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On Ladan Osman’s “How to Make a Shadow”

from “How to Make a Shadow” in ORDINARY HEAVEN

by Ladan Osman

Give her the spirit of a dog,
a black dog with a sword in her paws.
Tether her.  Put Position
at the bottom of a well filled with rats,
rats with shining backs, their eyes shillings
in the pocket of a man who sweats,
sweats at the ass crack for Position.
Say to her, bark, and she moans. . . .

 

Surreal or dream-like or imagination-work might describe Osman’s poem. Immediately, her words disturb and unsettle. The poem refuses to identify the woman. It doesn’t describe the kind of spirit a dog has, or say whether it is the same for every dog. The sword in the dog’s paw—can she not cut her tether? Will she? Why are the dog’s fangs and claws not enough? The poem triggers questions, but it does not provide answers.

Readers then must imagine the repugnance of scurrying, milling rats shining in a damp, entrapping dark. The well is closer to a grave or a pit or a trap. The reader has no control. The poem tells us to replace a woman’s spirit with the spirit of a dog, put Position in a well, ask the woman to respond like an animal. Perhaps all this happens against our will, perhaps not.

The rats’ eyes are coins, pocket change in the clothing of a sweating man. The man’s body repulses. He sweats for Position. His body repulses presumably because of the man’s obOrdinary Heavensession with social rank. The description makes the man ugly, in the same way that rats are ugly. And what is capital or money but the eyes of vermin, the bearers of pestilence? The craving for social rank offers little but sweat and money and ugliness. “Say to her, bark, and she moans,” but the moaning disquiets. Tell the woman to use her voice like an animal and she moans? Is this a sexual response? Pain? Protest? All of those? The poem will not clarify. Give a woman the spirit of a dog: Faithful? Wild? Dangerous? Take away her human-ness, try to, but still something human remains: she moans. The poem frightens. And we keep reading.

Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven. Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, 2014.  In association with the African Poetry Fund and the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute.

JNH

On Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia”

from “Portrait in Georgia” in CANE

by Jean Toomer

Hair—braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes—fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame.

 

Jean Toomer offers his concise and searing portrait in his great classic, Cane. DiscoverinCaneg this book as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience. It is one of the touchstone books that I re-read because of its terrifying lyricism. The poem’s imagery is not subtle, and its politics scald even after all this time. Melding the image of a woman’s body with the horrors of lynching. Beauty racialized and corrupted by the violence it spurs. How not to recoil? A woman’s body as danger, an implement of racial control. And yet that poignant line, “Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,” and afterwards rot and loss. If breath also signifies the word-breath shaped language, maybe the poet also speaks to the inability of this violence-corrupted body to speak in a way not tinged by ruin, rot, charred bodies.

Jean Toomer, Cane. 1922. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. Norton, 1988.

JNH

On Ryan Teitman’s “Ars Poetica”

from “Ars Poetica” in LITANY FOR THE CITY

by Ryan Teitman

the moon begging its way
into the morning sky

like a child
pounding at the embassy gate,

or the breath
against a windowpane

fogging our view of the century oak,
its last leaves traded

for a hundred crows
littering the snow with black tail feathers

and small, clean bones.

 

Teitman stretches his images to a breaking point. The moon, shaped like an alms cup or a cupped palm, is not the golden, luminous sky-pearl of poetic lore but a beggar. It is the endangered child caught in yet another of the world’s geo-political mishaps: Refugee? Orphan? Lost waif? And as readers must see the moon, we must also see the child or how the child’s urgency reflects the historical moment. Teitman keeps pushing the imagery even further, making the moonlight like our condensation of breath in winter. The poet could suspend the Litany for the Cityimage, but instead expands it. The reader sees oak leaves replaced by crows: omen and loss and death. Teitman fills his images with transition: night into day, the child at risk before sanctuary, autumn into winter, life into death. The moon and the child are petitioners. The poem suggests that the unknown speaker is also a supplicant, perhaps trying with breath (words, language, the sensual) to obscure what nature does not hide: our coming death, the death of all.

Ryan Teitman, Litany for the City. BOA Editions, 2012.

JNH

On Carl Phillips’ “Gold on Parchment”

from “Gold on Parchment” in SPEAK LOW

by Carl Phillips

. . . though I do not forget, mostly, the difference
between the kind of invisibility one can wield—a form
of power—and the other kind, that gets imposed from
outside, and later fastens like character, or dye, as if
invisibility were instead a dye, and the self a spill
of linen, Egyptian cotton: whore

 

In Phillips’ richly crafted “Gold on Parchment,” natural imagery evolves into a meditation on invisibility. What is the result of getting forced into the margins and unseen, or of controlling or not controlling our own presence? The poem pushes onward, “the self a spill of linen,” triggerinSpeak Lowg a chain of associations with beds and bed linens—and then the unexpected, accusatory leap—whore. The self made from woven threads, but at the same time also touched by carnality and corruption. Is that the result of trying to deny, or make unseen, the part of self that is sexual? As always Phillips’ serpentine syntax drives the poem onward into an eroticized contemplation. Readers briefly ponder, look into the unseen folds of their own selves, read on.

Carl Phillips, Speak Low. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2010.

JNH