On Quan Barry’s “habeas corpus as confession”

from Quan Barrycontrovertibles

Let my confession start here: I too am innocent & black but millennial, my fear
    academic & secondhand. Like the yellowed photograph in the New Yorker
    of two men hanging like piñatas above a crowd,
    the teenaged girls dressed for cotillion.

Images & stories. Strange fruit.

Barry’s speaker admits that the lynching and mob violence familiar from the first half of the twentieth century is distant history. How can the speaker even find metaphors to address such distant horror now? A child’s party game? Violence rewarded with sweetness? The formalities, gender reinforcement, and class-consciousness of a cotillion? The poem suggests the difficulty of trying to connect with the country’s difficult racial history, and that trying to do so perhaps can even get surreally comic.

Cover image of controvertibles

Barry’s juxtaposes “Images & stories” with “Strange fruit.” On one hand, the poem alludes to Billie Holiday’s plaintive vocals and Abel Meeropol’s poem protesting the lynching of African American men and mob violence, and to the horrible metaphor that dead and violated bodies of African American men are fruit. Who would taste such fruit? Who would purposefully grow the fruits of hatred and injustice? But this line also suggests that the images and stories—of racial violence, racial injustice—are also strange fruit. History has grown into the dread pictures and stories that we cannot escape. We are automatically removed from an image, outside the story. We are individual readers, listeners, viewers, at times producers, and more largely we are members of a national audience and at a distance. Maybe the poem suggests that history (stories and images) that has grown distorted, unnatural, or unfamiliar brings an additional violence and harm to our imagination. Empathy requires intimacy.

Quan Barrycontrovertibles. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.


Tommye Blount on Spencer Reece’s “Interlude”

from Spencer ReeceThe Clerk’s Tale


We are two men on a park bench
in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men

who start their truck with that boy
from the bar inside dragging him

in the dark to the fence strapping him
with a rope to a post in Laramie,

Wyoming, where he freezes and dies
over five days. My dear, it is late.

The Flagler Museum is shut.
Stay with me. Remain here with me.

Because of its hierarchical image structure, Spencer Reece’s “Interlude” destroys me.

Restrained by geography, yet omnipresent, the speaker is one of two gay men sitting together “on a park bench / in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men….”

Cover image of The Clerk’s Tale

Shamelessly smitten with each other, the two lovers are oblivious to what’s around them. It’s the start to a familiar romantic image. Or is it?

A secondary image develops; complicates the primary image: “oblivious to the two men // who start their truck with that boy / from the bar inside dragging him….” Two men intent on love dissolves into two men intent on violence.

It’s no accident the first punctuation (comma) appears, like a signpost’s stake, after “Laramie” in couplet three. Given the how, what, and where, one familiar with the details has now identified the players: Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, and “that boy,” Matthew Shepard—a gay man too far from the lovers in Palm Beach.

Shepard “freezes and dies / over five days,” ending the secondary image and also, finally, the first sentence. Then, in a forced attempt to lighten the mood, an abrupt volta returns the poem to the primary image: “My dear, it is late. // The Flagler Museum is shut.” Eschewing omnipresence, and some omniscience, the speaker returns to his lover—to do what? How can he still claim love’s oblivion and its tenderness after witnessing, at least psychically, a gay man’s murder?

Although the mood’s less ominous, make no mistake, the speaker’s breath has shifted—the last couplet contains three short sentences. Barely sentences, the last two imperatives (“Stay with me. Remain with me.”) are laconic, cautious, and measured.

In the wake of the elegy’s interlude, love grows sober, fiercer. The speaker understands what happens in Laramie can happen in Palm Beach; happen anywhere.

Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue, Four Way Books, 2020.

On A. E. Stallings’s “Epic Simile”

from A. E. StallingsLike

Like a kestrel or a contrail. The hero’s death,
The prize, elusive quarry of his life,
Stands stock-still in her coven tracks in snow
And turns, one ear tuned to the creek’s far bank,
One dished towards him. Her unstartled gaze
Beads on him like a sniper’s sights, until
At the clean report of a cracking poplar branch,
She leaps away like luck, over rapid water,
And snowfall scrims the scene like a mist of tears,
Like a migraine, like sweat or blood streaming into your eyes.

Cover image of Like

Stallings makes winter’s well-trod canvas (ending, death, transition) paint a setting for her poem. She also makes winter personify grief and physical pain. The poem’s last line triggers its final and unexpected transformation when the reader (or the speaker) bears the blood of wounds and thus directly participates in the hero’s metaphorical death and hunt for glory. We are the foolish hero?

Yes! A grand, extravagant epic simile for starting out the New Year. How not to admire the transformations that the poem’s epic simile sustains to its very end? (The simile at the beginning of the excerpt invites readers to compare a hero’s death to a kestrel or a contrail, just one of many amazing moments in this poem.) But Stallings does nothing by half-measures. The glory and vanity of pursuing a hero’s death transforms into a deer, and the hunted deer wondrously into the hunter, and then again into chance. The poem figuratively alters nature so that it is no longer merely a victim of human violence but has a danger of its own (the gun suggested by the crack of a clean report). Stallings refuses to separate hunter from hunted or to distinguish violence. And pity our hero.His great glorious “hero’s death,” that chance to matter, to be remembered, and thus escape time and death, leaps away.

Suddenly, the poem feels different. Maybe it’s not just about the hero’s death, but the death of heroes. Perhaps maintaining these mythologized personas enacts a kind of violence. Hunting for heroes, believing in them, can wound or hamper our sight.

A. E. StallingsLike. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018


On Kathleen Graber’s “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now”

from Kathleen Graber, The River Twice

In another life, I once held a palm-sized chip of driftwood
shipworms had laced in just this way. I can still peer through it

in my mind, but I cannot raise it up, here, today, in this quiet light.
Yet, sometimes it seems as though I have only just now set it down,

beside the thin gold bangle my mother gave me, on a little table,
beside the iron bed in which I used to sleep.
                                                                                Yesterday a student said,
I do not know what you mean when you say image. My stories,
she insisted, are only made of words.

In “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now” readers follow Graber’s mind through long winding lines of associative connections. Graber moves easily from personal reflection and lived experience to the socio-political (a child behind a chain-link fence grasping—“not a mother’s hem / but the silver corner of a Mylar rescue sheet”).

In the excerpt above, Graber’s craft moves the reader’s eye from the specificity of a driftwood chip to the poignancy of a childhood memory, images that grow even larger when she juxtaposes them against a student’s befuddlement. What is an image?

Cover image of The River Twice

The poem answers the question. Images—shaped with concrete detail and sense memory—anchor time and enable our imaginations to transform lived experience. But the poem also shows that images are not reliable, they are not events that we control, though they often connect to and trigger other images. Graber’s movement from the worm-riddled driftwood, which like memory is no longer living or rooted, but a broken fragment with parts missing and eaten away, to a childhood memory of valued belongings, the maternal love, and the safety of home gives another lesson in making images. Poetic images are stronger when they are not static. The driftwood chip allows Graber’s moves through time. But the image of the chip changes from a miscellaneous natural object riddled with shipworms to a possession that a child keeps safe. But of course, the poem’s childhood is only a set of images: memory: emotional driftwood. Time is a shipworm.

The difference between a detail and an image, Franz Wright writes, is resonance: images evoke or suggest memories or feelings and other images. They reverberate.

Kathleen Graber, The River Twice. Princeton University Press, 2019


On Hanif Abdurraqib’s “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This”

From Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster

Abdurraqib offers a fascinating series of poems all entitled “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This.” The fourth poem of the series describes a young woman—or a teen—the gum-smacking Jasmine, whose name suggests a flower, a flower known for its lingering scent. The memory in the poem seems precise, but the speaker admits,

                                                i would be lying
if i said i recall the color of the dress
or the way her hair spread its many arms
along the blacktop.

Cover image of A Fortune for Your Disaster

The metaphorical transformation of a woman’s animate hair, hair that has a body of its own, seems a lovely image, at first. But why is her hair spread along the blacktop? The poem reveals the memory that the speaker has tried and failed to revise: Jasmine is yet another victim of gun violence. A young woman struck down by a bullet cannot be disguised by a metaphor. The speaker knows this, despite summoning memory as a kind of resistance. When he says “with my eyes closed long enough, / I can at least remember,” he sees that memory fails, that it’s not enough.

Abdurraqib is kind to his readers: he doesn’t make us attend the funeral. We know, as mourners do, that funerals suggest flowers, flowers to honor those we’ve lost, or, perhaps—as the speaker had hoped—to bring forgiveness. Jasmine flowers symbolize love, our bonds with each other, and so love also lies slain, metaphorically, by gun violence: lingering losses, a death stink that will not fade.

Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster. Tin House, 2019


On Jake Skeets’s “Drunktown”

from Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone bruise. This town split in two.Clocks ring out as train horns, each hour hand drags into a screech—
iron, steel, iron. The minute hand runs its fingers
through the outcrops.

Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp.
In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds,
                                                           a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.

In a six-part poetic sequence, Skeets describes the difficult lives that young Indian men often face in Gallup, New Mexico. The first section of “Drunktown” uses telling details to reveal life in what it calls Indian Eden. But of course, this is not paradise. Like the bodies that seem to inhabit the town, Indian Eden is injured, “split in two.” It is a town where even time—physical and animate—is driven by the come-and-go of freight trains and more concerned with the “outcrops,” the spaces outside its human lives. The first stanza foreshadows what readers eventually learn: that Indian Eden is a space where the bodies of young men (drunk, ill, suicidal) are torn apart by trains. Time, equally brutal, also rends lives apart.

Cover image for Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

In the second stanza, Skeets describes Drunktown. “Drunk is the punch,” he writes, comparing the town to a physical blow as well as the punchline of a joke, though nothing Skeets describes in the town feels laughable. Abandoned, rural, a place where a body (dead? drunk? sick? a victim of violence?) might be run over by an unsuspecting driver. Not the suburbs.

Further on, the poem reveals that a relative of the speaker, drunk and tired, has chosen a poor site to sleep. But at this moment, readers see a man’s skull broken by a tractor. The story, context, and the additional emotional weight come later and deepen the horror.

Town a gasp,” Skeets writes, a gulp, an exclamation, a cry, as if words only fail in this place of bone bruise and broken skulls. Skeets shows readers that names (also a kind of imagery) destabilize or alter meaning or shift perspective. He critiques the connotations and plumbs the meanings in the place names that surround us, revealing both historical and contemporary pain, revealing where we make our lives.

Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. Milkweed Editions, 2019


On Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Old Mary”

from Gwendolyn BrooksSelected Poems

My last defense
Is the present tense.

This month, rather than an image per se, the blog looks at a small resonant moment that is like an image. Brooks’ modest, concise poem “Old Mary” seems simple and direct. What other meaning could the three-couplet poem offer? Together the couplets describe someone who realizes that youthful dreams (going beyond the boundaries of what they’ve always known) will not come true. And though the speaker says “it little hurts,” little hurts does not mean not hurting.

The opening couplet highlights Brooks’ command of rhyme, wit, and epigrammatic concision, but the couplet’s indicative mood also enlarges and suggests more. What meaning should the reader choose for defense? Security, resistance, deterrent, fortress, support, vindication, weaponry, alibi, testimony, plea . . .

Gwendolyn Brooks

The word “last” implies that the speaker has tried before to protect themself from death. But all of those efforts have failed. The speaker focuses now only on the present, while denying not only the future where dreams might be realized, but the past, which shaped the romantic dreams that life so often gives rise to. The speaker’s sense of time metaphorically and ironically shapes itself into a bulwark against time, diminishment, lost dreams, and oncoming death.

But the poem also shows that language itself is an expression of time. How the speaker interprets or uses language can turn “defense” into resistance or a plea. The last defense is not the present moment—or time—but language itself, how we describe, think about, explain, or shape fortresses from words. My last defense is the present tense.

Gwendolyn BrooksSelected Poems, Harper & Row, 1963


On John McCarthy’s “North End I”

from John McCarthyScared Violent Like Horses

                                                    but I’m the yellow humming
of a corner store doorway. I dismount the horse,
and the empty parking lot watches.

                         Dark garbage stuffs the horse’s stomach—
cigarette wrappers, plastic pop bottles, wet receipts,
             and I scrape out its empty body. It feels like biting the tongs of a fork
when my nails scrape its metal cast.
           There are dead insects, too, and I feel like dead insects.

John McCarthy’s Scared Violent Like Horses

In “North End I,” a child sits atop a mechanical horse outside the grocery store where his grandmother has gone to buy lottery tickets. McCarthy’s poem immerses the reader in the sensual imagination of a child’s mind, a young boy who claims all that his mind encounters: the light, the carousel horse, the insects. It is an imagination that personifies, and even the parking lot gives its attention to the child, can see. But the moment also reveals the speaker’s loneliness, how much the child wants to be seen and wants someone to pay attention.

McCarthy’s speaker uses his senses to look, listen, touch, take inventory, but also to revise and redefine himself. “I’m the yellow humming” and “I feel like dead insects”—but what does thatfeel like? Immovable, small, silent, incapable of stinging, flightless . . . ? The child feels like something of little worth, with no life, or individual identity. Though he is imaginative, curious, makes comparisons, and sees the connections between a metal fork and the metal womb of a carousel horse, no one he loves is there to pay attention, not his mother, he tells us, and not his grandmother. How can readers not want to comfort this small speaker or fail to understand his longing:

                                                            and I think of the horse’s caverned body,
how comfortable it would be to live inside.


John McCarthyScared Violent Like Horses, Milkweed Editions, 2019

On Nandi Comer’s “Why I Don’t Call on Cops”

from Nandi ComerAmerican Family: A Syndrome

How can I trust they won’t treat him like a corpse?

I have watched the ballet of brutality
     break the bodies of strangers.
              I have seen the limp drag of a bird’s bulleted wing.

Nandi Comer’s An American Family: A Syndrome

Comer’s poem answers the question asked by the poem’s title. Readers already know the answer and understand the anguish of having to provide the answer once again. In the searing image of this excerpt, a sister desperately tries to calm and connect with a brother whose “brain refuses to get ahold of itself.” The poem asks a more horrifying question. “How can I trust they won’t treat him like a corpse?” The simile suggests her brother is already dead, like something to be removed and buried, not living or sentient. But then the poet also disembodies the cops. The pronoun presents the police as a “they”: abstract, distant, not individualized. The poems leaves the police unseen, unrealized, and without bodies. The question is painful both in suggesting how the brother will be treated, but also in the way the speaker questions herself: “How can I trust . . .?” If the speaker cannot hope, rely, expect, believe—trust—hasn’t her humanity been stolen? 

The poem continues only to stop the reader again by comparing brutality, by implication police brutality, to ballet, the formal dance invented to entertain the aristocracy and ruling class, a dance filled with tradition, and associated with grace, refinement, and frail women in fluffy pink tutus.  Although ballet extols the body (at least certain bodies), the ballet of brutality breaks bodies. Who watches this dread ballet? Are they entertained? Or since they do nothing to stop the brutality—are they corpses?

Nandi Comer, American Family: A Syndrome, Finishing Line Press, 2018


Corey Van Landingham on James Wright’s “Two Poems about President Harding”

from James WrightThe Branch Will Not Break

by guest blogger poet Corey Van Landingham

Yet he was beautiful, he was the snowfall
Turned to white stallions standing still
Under dark elm trees.

James Wright’s The Branch Will Not Break

Finding inspiration from the massive presidential tomb of fellow-Ohioan Warren G. Harding, James Wright laments the monstrosity of the structure in “Two Poems about President Harding.” Here, he memorializes the local man of Marion—mortal, “open to the public”—while ridiculing “his ridiculous / Tomb.” It’s a tomb I’ve visited, with my husband, who was born on a county road in Marion. As a child, his family would sled at Harding’s memorial. A collision of irreverence and ritual Wright surely would have appreciated. The tomb itself is composed of soaring Doric columns, temple-like, but open to the sky. Perhaps not ridiculous, but certainly anachronistic—our last presidential tomb of this scale, this grandiosity.

The first section of Wright’s poem situates the speaker in Marion as occasion to meditate on Harding. Nearly forty years later, the late president still haunts the town. Drunk, the speaker turns sentimental when considering the unfortunate rumor that circulated around Harding’s death (that he died from food poisoning after eating bad crab on a train), and he begins to conflate the man with his own perceptions of Ohio: proud and flawed.

Corey Van Landingham’s Antidote

And beautiful, too, which is where the imagery shocks me still—“Yet he was beautiful,” Wright admits in the first poem’s final turn, “he was the snowfall / Turned to white stallions standing still / Under dark elm trees.” The beauty and conflation of man and landscape is remarkable in its own right (the double transformation, man to weather to beast. Imagined beast? Figuration of snow atop the roofless tomb? Actual, ceremonial stallions witnessing Harding’s funeral? Or, as one might have an inkling with Wright, something even stranger?). But as the second poem turns to shame, to cruelty, the image seems to stand as a merciful gift. The tomb that was supposed to be regal is turned, in its grandiose ambition, in its housing merely a man, laughable. Indeed, “America goes on, goes on / Laughing,” and the final line of the poem claims that “The hearts of men are merciless.”

That those white stallions are included (created?) in the midst of this cruelty makes the image even more tender, more memorable.

Corey Van Landingham is the author of Love Letter to Who Owns the Heavens, forthcoming from Tupelo Press, and Antidote, winner of the 2012 Ohio State University Press/The Journal Award in Poetry.