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On Jennifer Wallace’s “What Do You Think”

from Jennifer Wallace, Almost Entirely

What Do You Think

What do you think of the little egret
tip-toeing through the marsh?
White feathers ruffed against
the slate-blue Gulf.

See how it lifts its foot,
like a Chinese painter who lifts her brush.

The poem immediately personifies the egret as human. It tip-toes, quietly searching perhaps as egrets do for food, or perhaps tip-toeing is the best wisdom, given snakes and a variety of predators. The poem turns and shifts the camera from the bird to a Chinese painter. In a sense this shift only continues the tradition of romantics and poets who peer into the natural world and see some reflection of themselves. And yet, the poet asks readers to see not merely the egret but the artist. Art and nature, if not mirroring, then at least resemble each other. The small bird before the larger gulf. The individual artists before the larger tradition. Both the egret and the artist hunting, seeking sustenance. Empty canvases, blank paper, a musical instrument, or a stage all have their dangers, require caution. To tip-toe, or step carefully, seems like good advice. Even so, we lift the brush and take the risk, even when we are small and alone.

“What Do You Think,” from Jennifer Wallace, Almost Entirely


On Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “Pipistrelles”

Excerpts from “Pipistrelles”

from Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Song

        In the damp dusk
        The bats playing spies and counterspies by the river’s
        Bankrupt water station

        Look like the flung hands of deaf boys, restlessly

        Signing the dark. . . .

The lucky reader will find an image that refuses to fade from memory: say Eliot’s patient etherized upon a table, Dunbar’s caged bird, or perhaps Kelly’s comparison of signing hands to the movements of bats. In “Pipistrelles,” Kelly provides not only visual imagery but auditory imagery: the alliteration of damp dusk, the sibilance of spies and counterspies, the dactylic beat of restlessly signing the dark. The flung hands haunt imagination and suggest the energies of self-expression, and also our imprecise control of language—flung—pitched outward, away from. Restless hands flung forward try to give meaning and describe darkness, a darkness that grows metaphorically larger and more than merely night. And what of spies and counterspies? Aspy who observes carefully, who uncovers secrets. Bats in flight whose movements mimic those of young boys who do not hear. Language the poem suggests is not limited to the construction of our words but is also a performative space that engages our bodies. This is a Brigit Pegeen Kelly poem, however, and so no simple comparisons: “The bats looked like the flung hands of deaf boys.” But rather the image seamlessly expands into a Homeric simile. The world imagined by the poem is enlivened by personified trees and shadows and bats. The poem denies any distinction between the natural world and the human, perhaps showing how we use language to make the natural world familiar, like us, and as a result less fearful, while also making the human world more naturally mysterious.

        Signing the dark. Deaf boys
        Who all night and into the half-lit hours

        When the trees step from their shadows
        And the shadows go to grass
        Whistle those high-pitched tunes that, though unheard, hurt

        Our thoughts. . . .

“Pipistrelles,” from Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Song


On a photograph

Guest blogger poet Christine Kitano decided to write about a visual image, a photograph.

When working on my second poetry collection, I knew I wanted to write about the Japanese American incarceration experience, but didn’t have a sense of how I wanted to approach this topic. I had explored the autobiographical in my first collection, so wanted to step out of my family’s immediate experience. At the time, I was also working on a series of persona poems, so finally I saw the connection between that work and the incarceration poems I wanted to write: I’d craft a persona to tell these stories.

I was living in Lubbock, Texas at the time, both geographically and culturally far from where I had grown up in southern California. I was surrounded by women my age who already had two or three children. When doing research for the incarceration poems, I found myself drawn to this photo. It was taken by Dorothea Lange on May 19, 1942, and shows a young woman arriving at an assembly camp in California. I couldn’t imagine raising a child, even under the best circumstances. How could someone balance the everyday care of a child with such an uncertain future?

I had found my persona. I would write from the point-of-view of a young, first-generation mother, a woman who leaves her home in Japan to start a new life in the United States, only to have that new home violently stripped away. When I look at this photo, I see her moving, falling forward under the weight of the faceless child. I see the motion in her feet, her shoes, her bare legs, her skirt fluttering under her coat. The man in front of her almost seems to move, as if he’ll step forward to help, but only if absolutely necessary. The other two men don’t move at all, instead maintaining their static, casual postures. I wonder why she’s alone, if she has a husband, and if she does, where he is. And I think of Dorothea Lange, just feet away, capturing this moment. This photo was censored and therefore unseen until 2006. I don’t know much about photography, but I know that this photo asks more questions than it answers.

Link to image source


Christine Kitano is the author of the poetry collections Sky Country (BOA, 2017) and Birds of Paradise (Lynx House, 2011). She teaches at Ithaca College and in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

On Evie Shockley’s “what’s not to liken?”

Excerpt from “what’s not to liken?”

from Evie Shockley, semiautomatic

the girl’s braids flew around her head like:
    (a) helicopter blades.
    (b) she’d been slapped.

In her visceral and inventive poem “what’s not to liken?” Shockley uses the form of a multiple- choice test to juxtapose images that respond to a case of police abuse of Dajerria Becton in McKinney, Texas. The readers’ understanding of the poem’s subject (which could be any girl) changes as the details, actions, and scene change: multiple choices, indeed. Shockley asks her readers to consider the difference between a helicopter and a slap. Metaphorically, the image turns a girl’s braids into the energy of whirling blades and into a possibility of flight: a girl at play or dancing or merely enjoying life. The helicopter seems the better choice. And yet, in the mind’s eye, we can also see the helicopters of war and urban policing, and bodies airlifted for emergency evacuation. Subtly, Shockley suggests there are no safe choices, not for girls or women, and especially not for girls of color. Readers enter a difficult multiple choice test that offers few correct answers, and only a more difficult question: how do we find or make other choices?

“what’s not to liken?” from Evie Shockley, semiautomatic. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.


On Charles Rafferty’s “Futility”

My glances keep hitting her like arrows tipped with moths, marking her with dust she has merely to brush away.

from Charles Rafferty, The Smoke of Horses

In two prose lines, Rafferty presents an entire poem, image, and possibly a romantic tragedy. How not to pity this poor speaker? The speaker’s glances attach to avatars of self-destructive obsession: moths, the pitiable lepidotera who beat themselves into frenzies or burn themselves to death over lit candles, electric streetlamps, and backlit window panes. We believe moths are attracted to light, though recent science suggests that moths listen to the light. And when damaged, a moth’s wings produce a powdery dust, actually the microscopic scales of modified hairs.

But yet, the speaker’s glances are not pointed with chipped flint or shaped steel. The speaker’s glances (figurative arrows) suggest violence and turn the “her” into a target; even so, these glances cannot wound, or pierce, or even threaten. Yet the speaker keeps looking, or rather glancing. Obsessed, the speaker seems not brave enough to actually gaze, but repeatedly tries to leave a visible impression, a claim, or perhaps simply to touch the desired object. But these feeble efforts make nothing of worth, or weight, or potency. The speaker’s glances are nothing more than dust (the result of damaged wings—flight, possibility, escape) and merely brushed away. The speaker receives neither attention nor recognition: futility, indeed.

“Futility,” from Charles Rafferty, The Smoke of Horses. BOA Editions, 2017.


Some Thoughts on the Ear and the Eye

By guest blogger poet Gregory Pardlo, author of Totem and Digest

An auditory experience is momentary, instantaneous: one instant, and another instant, and another. The ear cannot hold an auditory experience before it in space. In fact, a prolonged auditory experience causes discomfort or we efface it as a kind of white noise. In his Psychovisualist manifesto, the poet, Russel Atkins discredits the ear as an organ that is made useful only by translating sound into spatial concepts. In other words, we hear the chair scrape on the floor and we visualize the chair. By this argument, outside of music, sound is meaningless until it is assigned an image. I think Atkins means by this that without interpretation by the mind’s eye, sound is merely physical, dumb resonance. I don’t feel entirely disparaging about the ear because of course we can say light is dumb resonance, too. But I do think the ear, and thus the lyric, resists the durable logic of the eye, the capacity for sustained resonance, and in this sense the lyric image is iterative and paratactic. The lyric image tends toward a Snapchat quality. One instant after another instant after another. The narrative image, on the other hand, endures. A narrative image can be hypotactic in the way Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase is hypotactic, the way Muybridge’s photos are hypotactic, or Charles Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, with its nesting, subordinate depictions of the number five. Narrative employs ocular logic to produce a living image, “moving, tense, unheeded,” as Williams writes in his poem, “The Great Figure.” The eye is never still and cannot isolate an object in space; the eye is always “gathering” information before it in time, aspiring to stillness, but never attaining it. If want to describe a specific thing in three dimensions or while it is in motion—and I mean describe it to the page the way my eye describes the world to me—I have to resort to the narrative, though this seems counterintuitive to me.

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

Excerpt from “How Great the Gardens When They Thrive”

from Camille T. Dungy, Trophic Cascade

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.

“How Great the Gardens When They Thrive,” from Camille T. Dungy, Trophic Cascade. Wesleyan University Press, 2017.


On Jane Mead’s World of Made and Unmade

Excerpt from World of Made and Unmade: A Poem

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

. . .

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.


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”

Excerpt from Heaven

from Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven


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.

“The Starry Night,” from Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.