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.


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.