On Camille T. Dungy’s “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive”

Excerpt from “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive”

by Camille T. Dungy

While wrens, one by one, resuscitate their small portion
of the light, yellow buses progress, leave their lots.

A small moment that points merely to wrens and yellow school buses, and yet it delights. Wrens are passerine: the structure of their feet allows them to perch easily, and they are omnivorous. Wrens are built for survival.

In Dungy’s poem, the wrens individually restore and animate their small lives (their portion) and their portion of that avatar for everything life-giving: the light, which also bears connotations of everything from perception, optimism, security and joy, to divine grace. (Not to mention just plain ol’ sunshine.) The wrens revive the light by being only what they are: birds doing the daily things that wrens do. The poem draws an unspoken connection between the wrens and human life. Like our avian counterparts, we bring our portion to life in the same small, unassuming, wren-like ways. We resuscitate our lives by living them. A single wren can enliven light: such hubris, such power.

But the yellow school buses are also part of this image. The poet as a new mother contemplates the arrival of her own child and the fecund natural world. Children and motherhood center Dungy’s Trophic Cascade. “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive” turns seamlessly, as if by dream logic, from the connotations of light—bright, warm, sunny, yellow—to yellow school buses, metaphorical stand-ins for children, families, schools, and the future. Dungy writes, however, that the school buses progress—how formal and bureaucratic the word seems. The buses, the future, the lives of our children progress, move forward. But “progress” must be a word that might break a mother’s heart: a child progressing, growing up, growing away. I read the lines again and think of wrens, wildness, flight, and the reinvigorated light, and I imagine the opposite state, suggested by school buses: order, system, schedules, staged growth, the loss of neighborhood schools, and the future painted in a cheery primary color. How easily one state dissolves into the other.

from Camille T. Dungy, Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

JNH

On Jane Mead’s World of Made and Unmade

Excerpt from World of Made and Unmade: A Poem

by Jane Mead

. . .

The mouse behind the filing cabinet
isn’t a mouse at all, but a rat or maybe

a chipmunk dead behind the wall—
and starting the long haul into bone-dom.

I move my papers to the dining room,
—the drafts of contracts, the permits,
—the white binder of death instructions.

The little white flags of prescriptions.

 

Elegant, restrained, filled with resonant spaces, and bell-clear with feeling, Mead’s book-length poem World of Made and Unmade retells the last weeks of her mother’s life. A reader might want to ponder any of the quiet, evocative moments in the poem. Mead deftly enlarges even the smallest scene. In the scene above, the poem turns from the foregrounded and visible acts of the mother’s dying to a death the poet can’t see but presumably smells. A mouse? Another animal? An unseen death behind the implied orderliness, the controlled and human-constructed index of a file cabinet. A death out of reach. And though it is only a small death, it disturbs the poet and pushes her out of lived routines.

Whatever animal has died has begun its way “into bone-dom.” Mead remains clear-eyed: bone-dom. She does not romanticize. She makes no denial, but her dry wit tries to use language to control what, ultimately, the poet cannot control.

Avoiding the smell, the poet moves, or tries to, but takes her mother’s dying (the white binder) with her. The poet cannot escape, nor can her mother, and so the white flags of the prescriptions: a metaphorical surrender, to pain, to illness, to the limits of human body, and to grief. The flags seem a small image: the white of the binder, the white flags of the prescription, and the white that might mean unmarked, empty, barren, sterile. And yet they stand as synonyms for loss.

from Jane Mead, World of Made and Unmade: A Poem, 2016.

JNH

On Perfume Genius’s “Slip Away”

By guest blogger poet Chen Chen, author of When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities

I suppose what I’d like to write about for this blog series isn’t a single image, really, since it’s a music video. Image after image after image. And sound. But I’ve been obsessed with queer musician Perfume Genius’s song “Slip Away” and the glorious music video for it, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang. The video is part friendship adventure through a fairy tale forest and part ferocious queer political statement.

The two friends (and they could also be lovers) are played by Perfume Genius (a.k.a. Mike Hadreas) and dance choreographer Teresa “Toogie” Barcelo. They’re both unruly femmes, dressed in the brightest and most ruffle-happy of outfits, while running from another duo, decidedly more menacing—two clownish schoolboys who look like Trump but drawn by a French surrealist.

The beautiful pair runs, seeking a yet-to-be-defined freedom from the confines of learned, societally acceptable behavior (for which the schoolboys harass them). As Hadreas sings, “Don’t look back, / I want to break free / If you never see ’em coming / You’ll never have to hide.” The goal is to run, to push so far into the direction you want to go in that normative societal pressures can’t touch you and you never again have to suppress the fullness and in this case, femme-ness of who you are.

“They’ll never break the shape we take,” Hadreas sings (at around the fifty second mark of the video) while his trusted companion makes pretty shapes with her fingers around his face. At the same time—and this is my favorite image from the video—Hadreas readjusts his amazing pink top with his amazing pink gloves, pulling the garment tighter on as if to say, Yes, this is what I’m wearing on our quest for freedom. The garment seems to glitter in agreement.

On Rowan Ricardo Phillips’ “The Starry Night”

from Heaven

by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

THE STARRY NIGHT

Night frees its collar from around its neck
And walks slowly past the two bathing bears
Wading in the black stellate subheaven.
They know nothing that’s happened or that will.
Their implausibly radiant malaise
Deepening the starry night and its great
Astral ambivalence towards small things
Like bread and Bernardo’s first glimpse of the ghost.

Ah, what a little personification can do. The night removes its collar. Is the night human? Is it an animal? Does the collar represent our human mythologies and lore about the night or our ancient fear of darkness? In Phillips’ poem the night is animate, self-aware, and has volition: it frees itself. It walks slowly past what seems a bathing Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Does the night move slowly from fear? Caution? A lack of hurry? Does the night’s lack of urgency suggest something about its captivity? Does it move slowly because night always moves slowly and morning often seems far away? Readers can’t know. But readers see the night moving beyond the figurations that help humanity conceptualize, map, and place itself: two constellations. But these bears know nothing, perhaps because they have not yet shed the shape that human imaginations have forced upon them, perhaps because they are only imagined after all. But the night, no longer captive, is figuratively alive and capable of feeling. And night—the night that has mixed feelings about sustenance and artistic expression, the equivalence drawn between bread and Hamlet, one as food for the body, the other food for the spirit, mixed feelings about the simulacra of humanity—chooses freedom, which may explain why the poem presents night at first as a captive, something controlled, bounded, within the imagination’s power.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

JNH

On Adrian Matejka’s “Welcome Back to Earth”

Throughout his new collection Map to the Stars, Matejka shapes from memories’ constellations his poems of Midwestern adolescence, black manhood, and the cultural moment of the 1980s. In “Do Work,” Matejka writes of “the crass powerlessness of not having,” but he defies this powerlessness by figuratively placing the stars within the hands of the African American fathers, uncles, and sons of his youth. He takes what seems a remote galaxy and makes it familiar and tangible, reworking older poetic descriptions of the stars (spilling, shining, twinkling) and intertwining the celestial—the possible, the impossible, hope, and the imaginary of outer space—with the lives of Black men. After all, Matejka suggests, what is the universe or its stars but the stuff of Black lives, a figurative space that represents escape, dreaming, or the available choices?

 

WELCOME BACK TO EARTH

& these Indiana stars spill

like Pops’s generous nightcap.

These stars glint
like a doorknob in a night-light.

Stars squinting like somebody’s uncle
shooting set shots in College Park.

 

from “Welcome Back to Earth” in Adrian Matejka, Map to the Stars

JNH

On Lee Sharkey’s “Equations”

from “Equations” in Walking Backwards

by Lee Sharkey

 

My white cloth by candlelight is your white cloth by candlelight

I remember a meal the covenant once served me

My violin is your violin

The rain of the land in its season

Witness, set out

I rub the door post where the mezuzah held its prayer

A prayer is a tiny camera

Sharkey’s “Equations” seems, at first, to point toward parities between the speaker and the reader. And yet that parity is questionable—the reader may not own a violin. Is anything ever equal, or stable, or familiar? But soon the reader sees that perhaps the speaker is not addressing the reader but instead addressing another persona and finding connections through the tangible: perhaps a Sabbath meal. The poem moves forward, not answering the questions it raises, toward a double reading. “Witness, set out.” Is this an address to a witness, or do the words mean the act of witnessing, which the speaker wants to achieve? The reader gathers meaning, gleans it from furrowed lines (white cloth, candlelight, covenant, mezuzah), finds the poem’s Judaic center. And then the mind reaches the stunning figuration: “A prayer is a tiny camera.” A prayer, like a camera, can capture a moment, focus it, abet the eye, and preserve light. One carries a camera to bear witness, to record, to prove, to document. The image gives faith, thus prayer, a radical purpose beyond supplication to an unseen power. Like a camera, prayer becomes a tool for seeing the world, a tool we must carry, and that we use to shape the world and to manifest some small part of it. The poem continues, and then it arrives at another startling image.

At childhood’s gate, a snake

In the act of swallowing

A toad, legs first

Transfixed, we watch until

The one looks out of the other’s mouth

Childhood is a physical site. It has a gate, and before its gate, the reader sees a memory. Imagine then a viewer holding a camera before an eye, one eye before another eye. The eye looks out through the lens of the camera, and vision consumes the world. A reader might consider history then and the camera’s role: the lenses that have recorded the horrific and poignant images of war, holocaust, devastation, cruelty. Yes, the image is right: “A prayer is a tiny camera,” an act of faith, supplication.

Lee Sharkey, Walking Backwards. Tupelo Press, 2016.

JNH

On Dolores Dorantes’ Style/Estilo

By guest blogger poet Kara Candito, author of Spectator and Taste of Cherry

from Style/Estilo

by Dolores Dorantes, translated by Jen Hofer, Kenning Editions, 2016

14.—Give us a bottle and let’s be done with your world. Light us up and the fire will spread like a plague. We arrive at your office. At your machine. We arrive at your teacher’s chair. At that world that is no longer the world. Where nothing touches and we kiss each other. We join our girlish lips damp with some kind of fuel. Give us a forest. Give us the presidency.

Lately, for reasons that seem too obvious and exhaustive to name, I’ve been drawn to poetic imagery that annihilates the normative world. Cast as a plural feminine address to a “you” that is an embodiment of totalitarian power, the sections of Dolores Dorantes’ Style/Estilo are comprised of recurring images that ignite one another. Here, the flames from the female speakers’ bodies (elsewhere referred to as a “cluster of girls”) light up the violent order of an oppressor’s world—his office, machine, and teacher’s chair. They become the paradox of a combustible kiss in a space where nothing touches. I cannot un-see the absolute vulnerability of the girls’ girlish lips, which turn the language of violent domination against itself. Like any irreducible poetic image, the flame-making girlish lips reach in many directions at once, towards the effacement of speech and sex, and also the radical, redemptive burning of a world that is no longer the world. Indeed, the image of these lips becomes an imperative that insists upon the radiance of a burning forest, a burning presidency.

 

On Ilya Kaminsky’s “A Toast”

from “A Toast” in Dancing in Odessa

by Ilya Kaminsky

October: grapes hung like the fists of a girl
gassed in her prayer. Memory,
I whisper, stay awake.

This devastating and unforgettable image opens Kaminsky’s poem. He compares grapes to the fists of a dead girl. Does the poet want us to see rounded knuckles? A skin purpled with bruise? Or just the inert weight of a dead girl’s hand? The vivid simile couples sweetness to the horrific: a girl murdered as she petitions the unseen. What did she plead for? What would anyone plead for? What god allows a girl to die in such a way? Kaminsky’s image haunts and repels. Death, horrific history, genocide fuse to the banalities of the everyday: seeing a cluster of grapes. As if it can’t be unseen, as if the “girl gassed in her prayer” and all the other victims of so many holocausts have changed our imagination.

Kaminsky follows the image of the grapes, and “the fists of a dead girl,” with a startling personification of memory: “Stay awake.” What if memory has a body? What if it can weary? The speaker speaks to memory as you might speak to someone you know intimately. Don’t sleep. Don’t pretend that the gassing of innocents is only a dream. Remain attentive. The poet’s role is to rouse memory, to practice that attention which bears witness, to shape images that will not allow readers to sleep, to deny, or to escape.

Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa. Tupelo Press, 2004.

JNH

On Eliot Khalil Wilson’s “The Black-Shawled Widows of Castilla y León”

From “The Black-Shawled Widows of Castilla y León” in THE SAINT OF LETTING SMALL FISH GO

By Eliot Khalil Wilson

THE BLACK-SHAWLED WIDOWS OF CASTILLA Y LEÓN

step from clamorous hives of tenement houses
and walk the grafted sycamore alameda,
two slow, dark seasons of belief.

They’ve come out for the night’s paseo,
pulling their market carts, question-stooped, cobbled hand in hand,
with bread for the pigeons still, and spit for the bust of Franco.

They walk to the stork-priested cathedral,
and I’ve seen what walks behind them.

Two black-shawled widows step from the title into Wilson’s poem, taking readers into lines paved with sound: a scene enlivened by congested tenements and the rhythms of the multisyllabic clamorous, tenement, sycamore, alameda, and by rhythms that strike the ear like the hard click of a woman’s heel. Wilson’s sonic and visual imagery draws readers deeper into the poem, and foreshadows the poem’s later vision of the cathedral rising from its foundation, through references to birds: the hungry pigeons and the “stork-priested cathedral,” the black-and-white stork figuratively suggesting the black cassock and clerical collar of the priest and, symbolically, the “mother-love” of the priest for his church. The two widows wrapped in the shawls of grief, bent with questions, feed the emblems of home, security, peace and gentleness, while spurning with their spit (once the spill of tears) Franco and the honors given to fascism. The two women are dark seasons of belief: seasons and thus natural, changing, and yet constant. But the poet adds the modifier “dark” and so lightless and so meaning winter? Mysterious? Tragic? Troubled? Two widows who have held to their beliefs during troubled times. But what do they believe, the widows whose belief the poet will soon compare to the votive candles in the church? As their whispered prayers pull the cathedral, a “prismed balloon,” from its moorings,” their votive offerings bear more power than the “husk” of a “stork-priested cathedral” or the facsimile of a fascist dictator.

Eliot Khalil Wilson, The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003.

JNH

On a photograph

A snapshot taken in the late 40s or early 50s. I thought of it while attending the Callaloo Literary conference last week and listening to the words of British filmmaker John Akomfrah. “Images,” Akomfrah said, “speak to the future.”photo-with-cane

I know the young man in the photo. I know that the picture was taken at Tuskegee University. I know that the young man is now dead. Akomfrah adds that images for people of color are typically set in the context of pathology. But there’s no pathologizing here. The man in the picture is dapper. He leans on a cane. He draws attention to himself and offers a smile that is large, unrestrained.

Akomfrah describes himself as a bricoleur: “I love the way that things that are otherwise discrete and self-contained start to suggest things once they are forced into a dialogue with something else.”

Let’s say Gordon Parks’ photo of Muhammad Ali on Staircase, then. Consider the casual drape of Ali’s body against the rail, his ease. His head lifted slightly, as if avoiding an unseen upper cut. Or take any televised episode where a black man leans against a brick wall or the side of a patrol car. Assume the position that any of these images suggests. Assume the position of the young man in the photo: cantilevered, balanced, an inclined plane.

The posing young man performs. He is an aerialist defying gravity, his body shaped into Hayden’s needful thing, wearing his unfettered confidence like a good suit. He doesn’t seem to care about falling or injury, only about his image, the image he is making. For? He can’t know. The future is a question he leans into. The question holds him up, supports him.

Akomfrah says, in another interview, “the distinction between what is ‘archival’—or elsewhere—and what constitutes an original image becomes blurred, in the sense that every time I bring a camera out I’m always aware of the unseen guests that are there, whether it’s other filmmakers, artists, or narratives. You’re aware that there’s a historical bleed into what you’re constructing.” I think about context: Alabama.

Montgomery . . . Selma . . . Anniston . . . Birmingham fire hoses. Young men and women leaning their bodies away from battering rams of water. It tore the bark from trees, they said. The snapshot of the young man shows nothing of this. Only his smile says it hasn’t yet happened. He hasn’t yet seen it.

JNH