On Melissa Stein’s “Lily of the Valley”

From Melissa Stein, Terrible Blooms

Lily of the Valley

In the lake bodies shift
with the currents. Waterskaters
traverse their tapestries. On the bank
grow plants that no longer have names.
Some have tongues to catch the feet
of flying things. Two shoes lie
on the bank as well. A child’s shoes.
A girl’s. Can you see her, dirty dress,
dirty soles? The arms that held her?
In a convulsion of tenderness
that wasn’t tenderness. In a fever
that wasn’t fever. In this heat
the lily of the valley exudes
such sweetness a man can’t think.
All you want to do is stop up
those pealing mouths. Those white
white skirts, unutterably clean.

“Lily of the Valley” disrupts romanticized views of nature. Linnaean classifications cannot describe the plants in the landscape that this poem imagines. The nameless plants lie beyond reach of human order or control. Readers immediately know that something horrible has happened: bodies shift with whatever current they encounter, unnamed plants prevent escape, the suggested tenderness is only feigned, and fever means not illness but more agitation. Something terrible has happened to a child. Can you see her, dirty dress, / dirty soles? The arms that held her? After asking the reader to imagine the child, the poem merges the image of the child with the image of a lily of the valley. The poem also merges the reader’s mind with a mind that wants to stop those pealingmouths, pealing which might mean the bell-like flowers of a lily of the valley or the peal of a child’s voice: her shriek, shouts, or screams. A mind that also cannot tolerate a child’s white dress. The innocence of childhood torments the man who cannot control his fever. He’s overwhelmed by the images that reach him through his own senses: the sight of a child’s dress, the shaped petals of a lily of the valley, or maybe merely by an odor of sweetness—goodness, purity—that makes it impossible for him to think, and therefore makes him capable—perhaps—of doing anything.

Melissa Stein, Terrible Blooms, Copper Canyon Press, 2018


On Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s A Brief History of Yes

From A Brief History of Yes

And yes is the hillside grove; the invisible songbird inside of it. Yes the three-legged dogs in the white clay city. The blue pushing the sky out like a girl pushes from behind her mother’s skirts and her hands to see what she has hidden from only moments ago. His feet, bony, ugly and black, and her toenails painted with lacquer a red or brown. Water. The water in the glass. The clear glass, the clear water. Water and the glass the same color which is clear and the word clearwhich doesn’t say the yes of the color or the isness of all of life in the color or nothing in the glass holding water oxygen light refracted on the glass which is the image on glass of the window, the blue peeking sky, fingerprints, greasy and earthy, so that the glass doesn’t fly off into ethereal metaphors and the girl herself, Maria, in the glass: thin stretched-down face, dark eyes, the right darker than the left, the right hand lifted in prayer, in benediction, and the mouth smiling now, open, saying, singing herself.

This month’s image, or rather images, come not from a poem but from Marcom’s lyrical novel, A Brief History of YesIn this paragraph, Marcom’s images flow one into another, expanding as water does to fill the spaces of the narrative. The prose twists round to connect the songbird in the grove and Maria singing herself, implying that the same affirmation—yes—lies in her song and in the bird’s song. The girl pushing behind her mother’s skirt, the girl that is the sky’s blue, might also be the child that Maria was once, and as a result also memory. The prose moves, shifts from a water glass, to a window, to a reflection, from a grove hiding an invisible singer, to a window pane reflecting a girl’s presence. Images inside images. Seen through the glass-like clarity of other images. Refracted by a juxtaposition of images into other perceptions. But images that must also be messy, dirty, and grounded, before they can reveal or portray.

Micheline Aharonian MarcomA Brief History of YesDalkey Archive Press, 2013.


On Ada Limón’s “Cannibal Woman”

From Ada Limón, The Carrying

There’s nothing but this sailboat inside me, slowly trying to catch
a wind, maybe there’s an old man on it, maybe a small child,

all I know is they’d like to go somewhere. They’d like to see the sail

straighten, go tense, and take them someplace. But instead they wait,
a little tender wave comes and leaves them
right where they were all along.

In this lovely extended metaphor, the poet never reveals the metaphor’s tenor. What is the sailboat? An emotion? An inner capacity to hold and move elsewhere? The imagination? Memory? Longing? And yet if there is a sailboat, there is also a body of water, and by implication a changeful energy inside the speaker. The speaker doesn’t know the sailboat’s occupants—maybe there’s an old man, a child. The boat holds both old age and childhood, both longing and longing to leave, to journey outward. But it’s the tender wave that pleases: the wave that won’t move the child into adulthood or the old man toward death. The two imagined personas will remain together and where they were all along—in an imagined space filled with uncertainty and doubt, desire and desire denied, youth and age, but also tenderness and resistance. The speaker thwarts the desires of these imagined lives. The speaker can leave them as they are. They won’t be injured or lost. They are safe from storms, suggesting why we need stories and the consolations of imagination.

“Cannibal Woman,” from Ada Limón, The Carrying, Milkweed Editions, 2018


On Christopher Kennedy’s “Postulate”

From Christopher KennedyClues from the Animal Kingdom

                                       How did I feel when I heard you were gone?

Picture a hunter’s moon above a white barn, the barn on fire, the
yellow flames, straining toward the moon. Then the sound no one
could ever forget, the sound of burning horses, moonlight branded
on their blistering flanks.

How does the loss or death of a loved one feel? Kennedy answers the question with an imaginative drama. The poem opens with a hunter’s moon, the full moon that typically appears in October and, according to lore, that hunters used to kill fatted deer for winter. It’s also called a blood moon. After this foreboding beginning, the poem asks readers to imagine the terror of a barn fire and the poor horses perishing inside: pain, terror, agony. The poem escalates from sight, to sound, to touch: moonlight branded / on their blistering flanks.The poetic icon of romantic beauty brands, injures even more, the burned bodies of the horses. How did it feel when I heard you were gone? As if, the poem suggests, my dying body had been cruelly marked for property by a romantic notion of love, beauty, and mercurial emotion. Or then again, like a suffering animal, dependent on the failed care of its owner. Kennedy mocks the ideal of romantic love. The loved one has caused the suffering, so what does he leave us to think? How did it feel when I heard you were gone? Does the poem answer?

“Postulate,” from Christopher KennedyClues from the Animal KingdomBOA Editions, 2018. Book trailer for Clues from the Animal Kingdom.


On Tracy K. Smith’s “The Everlasting Self”

from Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water


Comes in from a downpour
Shaking water in every direction—
A collaborative condition:
Gathered, shed, spread, then
Forgotten, reabsorbed. Like love
From a lifetime ago, and mud
A dog has tracked across the floor.

This short poem immediately intrigues—an everlasting self? Eternal? Inescapable? A self that participates in its own messy engagement with the natural world and with living, unable to hide away in dry domestic security. But it is the image—which compares love to the raindrops and storm flung from a dog’s fur, from the mess left by a dog simply responding as a dog, despite human ownership—that delights. The poem reveals a “love / From a lifetime ago,” love presumably connected to the speaker’s older self. Ah, the everlasting self, the self that is . . . shed . . . forgotten. But the poem implies that love shares the self’s condition. Love is also ongoing, reabsorbed, and like the self it is “collaborative”: not without agency, not passive. Love, self, and by implication the past (“a lifetime ago”) are all bound together, leaving messes. What can we do but clean them up?

“The Everlasting Self,” from Tracy K. Smith, Wade in the Water, Graywolf Press, 2018


Matthew Minicucci, on Trillium Falls Trail, Redwood National Park

By guest blogger poet Matthew Minicucci

Trillium Falls Trail, Redwood National Park

April 8th, 2018

It’s important to note, first, that I’m not a hiker. A walker, sure, but not a hiker. Not in that Northern California sense of the word. In the case of the above picture, I’m actually a listener more than anything. Ironic, perhaps, in reference to a photo, but true. Late one day I was four miles deep into the Redwood National Park on Trillium Falls Trail, just hoping to hear something in those ancient woods.

My newest book project, Epode, is a metrical examination of the soundscapes of the American West. On this particular day (of a four-day journey), I had been greeted by a park sign imploring me to “listen for the high-pitched hoots of the spotted owl or the rapid trills of the ever-present winter wren.” And so, ready to listen, I marched into the Sitka spruces and Douglas-firs.

Perhaps, in retrospect, “ever-present” might not have been the word they were looking for. There was neither a trill nor a hoot to be found. But, in the absence of those ubiquitous calls there was a slow boil from the churning falls; the hollowed-rubber thud of my shoes against fallen logs; and this simple sharp tap I heard exactly one time over the nine-hour length of the hike.

What was that sharp sound? Eventually I gleaned it was a single water droplet, fallen from the impossibly tall canopy; a simple sting against the tin cap of my exposed water bottle. A perfectly aimed shot, quite improbable, considering the distance fallen along the forest’s Y axis divided by my measured pace along the floor’s X axis (or some such hiking math). But, there it was. An undeniable ping. Naturally unnatural. Some sonic proof of that damp and perfect place brought into this world only by my very intrusion in it.

Matthew Minicucci is the author of two collections of poetry: Small Gods, finalist for the 2016 Green Rose Prize from New Issues Press, and Translation (Kent State University Press, 2015), chosen by Jane Hirshfield for the 2014 Wick Poetry Prize.

On Chanda Feldman’s “True Autumn”

From Chanda Feldman, Approaching the Fields

The long chain, slime-gray,
lovingly scrubbed clean of grit.
My mother says it’s not true autumn
without eating them, as vital as blood-
rich colored oak leaves. As a kid
I loved the slurp of entrails
slicking my throat, but I never forgot
my white neighborhood friend’s table
set with bowls of lobster bisque
and baguette slices. Contained. Not all
food-juice mixing on the plate.

Feldman’s poem describes chitterlings or chitlins, a Southern dish of cooked pig intestines originating with slave cooks. While slave owners ate “high on the hog,” their captives only had access to the parts of the slaughtered pigs that the owners did not want: entrails, pig’s feet, etc. The “long chain” subtly suggests both the pig’s intestines and the chains of slavery, though the chains of slavery, unlike the chitlins, are never easily cleaned. The speaker doubly describes the chitlins through the enjambed linebreak, as blood and as blood-rich oak leaves. The chitlins are the lifeblood of a family (culture, heritage, story), and at the same time the chitlins are tied to the oak’s strength, endurance, and deep roots. Sustenance.

Feldman juxtaposes the sensuality of the entrails with another meal—lobster bisque and a French baguette—steeped in class consciousness. A white friend’s meal is contained and neatly separated into tidy portions. Unlike the chitlins, a lobster bisque isn’t an annual marker for the season, the labors of rural life, a robust sensuality, or the inventiveness of those who survived the depredations of slavery.

Contained reaches beyond the description of a meal and also suggests separate social worlds.  Controlled, restrained, repressed, stifled, the family that enjoys the lobster bisque does not imbibe the messy, free-flowing, sensual mixing enjoyed when eating chitlins. One thinks, the poem suggests, of all the possible and impossible mixing in the larger world around us, the chains, the links, and the messy bonds between us all.

“True Autumn,” from Chanda Feldman, Approaching the Fields


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


Christine Kitano, 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.