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.

Martha Collins on Carl Phillips’ “Meditation:”

from Carl PhillipsFrom the Devotions

by guest blogger poet Martha Collins


As when,
into the canyon that means,
whose name—translated—
means Without Measure, Sorrow

from the hand that,
for so long, has meant
but now—broken—gives in,

is released
the garland   /swag   /bouquet
look again—means

only so much as what it is:
kangaroo’s paw,
the grass called eel)

that he, impossibly, might catch it.

            I usually think about “Surrender” (the fourth section of a six-part poem called “Meditation:”) in terms of syntax. Comprised of a single sentence fragment, it creates the kind of knotty conundrum, typical of Phillips’ work, that I delight in. But it’s imagistically interesting too—partly because of the syntax.

Carl Phillips’ From the Devotions

            The sentence fragment can be reduced to this: “As when, into the canyon, from the hand is released the garland, that he, impossibly, might catch it.”  Not memorably imagistic, on the surface—but oddly so, if you think about it: why would someone release a garland into a canyonso that someone else might catch it? There’s a ghost of a tossed wedding bouquet here, but the venue is weirdly huge.

            What surrounds the core fragment is a lot of self-conscious “interpretation,” which on the surface would seem to make the action even less imagistic: “that means, / whose name—translated— / means”; “has meant”; “that—look, / look again—means. . . .” But I’d argue that in addition to directing and complicating the reader’s emotional and intellectual response, the interpretive language slows the delivery down to something comparable to slow motion: it takes considerably longer for that garland to get released on the page than it would in real time, and the image is perceived more deeply as a result.

Martha Collins’ Night unto Night

            And there’s a final sharpening. After all the interpretation, the garland (or whatever) “means // only so much as what it is.” And “what it is” translates to a very vivid image, though not a predictable one: who would put eucalyptus and eelgrass (which is aquatic) in the same arrangement? And “kangaroo’s paw”? Even if you have to use Google to find them, the red hand-like flowers startle.

Carl PhillipsFrom the Devotions,Graywolf Press, 1998.

Martha Collins’ latest book of poetry is Night unto Night, Milkwood Editions, 2018. Her next book,  Because What Else Could I Do, will appear in September 2019 from the University of Pittsburgh Press.

On the image of silence in Ilya Kaminsky’s poetry collection Deaf Republic

from Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins— 

Deaf Republic tells the terrifying parable of a country taken over by a brutal military regime and, more specifically, the resistance and suffering of one couple and village. To isolate only one small image out of Kaminsky’s long-awaited Deaf Republic feels like a horrific distortion. But the images of silence threaded through the collection are crucial to the work’s purpose.

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

In the nursery, quiet hisses like a match dropped in water.

In the ears of the town, snow falls.

Silence like a dog sniffs the windowpanes between us.

What is silence? Something of the sky in us.

Kaminsky’s imagery paints silence as a large, enlarging, isolating, complex, and dangerous force.  We are sitting in the audience, still. Silence, like the bullet that’s missed us, spins—  In Deaf Republic silence becomes a projectile, a weapon. It can kill, maim, threaten, rob, subdue, conquer. The silence Kaminsky describes is not neutral, but fearful. It is an energy moving, volatile, a form of power. Even though it may seem as if we have been saved from injury, the poem suggests that the destruction that silence will cause—that has missed us only by chance—persists. There is always collateral damage.

Deaf Republic warns that questioning social and political silence and examining our own culpability are urgent necessities. As Kaminsky writes in the collection’s notes,“The Deaf don’t believe in silence. Silence is the invention of the hearing.” Deaf Republicchallenges readers to reconsider silence, to feel stirred and troubled by the silences around and within us, which is also the work that the best images do.

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic,Graywolf Press, 2019


On Tom Sleigh’s “A Drone in the Promised Land”

from Tom SleighHouse of Fact, House of Ruin

                                sharing the doubts
of Thomas I felt the wall’s powdery
shell holes as if I too were fingering Christ’s
wounds—thumb-sized for AK
fist-sized for 20, two fists for 50.

In his sonnet, “A Drone in the Promised Land,” Sleigh recounts a memory of the Golan Heights, where he entered the ruins of a church damaged by war and artillery and touched the shell-pocked walls. Sleigh connects this moment to the biblical story of the “doubting Thomas” who must place his fingers in Christ’s wounds before he can believe. Do the walls of the ruined church imply the body of a resurrected Christ and thus the speaker’s faith? Or since this is a ruined church, not rebuilt (resurrected), does the poem question faith or the ability of religion to stem violence and human destruction? Thomas believed that he beheld Christ only when he could touch the wounds. The speaker’s recognition of war and its damage comes through physical touch. Yet what is more frightening, the damage left by war—whether to physical structures, faith, community, human lives—or the fact that the speaker so easily recognizes the ordnance and weapons? The speaker knows the war, has seen it, encountered it firsthand with his senses. There’s no doubt at all. Touching the wall confirms what the speaker knows. “A Drone in the Promised Land” draws on the archaic meanings of doubt as “fear or to be afraid.” Touching the wall enacts the fear. The ruins give shape to fear. No one can doubt war’s destruction, the ruins it will leave, the ways that war tests what nations will and will not do to other nations.

Tom SleighHouse of Fact, House of Ruin, Graywolf Press, 2018


On Yuki Tanaka’s “Evidence of Nocturne”

from “Evidence of Nocturne”

Whatever is singing above, come down.
Drink a lake from my eyes, fever and azaleas

both thriving on the shore.
Don’t eat when your mouth is dry—

even a scrap of bread makes you bleed.

Yuki Tanaka’s Séance in Daylight

Surreal? An image collage? The intersections of thought and imagination? A love letter? “Evidence of Nocturne” moves from image to image and trembles with feeling and resonance. The poem’s careful silences give readers time to contemplate, imagine, and willingly reread. But which of Tanaka’s images to dwell on, when so many are lovely?

Drink a lake from my eyes, fever and azaleas / both thriving on the shore. The poem smoothly reimagines the speaker as a physical, geographical space, but at the same time suggests the hallucinatory. A lake meaning tears? Hidden depths? A reservoir? Fever meaning illness or more passion? And by azaleas, does the speaker want to suggest only their loveliness or the encyclopedic symbolism assigned to them? And what of the juxtaposition of fever and azaleas? Only fourteen words, and yet the image expands. Every detail evokes alternative possibilities. But Tanaka’s words also evoke tenderness: Drink a lake from my eyes. His poem calls to an unseen entity, invites connection, and then reveals the larger spaces inside the body’s container. Drink a lake from my eyes. The words direct, but they also suggest that human thirst that cannot be slaked by the kitchen faucet or the local coffeeshop.

Yuki Tanaka, “Evidence of Nocturne,” from Kenyon Review 40 (Sept/Oct) 2018: 5.