On a practical poet

I slowed to look at a strange insect latched to the screen of the back porch: Butterfly? Moth? A lepidoptera I had never seen before. I took a picture, bringing the screen close and closer, trying to catch the gray, stick-like body. What did the wings look like? What pattern? I went outside to take another picture, looking from the outside in. 

But outside—nothing. I saw neither moth, nor butterfly, nor span of wings, only a dried leaf clinging to the screen as if the wind had tucked it there. A leaf? The eye sees what it wants to see, or what it’s given to see. And being a practical poet, the Large Maple Spanworm knew how to construct a metaphor. What is a body or a life, after all, but a fallen leaf, a bit of mulch at best or dust eventually.

The Large Maple Spanworm stayed perfectly still, with its wings flared, persuading me (easily) that it was only a leaf, something for the rain or wind to sweep away. I could feel its judgment: When have you ever paid close attention? Even now, you think form, shape, color, and movement count for identity, mean you understand, mean that you have seen things as they are. Prochoerodes lineolo seems to laugh at my poor understanding, that I can’t see, despite this brief lesson, that dying, death itself, is only another camouflage, deception.

JNH

On Ross Gay’s “Be Holding”

from Ross GayBe Holding

as Erving went higher
and now began

to extend his right hand in a precise arc
beginning precisely above his head,

painting a broad and precise circle
not unlike Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

in his hula hoop
of perfect proportions

(if that little naked man wasn’t little
or naked and was palming a basketball

and was flying
through the trees)

and I find myself again and again with my arm
making the perfectly impossible circle

again and again
as I watch this clip on YouTube

Cover image of Be Holding


In Ross Gay’s “Be Holding,” the poet’s obsession with the image of Dr. J’s impossible flight during the 1980 NBA Finals triggers an extraordinary meditation on art, manhood, history, race, the human condition, and self-examination. Gay’s epic poem moves seamlessly from the basketball court to considerations of deeper human questions. “Be Holding” enacts the power of images.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man

Here Gay places Dr. J in Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic image. “Learn how to see. Realize that everything is connected to everything else,” Leonardo wrote. In this excerpt readers get a glimpse of the connections. A black body is centered, well-proportioned, capable of representing all of humanity, connected to all bodies. And yet, the tall players on the basketball court get the moniker and metaphor of trees, complicating the meaning of the basketball court and the bodies that fly and soar above it, so that the court transforms into a space where the natural world, and art, and mathematical precision meet. Dr. J paints a circle. He’s the artist. The mathematician calculates the geometry: making a circle: a whole: unity. Gay re-envisions the game, the players, and Black bodies as transformational. He shows us that you can’t look at an image without the image transforming you. He shows us that as well. “And I find myself again and again with my arm / making the perfectly impossible circle.”

Ross GayBe Holding. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

JNH

On Lee Sharkey’s “Possession”

from Lee SharkeyCalendars of Fire

When I held the plate, I held the ones who remembered the plate

Of all those who remembered the plate, I still remembered

Women are for homes and opened graves

This excerpt lacks extravagant linguistic figures, profusions of detail, or lavish description.  Sharkey offers only spare, direct statements that seem Quakerish in their simplicity. She draws on resonant images: the numerous unseen owners or hungry diners who have held the plate, those who still remember the plate that the speaker holds. The poem reminds readers that such plain and common objects connect us, our stories, and our memories.  A plate is a possession, but this plate is also an object that possesses (haunts, has power over) us.

Cover image of Calendars of Fire

But what to make of: “Women are for homes and opened graves.” Open graves? No, opened graves—far worse. Someone, or something, buried and then exhumed. The earth opened. The dead are revealed. The poem suggests a subtle connection between the act of remembering and the opening of graves. Why would anyone open a grave? To relocate the body? To add another body or a possession? To solve a crime? To steal from the dead? To study burial practices? To prove that a death has indeed occurred? Or like Mary Magdalene and Mary to discover the missing body of a resurrected Christ?

“Women are for homes and opened graves.” Maybe the poem points to the traditional role assigned to women—shaping domestic life, homebuilding, caring for family—and places it alongside another role given to women: bearing witness. Mourners can never put grief tidily to rest or seal its tomb.  It is in many ways like the plate, a simple possession. We bear our grief and remember those who also grieve, and those who lost the very same things that we have also lost, who wait before opened graves.

Lee SharkeyCalendars of Fire. Tupelo Press, 2013.

JNH

On Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here”

From Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, edited by Terrion L. Williamson

            I am trying to say
            his neighborhood
            is as tattered and feathered
            as anything else,
            as shadow pierced by sun
            and light parted
            by shadow-dance as anything else,
            but they won’t stop saying
            how lovely the ruins,
            how ruined the lovely
            children must be in that birdless city.

This excerpt from Jamaal May’s “There Are Birds Here” strikes up an implicit conversation with Nikki Giovanni’s poem “Nikki-Rosa”: “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black,” and as Giovanni’s poem goes on to say,

            and I really hope no white person ever has cause
            to write about me
            because they never understand
            Black love is Black wealth.

            May’s poem argues against those who continually say “how lovely the ruins / how ruined the lovely / children must be in that birdless city.” There are birds in the troubled neighborhoods and the vast urban spaces where children live. The poem suggests that nature, beauty, avatars of freedom, or just plain ol’ crows, wrens, and sparrows live in places too easily and too often dismissed as mere slums or war zones.

            I am trying to say
            his neighborhood
            is as tattered and feathered
            as anything else.

Cover image of Black in the Middle

May sees the dangers (war, difficult history, violence) but wants readers to see the lived experience (a child feeding birds) and the possibilities within the spaces that others discount as “ruined.” But the poem also points to the similarities between the supposedly ruined neighborhoods and those unseen, and presumed better, neighborhoods. There are birds in the neighborhood of May’s poem. There are children and families. An eye blind to the neighborhood’s birds is an eye blind to the neighborhood’s children, and that kind of blindness is a form of violence. May struggles: “I am trying to say,” as if the poet is chronically misunderstood or continually forced to speak through the wrack of distorted perceptions, as if poetry grows more difficult when speaking to blindness.

Black in the Middle: An Anthology of the Black Midwest, Belt Publishing, edited by Terrion L. Williamson, 2020. Reprinted from Jamaal MayThe Big Book of Exit Strategies, Alice James Books, 2016.

JNH

On Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby

from Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Then, after a day of looking at spiderwebs, at the small jewel-like beetles that roamed the blackberries, at minnows in the stream, and at water striders on its surface, a day of wading knee-deep in cool water and picking mint and watercress and red-orange lilies along with berries, I went home with my bounty.

Cover image of The Faraway Nearby

In this excerpt from Solnit’s memoir, luscious winding rhythm and accumulating detail build and swell until they leave no doubt that Solnit has indeed returned home with a marvelous bounty. And yet how unimportant the sentence makes the material abundance that Solnit gathers, deflating the visceral and sensual memory of looking, wading, and foraging with a flat statement: “I went home with my bounty.” Bounty seems the far lesser gift when compared to the pleasures in the flowing incantation of lived experience and observation, a day when one has simply lived, enjoying other living things. “I went home with my bounty.” Do the words, delayed and coming at the end of a series of clauses, almost drag, as if the speaker is reluctant for the day to end, reluctant to return home? And Solnit’s choice of the poetic “bounty,” does it feel abstract? Distancing, as if the writer is pulling away, closing the door on a wonderful day, insisting that her readers come along too? But of course, such plans are foiled. Readers go back and reread the words just for their pleasure, and perhaps a lucky few even grab walking shoes and head outdoors to look, touch, or gather a bounty of their own.

Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby, Penguin, 2014.

JNH

Listening to the Drum

From Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, by Hanif Abdurraqib

Cover image of Go Ahead in the Rain

The thing about percussion, which remains true today as children still pound fists on lunch tables to stretch a simple beat into something greater, is that all it takes is a surface and rhythm—a closed fist or an open palm and something merciful enough to be trampled upon. Without drums, slaves would make beats on washboards, available furniture, even their own bodies, finding the hollow and forgiving spots with the most echo. They would stomp and holler. The voice, too, is its own type of percussion—particularly when it is used to rattle the sky on a hot day, when there is endless work resting at your feet. The work is also an instrument—the way the wood can be chopped is a percussion and the march to the work is a percussion and the weary chants, when laid close enough to one another, can be a percussion.

From “Book Power” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

     Books are meat and medicine
     and flame and flight and flower,
     steel, stitch, cloud and clout,
     and drumbeats on the air. 

Drum” by Langston Hughes

     Bear in mind
     That death is a drum
     Beating forever
     Till the last worms come
     To answer its call,
     Till the last stars fall,
     Until the last atom
     Is no atom at all,
     Until time is lost
     And there is no air
     And space itself
     Is nothing nowhere,
     Death is a drum,
     A signal drum,
     Calling life
     To come!
     Come!
     Come!

Langston Hughes

Marchers all over the world draw attention to insufferable violence: George Floyd . . . Elijah McClain . . . Brionna Taylor. . . . Feet stomp the pavement. Voices rap, knock, pound and break the silence. Bodies push against other bodies, making anger, outrage, and sorrow into a drum: Enough!  Enough!  Enough!

This month, A Space for Image centers on drums and images of drums. In Go Ahead in the Rain Abdurraqib recounts how enslaved people (denied access to drums by law) turned their bodies, their labor, and their lives into percussion instruments. The drum is first an instrument, a mode of communication, and then a drum is resistance: a refusal to be silent. The ability to drum and to make chaos into rhythm—something controlled, shaped, imagined—gives the weary a balm for weariness. And finally, Abdurraqib’s discussion shows that drums form community. Small voices and lived experiences placed side by side, shaped into a rhythm, and into percussion, evoke belonging: you are not alone. This is what we are together. Percussion transforms.

Brooks sees books—and thus language, story, poetry, the author’s voice—as drums. By reading, we turn our minds into drums. Or maybe reading, like writing, is a tool for producing percussion? For making music? That is, if music is chaos organized and reshaped to make pleasure, inspiration, or—you know—make us jump up to boogie or sing, sing, sing.

Hughes imagines the large, metaphysical ceaseless drum of death, which is not the drumming that most folks want to hear. What Hughes calls a “signal drum.” And a signal—a gesture, action, or sign to deliver information—now seems an especially apt image. Life too is a drummer, a percussionist, which Hughes also knew.

     Listen to it closely:
     Ain’t you heard
     something underneath
     like a—

The forces that made the drumming that Hughes heard in his time shape the drumming heard now. In “Dream Boogie,” Hughes knows, however, that some readers are not ready to hear it. The drumming frightens.

     Hey, pop!
     Re-bop!
     Mop!

     Y-e-a-h!

Marchers everywhere chant, lift the drums of their voices, pound the air with the drumbeat of names—Floyd . . . McClain . . . Taylor . . .—each name a signal drum, a talking drum, and so too, the deep pain that gathers to fill our television screens, city halls, neighborhoods, streets. Together, what might have been only quiet voices has grown louder than the silence—voices raised not to make noise (uncontrolled, chaotic, indeterminate, babel) but percussion.

JNH

A Micro-Interview with Michael Hurley

In response to Michael Hurley’s poem “Dear Maddie,” originally featured in Frontier Poetry.

Dear Maddie

Spring has been cold
but with newness
            on the buds and this summer
            if it’s anything like the last one
            I’ll need to tiptoe
            barefoot on the porch
            to avoid crushing

the snails; when it happens anyway,
the sound is so tragic, something so glasslike
destroyed, I have to bend down
and apologize out loud.

There are no fireflies here,
but back home, where our mothers
still cry, there are no snails;
just slugs, which as you know,
are easier to kill without knowing.

Micro-Interview

JNH:
Michael, I know that you teach. How do you teach imagery?

cover image of Michael Hurley's Wooden Boys
cover image of Michael Hurley’s Wooden Boys

Michael Hurley:
I think rooting the image manifestly in the senses is a wonderful start—to make those tendrils grow out of the fingertips, get them to meander and spin and search for a trellis. Teaching is so mysterious, it can be hard to tell at times whether we’re climbing or just winding around some ideas which is okay too. One of those ideas we wind around might be remembering that each image is not an isolated spark but the work of a dense and busy maker—the imagination. Sure, the metal is glowing—but look at that blacksmith’s hands. And how do you teach imagination? I don’t think you can. And I don’t think you need to. But I do think you can emphasize it, examine it, exercise it, and advocate for it. I try to do that. First through naïve emphasis on process over product, much in-line with teaching art to young children—it’s a matter of experiencing the making and gaining joy from that, squishing the mud in your digits. This alone opens up a space for risk, play, and experimentation that moves the writing from the merely creative toward the fearless imaginative. We wander caves not knowing what’s inside. The difference I think has something to do with the degree of immersion.

Michael Hurley is the author of the chapbook Wooden Boys, available from Seven Kitchens Press.

On Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “the river it shines pure white”

from Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne

          I want to know              what in all         it’s been
whispering about prosperity all this time about freedom
coming in waves like heat off tar I search the Illinois skies
for funnels stand three days a week in front of twenty two 
students stand like a strip of its not personal like a strip of
black electrical tape pressing wire to white wall I listen for
the storms        the storms they say sound like imagine you
are facing a train

Cover image of Furious Flower

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “the river it shines pure white” looks at the rural spaces of central Illinois, a landscape broken subtly and not so subtly by racial division. The poem builds to a closure layered with images that suggest destruction, threat, vulnerability, and charged restraint: a strip of black electrical tape pressing wire to a white wall. But strip has so many meanings: a narrow piece of fabric, an act of undressing, a comic strip. If something is stripped, it is left naked or empty. A bullet can be stripped, making it lose its original surface. The speaker stands “like a strip of its not personal” and like the pressure-sensitive tape used to protect materials that conduct electricity. The poem deftly weaves the poem’s mantra—the claim that the racism the speaker has encountered is not personal, not directed at the speaker—through a series of broken lines, strips, in effect, of words. But of course, the thought that it’s not personal is also self-protection, a form of self-defense that helps the speaker endure the circumstances. Yet it is impossible to feel safe while pressing a wire to the barrier and architecture that whiteness represents to feel safe: I listen for the storms. Midwestern tornadoes are fierce, destructive forces that leave ruin in their wake.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, “the river it shines pure white,” from Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne. Foreword by Rita Dove. TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2020

JNH

On Ángel García’s “Suspect”

from Ángel García, Teeth Never Sleep

This is not you, but your body forced to feign prayer. A curbside confession: Forgive me officer, for I have sinned. On bended knees, arms raised, hands reaching for what little you know of god, you assume the position. Cruciform. Know what you have always assumed: you are just one breath away from breathlessness. This is not you, but your body made brilliant in orbs of blue and red light. This is not you but your body. Shrouded in Siren-call. This is not you but your body. . . .

Cover image of Teeth Never Sleep


Using visual imagery, these opening words of García’s prose poem, “Suspect, merge a police stop with the act of Catholic confession, Christ’s crucifixion, prayer, and the Christ sacrificed, in Christian faith, for human sins. An odd, intriguing mash-up between the procedurals of police authority and the liturgy (public worship) and rituals of faith. García enacts a poetic transubstantiation: the suspect’s body transforms into the body of Christ. But the relation of power between the officer and the suspect also produces a transubstantiation, more secular, that alters the suspect’s humanity. The rituals of stop and frisk, or apprehension and arrest, turn the suspect from a thinking, sentient humanity into a mere body, physical structure, meat, or, if the worst happens, a corpse. Fortunately, the speaker can go on, and the end of the poem points toward a modest hope: “A bottle of glue in your pocket to teach your daughter that what’s broken can be mended.” Even so, this poem requires a nearly impossible faith to believe that the procedures, rituals, and power-relations that dehumanize us, and literally bring us to our knees, will ever be fixed so easily.

Ángel García, Teeth Never Sleep, University of Arkansas Press, 2018

JNH