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?



& 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


On Lee Sharkey’s “Equations”

Excerpt from “Equations”

from Lee Sharkey, Walking Backwards


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.

“Equations,” from Lee Sharkey, Walking Backwards. Tupelo Press, 2016.


On Dolores Dorantes’ Style/Estilo

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

Excerpt from Dolores Dorantes, Style/Estilo, 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”

Excerpt from “A Toast” in Dancing in Odessa

from Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa

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.

“A Toast,” from Ilya Kaminsky, Dancing in Odessa. Tupelo Press, 2004.


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

Excerpt from “The Black-Shawled Widows of Castilla y León”

from Eliot Khalil Wilson, The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go


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.

“The Black-Shawled Widows of Castilla y León,” from Eliot Khalil Wilson, The Saint of Letting Small Fish Go. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2003.


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.


On Angie Estes’s “You Can Tell”

Excerpt from “You Can Tell”

from Angie Estes, Tryst


if fish are fresh by the way
their bodies arch, tails flipped up

like waves nearing shore or hands about to
wave, crests about to break, the shape

of a hand beneath a woman’s back
unhooking her brassiere, writhing

or writing the way Milton’s serpent
first approached Eve— . . .


How unfair ttrysto stop the cascade and rush of Estes’s poem. The images slip one into the other, from the visceral and earthbound fish, to the erotic sensuality of the body, to the spiritual reach of Milton’s epic poetry of evil and temptation. We can see no distinction, the poem suggests, among material nature, tidal energy, the sensuality and the vulnerabilities of a woman’s body, or imagination and spirituality. And yet the waves do not ebb, the hand does not wave, the brassiere does not fall, and Eve does not yet face temptation or exile. The images rush forward even while they also wait in suspension. But again that fish, the fish out of water, will die, though the poem does not allow its death in the poem. Instead the lines hurry away from the fish and its consumption, pushing instead into further waves of imagery and figuration. Maybe this is the work of images, to push us onward and to promise more. Merciful because of what they help us to deny, and because they confirm the binding connection of the natural, the sensual, and the imaginary.

“You Can Tell,” from Angie Estes, Tryst. Oberlin College Press, the FIELD Poetry Series, 2009.


On a photograph by Lillian-Yvonne Bertram

Guest blogger poet/photographer Lillian-Yvonne Bertram decided to write about a visual image, a photograph, rather than a poetic image.


I keep coming back to this photo I took of this boy, a boy I didn’t know, doing the bloody and intimate work of slaughter. What can I say—this is a picture of a boy gutting a deer. They call it “dressing a deer” but what’s the difference, why not say what happened? He pulled the guts out of a deer and threw them over the edge of a ravine. Using the light from his car’s headlights, he used a knife to cut off all the meat that he wanted—the leg meat, the tenderloins, the flank—and put the meat into a black plastic garbage bag that he tossed into his trunk. In all he left with maybe 50-60 pounds. As he cut off the chunks of meat he kept apologizing for how long it was taking him and for how badly he was doing it. He was, literally and figuratively, butchering the process. His cuts were poor, leaving too much meat on the bone, not getting a clean piece of steak. He confessed it was his first time doing it by himself, that he would get better with time. He was frustrated and embarrassed almost to the point of what seemed like tears. In this photo he is pulling out the trachea. It is slow tough going, to butcher an animal. The trachea came out with a pop, and after much tugging. He was sweating by then. It too went over the ravine. When he was done, or as close to done as he would get, he dragged the entire carcass by the legs and threw it down the ravine. That was where all the carcasses went, their bare bones clattering. Covered in blood he said he needed to call his mother, that if he didn’t call his mother after he went hunting she would get worried.

(This image appeared as a special postcard insert in an issue of Saltfront. For a larger image, click on the photo.)


Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press 2012), chosen by Claudia Rankine as winner of the Benjamin Saltman Award; a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press 2016), and personal science (Tupelo Press, forthcoming). She teaches at the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

On Phillip B. Williams’ “Bound”

Excerpt from “Bound”

by Phillip B. Williams, Thief in the Interior

Can I be only one thing
at once? I was told to believe in and became that
single vessel beneath which water I would never taste
moved. I was shut tight. I was going somewhere
and quickly.

Little boat.

Little boat made smaller by distance.


Here metaphor and linebreaks work together to help readers imagine a boat—a little boat—but also to feel the loneliness and the vast emptiness in which the boat drifts. But as soon as Williams gives us the “little boat,” in the next line he revises the image. It is not just small in size. It is also far away from the eye. The mind enlarges the ocean, the space, the sense of endangerment. The boat moves, changes. The speaker’s life ties metaphorically to a small boat. Readers can fear for the speaker, for the peril in the speaker’s smallness, or for the peril in the speaker’s uncertain, quick-moving journey.thief-in-the-interior

“My soul is an enchanted boat,” Percy Shelley writes. “Michael row de boat ashore,” sings the spiritual singer, reflecting other comparisons of life to boats or to the crossing of deep waters. Williams draws on this imagery, but then distinguishes his imagery by linebreaks that separate the “little boat,” separating it by white space and visual silence, and by catching the mind’s revision. The poem, rightly so, does not offer a narrative plank to walk from the abstract vessel to the more defined “little boat.” It asks readers to make an associative leap.  But Williams’ question “Can I be only one thing at once” troubles. What he is told to believe, he becomes: sealed, reduced, isolated, and going toward an unknown. He is a single vessel above water (sensuality? engagement? danger? agency? satisfaction?) that he believes he will never taste. The magic trick comes in the questions that this moment asks: Which did you choose? Are you the small vessel you were told to be, or did you throw yourself into the sensual oceanic depths of the unknown?


“Bound,” from Phillip B. Williams, Thief in the Interior. Alice James, 2016.

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

Excerpt from “How to Make a Shadow”

from Ladan Osman, Ordinary Heaven

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.

“How to Make a Shadow,” from 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.