoria Chang: Photo Credit: Jay Glendenin, Los Angeles Times

Tears – died on August 3, 2016. Once
we stopped at a Vons to pick up
flowers and pinwheels on our way to
the graveyard. It had been a year and
death no longer glittered. My ten-year-
old putting the flowers perfectly in the
small narrow hole in front of the stone.
How she somehow knew what the hole
was for, that my mother wasn’t really on
the other side. Suddenly, our sobbing.
How many times have I looked into the
sky for some kind of message, only to
find content but no form. She ran back
to the car. The way grief takes many
forms, as tears or pinwheels. The way
the word haystack never conjures up
the same image twice. The way we
assume all tears taste the same. The
way our sadness is plural, but grief is

Victoria Chang from OBIT, Copper Canyon Press, 2020

Elegies are my most exquisite addiction. No, obsession. And possibly, the most essential task of poetry is commemoration. And yet, we live in a self-consciously apocalyptic time in which everything seems to turn elegy. So how to make the sub-genre sing again, become rupturous, rapturous?

Victoria Chang’s 2020 collection OBIT has been that form-shaker for me, transforming what is often a typically lyrical response into a puncturingly interrogative one that points to how worlds perish when people do, even if they remain alive in body as her father has, but erased mentally through dementia.

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Oh World, Leave Me Slowly – The New Poetry Collection from American Poet Francesca Bell

A launch annoucement for American poet Francesca Bell’s latest poetry collection, What Small Sound, being held today at Auntie’s Bookstore, Spokane, Wa.

Manifest Image

The man keeps telling me I am beautiful.
I still look young.

He says it like I’ve asked for it,
but I don’t care.

For him or beauty.

I am content to slip into old,
wrinkled plainness,

to walk on unimpeded.

I was young once.
My body stunned.
My breasts were really something,

but I was something else entirely.

Something no one one could see
until now.

Francesca Bell from What Small Sound, Red Hen Press, 2023

The poem above comes from Francesca Bell’s latest book, only her second collection, but her poems have been making waves in recent years appearing in many journals, notably Rattle, where she has been featured in the Poets Respond series and where she won the Neil Postman Prize for metaphor.

Like wildfire smoke, loss hangs over the poems of  of What Small Sound  (loss of innocence, of bodily and mental health, to name a few) but like smoke, sometimes these losses can retreat leaving the landscape still there, fully revealed, still holding on. Other times, especially in her poems of sexual violence, it stays. But in her epigraph poem of this blog post, the last poem in her collection, she ends with the smoke gone. The triumph of this. The triumph in the quick colloquial pace of these lines:

I was young once.
My body stunned.
My breasts were really something,

but I was something else entirely.

Something no one one could see
until now.

This confidence, this  wisdom of Francesca’s in a culture where female beauty is held up like some idol to be worshipped. So often a false idol that betrays the beholder and the one beheld. And in this poem her characteristic quick biting wit, this delightful ouch:

He says it like I’ve asked for it,
but I don’t care.

For him or beauty.

This collection like her first, Bright Stain, which I reviewed in a post here in 2019, holds a magnifying glass to the ugliness in the world but will not succumb to despair. In this I think of something Jane Hirschfield said to Kaveh Akbar in the American Poetry Review in the March/April 2020 issue about a poem she wrote in response to a dark and despairing poem of hers. In the response poem she remembers that mourning must not overwhelm gratitude for what is being lost; that grief must not obscure praise; that it is, quite simply, rude not to love this moment’s very existence.

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To Celebrate the 2023 Pulitzer Poetry Prize Winner – Esteemed American Poet and Teacher, Carl Phillips – Two of His Poems and One By American Poet Linda Gregg

American poet Carl Phillips (1959 – ) Photo Credit: The Huffington Post, 2015

That the Gods Must Rest

That the gods must rest doesn’t mean that they stop existing.
Is that true? Do you believe it’s true?

                                       I could tell it was morning

by all the crows rising again from that otherwise abandoned husk
of a car over there – so ruined, who can tell the make of it now,
what color. Or maybe if being stranded on a wind farm at night
with no stars to sing to could be a color – that color, maybe…
The way an unexpectedly fine idea will sometimes emerge from
what looked on the outside like the mind as usual treading water
was the crows, rising. A misleading clarity to the air, like logic:
he only wants what he deserves; he deserves everything he wants;
I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.

Carl Phillips from Then The War; And Selected Poems 2007-2020, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2022

I was delighted to discover that yesterday it was announced that the gay black American poet and teacher Carl Phillips had won the 2023 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his latest (his sixteenth) full-length poetry collection, Then The War; And Selected Poems 2007-2020. Back in 2020, after the publication of his, then, last collection of poems, Pale Colors in a Tall Field, I featured him in a blog post. To read that post please click here. From that post this description of Carl:

To enter into a Carl Phillips poem is to embrace wonder and mystery and to surrender to both. The wonder of his rich language and his disarming conversational voice that seems to place him right beside me as I read. Yet in that seemingly casual voice he can throw out astounding complex and perplexing ideas one after another. And as well he can communicate a sense of physicality and intimacy especially around sexual encounters that adds a haunting immediacy to his work.

What I didn’t say in that post was how, so often, his poems end in a startling and utterly unexpected way as the does the epigraph poem featured above. How we go from gods, to morning, to crows, an abandoned wreck of a car, to being at a place on a starless night and how that could be a colour, to how great ideas arrive, to deserving, then wanting, then this:

I deserve all I’ve ever built and fought for; we deserve our loneliness.

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Life Unmitigated – Guest Poetry Blog # 14 – Introducing the Latest Contributor, American Poet Christopher Locke – Part One of Two

American Poet Christopher Locke

Waiting for Grace

Waiting for my daughter’s school bus, a March
afternoon brushed haunted and grey, I keep
company with the clouds, their gaunt reflections
charcoaled atop our pond, the wind tugging its iron
cloak around trees standing nude along the shore,
as if between acts and someone has stolen their
beautiful gowns. I feel feral and alone, slouching
in my black coat and sipping a Pepsi One, thinking
again I’ll never shake my lust for pills, narcotics
which have unknit my life so completely. I close
my eyes and concentrate on something brighter,
take another swig off my harmless soda. Above
me, a small abacus of birds fills a telephone
wire, and I smile when I think of her, my daughter
Grace: ten-years-old and sunk deep in a harem
of gossip as she navigates fourth grade; deciding
at lunch which queen is ripe for the plucking. And
if it isn’t hysteria wrought by the Jonas Brothers,
then it’s the complaint her arms are too fat, holding
them out, incredulous, for my wife and me to inspect.
But what she doesn’t know is that every day she saves
my life—drilling the science quiz together at night,
or just by asking that I pass the ketchup at dinner
is what keeps me here, awkward yet alive. And
now, the yellow cube of her bus rounding the corner,
stopping in front of the driveway. I see her through
the windows laughing, popping gum at her friends.
It’s only when she steps onto the pavement, crosses
the street toward me that I realize we’re both moving,
both in the process of leaving something behind.

Christopher Locke from Waiting for Grace & Other Poems, Turning Point, 2013


So pleased to be able to introduce American poet Christopher Locke and the first of his two guest poetry blog posts. His second post will feature the American poet Dennis Johnson.

I will never forget when I discovered Christopher and his poetry. I was stressed and anxious. It was 2007. I was preparing to lead my first poetry therapy session at a drug and alcohol recovery center on Bowen Island, offshore Vancouver. I had picked a poem by German poet Rainer Maria Rilke and one by Canadian poet Patrick Lane to use in the session but I felt I needed another, like Patrick’s, written from the perspective of someone in recovery from addiction.

In desperation I picked up a copy of the US journal The Sun that had arrived that day. I opened it and found Christopher’s poem New Weather. Holy-frigging-hallelujah! A poem from the front-row of recovery! I wrote about this in this blog post on Christopher in 2013!
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