eight – Phlip Arima, Pin Pricks


I did not like this book very much as a whole. But that doesn’t mean you won’t. I saw this small book of small poems reviewed in a few places, and I liked the sample poems, so I got it. I was disappointed to find few poems I enjoyed besides the ones I had already read.

I suppose I could comment on poems I didn’t like, and explain why, but I don’t believe there’s much point in a negative “review.” If something in poetry or literature in general isn’t very good, it probably doesn’t need my help to fall out of favor. So I might as well share some of the poems I did enjoy at least mildly.

Here’s one of the samples I read online. I was initially attracted to this poem’s mixture of the concrete and abstract:


There’s a crack in the floor
that lengthens each time
I step over it.

Its edges resemble
a cut on my hand
that will not heal.

Into it I’ve swept
the names I no longer
write on my calendar.

Although the last stanza is somewhat pleasing, in the end I don’t find these lines very interesting or skillfully constructed. Too many of the poems in Pin Pricks have the quality of vague aphorism, and end up sounding a bit preachy or didactic. They never rise above that level, even when they’re in the context of an interesting image, like this one:


The puppet cuts its strings
spits at the audience
continues the play
exactly as written.

I do love short pithy poems. I admire Arima’s concept. I just didn’t dig the execution. In the end, I’m not sure what distinguishes his poetry from prose except rearrangement. If anyone else becomes familiar with this little book, I’d enjoy hearing arguments on its behalf. I want to like it simply on the basis of the sad charm in this last poem:


The elephant rolls over
and everyone applauds.

He stands on one leg
and everyone applauds.

He shits as he is leaving
and everyone pretends

not to notice.

Pin Pricks, Phlip Arima (Quattro Books, 2014)

seven – Nick Laird, To a Fault


This was one of the most entertaining and quirky books of poetry I’ve read in a while, although I had a difficult time just grasping the surface meaning in quite a few of Laird’s poems. Sometimes shocking, sometimes sad, often funny, always clever, more interested in the sounds of words and tricks of rhythms than in immediate clarity of language; I found myself really enjoying reading the poems out loud to myself, and understanding what Laird was up to a bit more on second or third readings. Also, he gets a kick out of titles with a bit of comic flair, like “Firmhand the Queried,” “The Riddles of the Ardcumber Book,” or “Everybody Wears Socks.”

Here’s a great example of a poem begging to be read out loud. It’s got style, and all the multiplicity of meaning you could ask for.


You woke me and I stood and looked,
astounded, put my foot in it,

withdrew then what I could of it,
’cause come the revolution

of the earth,
the rule is crockery’s the first

against the wall,
the reverse of which

I’m rapt with as we each
dissemble sleep, but wait,

and listen to the darkness fidget:
it sucks in its gut, lights up,

and swears under its breath
as it struts through the flat,

unzipping the lino, not stopping
until it’s laid down in the slit,

and dared us to watch it,
to hopscotch across its display

of the meanings of cleave,
and accept this is what saves us

from sweeping the kitchen,
and stops us from sleeping.

The progression of my experience reading this poem went something like this. First read: Huh? Let’s try it out loud. Second read: That was great! Such rhythmic! Let me see if I can tease out some meaning. Third read: Hmm, the speaker is being blamed for something, and maybe the person addressed threw something at the wall, and now they’re both pretending to sleep. What else is this about? Fourth read: Cleave is one of those words that means its opposite. Cool. Is there a crack in the floor? Wait, that’s what he put his foot in? That’s the fault. Fault also has several meanings. Is no one being blamed for anything? Why are they dissembling sleep then?

Perhaps this is true of all poets in their ways, but it seems accurate to say Nick Laird is especially eager to examine language’s intricacies and curious to see what he can get words to do. It’s more than that though; he has a way of leaving you maps to follow him, of allowing you to see his gradually better attempts at honesty of expression, that makes him a very likable writer.

I believe he is attempting to pattern some of his own manners of expression in this poem:


You cross the rope bridge as you talk,
bypass whistling gaps, keep in step with solid wood,
the hand-rail’s grammar, and make it straight over.

No bother. No looking down, no biting your tongue
’til I start and stammer, I pause in the centre,
gape seawards, let fly with these or likewise airy notions,

armsweeps, adjectives, the usual pledges,
obsess on the seawinds, the flightpaths of seabirds,
await balance (these oceans, these edges), but instead

find the head at a loss, at last, for words it can trust.


Help me keep a hold of this.
Huddle down and listen with
the man who asks forgiveness,

the one whose swollen tongue has grown
to fill, not fit, his frown, and utters lovesongs,
curses, on its own. Let him begin again.

Let him go back and mind his language.
Listen. He picks on scarecrows, skyscrapers,
scapegoats, smallish lexical mercies.

I think that poem is beautiful. And a little sad, and a little hopeful, and a little resigned to regret in the realization that it is sometimes impossible to say exactly what we mean to say. Also, I would like “smallish lexical mercies” to become part of my own personal quotidian vocabulary.

It would be remiss of me not to mention another significant aspect of Laird’s first collection of poems: his Irish heritage, rendered more singular by being a Northern Irish heritage. Laird is one of the best of the Ulster poets since the titan Heaney. To A Fault is informed throughout by old wounds, the aftermath of war, the strange potency of violence, and the dialogue of the young with those who lived through the Troubles. Irish history, both ancient and modern, is woven into Laird’s composition.

This gives his presentation of certain subjects, especially violence, a wry detachment which can startle in its own way far more than graphic depictions of brutality. I read this last poem last Friday, and today there were attacks in Brussels. Nothing we say about this is sufficient. Poetry is not for the dead.


Someone has disturbed a hive.
What swell and gut the air and have
a million different particles, are bees,

which we mistake for wind and seeds,
at first, but stride out of the jittered storm
thrilled and breathlessly unharmed.

So somewhere honey might be moving,
lazily, its amber tongue,
among leaf litter, acned bark,

bugs glossy-backed and clockwork
which it tastes and then displays
as proofs of end-stopped histories.

Not hard to conjugate the faces,
shorn and watchful in the hallways,
to anger or lovemaking, freckles,

stutters, drunkenness, book-learning,
to couples sleeping back to back, arriving
laden at a country station in the bleach of dawn.

Help me open up these cases
and place in them some spectacles,
a steel prosthetic foot, a fist of auburn hair,

an empty tin of Dutch shoe polish
and a chipped enamel patterned jug,
a yellow appleblossom-patterned jug,

and set each in a locker at the terminals
of all the major capitals, alongside stolen goods,
and photographs in envelopes, and bombs.

To A Fault, Nick Laird (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007)

six – Kay Ryan, Say Uncle


Kay Ryan’s poems are like those 3D wooden puzzles I used to see in hobby stores and magazines, carved smoothly out of wood pieces finished with a pleasant-smelling preserver of some kind, stained sometimes dark, sometimes light. I get the same pleasure from her poems I get when I see pictures of things fitting perfectly into other things that don’t have any intended relationship to each other. Ryan’s poems have that very same element of discovery, that revelatory “Hey, look at this! How about that?”

Simply put, she does more with less. Consider this plea:


If it please God,
let less happen.
Even out Earth’s
rondure, flatten
Eiger, blanden
the Grand Canyon.
Make valleys
slightly higher,
widen fissures
to arable land,
remand your
terrible glaciers
and silence
their calving,
halving or doubling
all geographical features
toward the mean.
Unlean against our hearts.
Withdraw your grandeur
from these parts.

It’s as if the words of the English language had been exhausted of their possible combinations, and then Ryan happened along, and with a few flicks of the wrist revealed that in fact this is the way these words were always intended to fit together. Her poems are very short, with no extra words, and come across as breezy yet intense. I don’t remember where, but I read somewhere that if you want to learn how to write short lines, you need to read Kay Ryan.

If it were possible to encounter this poet’s poetry at its purest and most distilled, it might well be in this poem:


Action creates
a taste
for itself.
Meaning: once
you’ve swept
the shelves
of spoons
and plates
you kept
for guests,
it gets harder
not to also
simplify the larder,
not to dismiss
rooms, not to
divest yourself
of all the chairs
but one, not
to test what
singleness can bear,
once you’ve begun.

Somehow, even though they are almost all observations or wry statements, her poems always seem to be posing questions. They’re not exactly inquiries, though. In this entire collection, she uses the pronoun “I” only three times, preferring “you.” They’re more like amused realizations of previously hidden links between things “far beyond anything / we would have said / connects,” as she writes in “The Fabric of Life.”

Though often playfully delineated, there is a certain aspect of the ominous in some of these poems. One gets the sense that Ryan is aware of baleful things lurking at the peripheries of language, and hints at them when she can, as in this poem:


Among English verbs
to die is oddest in its
eagerness to be dead,
immodest in its
haste to be told—
a verb alchemical
in the head:
one speck of its gold
and a whole life’s lead.

When last was a simple pun so foreboding and sad?

You may have noticed an unusual, irregular tendency to rhyme in the poems so far. Well, amid odd logic and precise imagery, Kay Ryan uses a technique she calls “recombinant rhyme,” which, though perhaps not originated by her, surely reaches its apex in her employment. She explains it best in this interview with the Paris Review, saying “When I started writing nobody rhymed—it was in utter disrepute. Yet rhyme was a siren to me. I had this condition of things rhyming in my mind without my permission. Still I couldn’t take end-rhyme seriously, which meant I had to find other ways—I stashed my rhymes at the wrong ends of lines and in the middles—the front of one word would rhyme with the back of another one, or one word might be identical to three words,” and “by snipping up pieces of sound and redistributing them throughout a poem I found I could get the poem to go a little bit luminescent.”

Here’s a final poem that well exemplifies this lovely slanted approach to rhyming, as well as her habit of refurbishing old sayings:


However bland we all
begin when picked
from the common
stock of cherubim,
your face will stick.
There will be
a spot at which
you hear the click.
Your baby ears—
pink shells—will
prick, your look grow
pixieish or dour,
fixed upon the
inner notch or
catch you can’t resist,
like clocks set up
to strike the hour.

Say Uncle, Kay Ryan (Grove Press, 2000)

five – W. D. Snodgrass, After Experience


For me, W. D. Snodgrass is the poet that started it all. I was sixteen years old, browsing the used book sale basement of my (now defunct) local library. “Snodgrass,” I thought. “That’s a funny name.” I pulled a maroon copy of his Selected Poems off the shelf, opened it up, and read something I must have liked. I don’t even really remember which poem it was, but the book went home with me and I began reading poetry on my own for the first time ever.

Maybe I’ll never know exactly what about his poetry reached me that day. I suspect that his style, which later came to be known as “confessional” (a label he rightfully despised), appealed to the angsty imagination proper to a boy of sixteen. That is not to say Snodgrass writes juvenile verse, only to say that was how I understood him at the time. At any rate, it was reading Snodgrass that prompted me to start writing my own poetry. As bad as those early poems of mine were, they were heartfelt, loyal imitations, and it is not difficult to perceive the Snodgrass influence in my own work to this day.

This is not the volume of selected works I obtained in the library years ago, but I distinctly remember reading some of the poems in this collection over and over again in my room or out on the lawn. I got this book at the VNSA sale – a signed first edition for $5.00. It was exciting, I admit, to see his inky signature inside the cover.

Here’s a poem I loved way back when for what I thought at the time was its accusatory tone towards brutal, hypocritical modern man:


Under the lamp your hands do not seem red.
What if the vicious histories didn’t lie
And, in good time, might cover you with shame?—
You seldom hope to see yourself as dead.

How can you guess what vices on your head
Might shine like dead wood for some distant eye?
Of course you have your faults; you make no claim
To sainthood, but your hands do not look red.

It’s no crime to be envied or well fed;
You aimed at no man’s life. Who would deny
Yours is the human and the normal aim?
You scarcely want to see yourself as dead.

Only last week the commentators said
Not even foreign generals need die
For circumstantial crimes. You would proclaim
Your own guilt if you saw your own hands red.

If you were hungry, who’d give up his bread
Without a fight? A person has to try
To feed himself; earn his own wealth and fame;
Nobody wants to see himself as dead.

Still, men go back to wars. They’re not misled
By the old lies. They know the reasons why.
When you can’t praise the world your world became
And see no place where your own hands are red,

It must be someone, then—how have they fled
The justice you had hoped you could apply?
You’ve hanged your enemies, shown up their game,
So now you don’t dare see yourself as dead

And things lose focus. You can lie in bed
Repeating Men do starve. Their children cry.
They really cry. They do not cry your name.
Go back to sleep, your hands do not feel red.

Or sit in some dark newsreel to be led
Through barbed wire and the white dead piled boot-high.
Your palms sweat; you feel just about the same.
Your last hope is to see yourself as dead

And yet you did not bleed when those were bled.
The humans carry knives. “It is not I!”
The screen goes blank, you see no one to blame.
Till you endure to see yourself as dead
Your blood in your own hand would not seem red.

I was reading a lot of Walker Percy at the time. (Lancelot, Lost in the Cosmos – I know, I know, too soon, too soon.) Poems like this lent legitimacy to my at-the-time anger at the world, and I was simply not yet capable of recognizing what now seems more like self-recriminating satire. I love the poem no less today, though I think of it now as a dark illumination of human nature by means of the poet’s gradual examination of himself. Now it reminds me of Zosima speaking of the man who “knows that he is not only worse than all those in the world, but is also guilty before all people, on behalf of all and for all,” except this man is having trouble admitting it.

One of the things I love about W. D. Snodgrass is his mastery of irregular yet unobtrusive end rhyme. I’m very annoyed by poetry in which the right word or the right rhythm has been sacrificed for the sake of a clumsy end rhyme. A great example of irregular end rhyme in After Experience is “Lobsters in the Window,” but you’ll have to go find that one yourself, because I want to show you this poem a little more:


Outside, the last kids holler
Near the pool: they’ll stay the night.
Pick up the towels; fold your collar
Out of sight.

Check: is the second bed
Unrumpled, as agreed?
Landlords have to think ahead
In case of need,

Too. Keep things straight: don’t take
The matches, the wrong keyrings—
We’ve nowhere we could keep a keepsake—
Ashtrays, combs, things

That sooner or later others
Would accidentally find.
Check: take nothing of one another’s
And leave behind

Your license number only,
Which they won’t care to trace;
We’ve paid. Still, should such things get lonely,
Leave in their vase

An aspirin to preserve
Our lilacs, the wayside flowers
We’ve gathered and must leave to serve
A few more hours;

That’s all. We can’t tell when
We’ll come back, can’t press claims;
We would no doubt have other rooms then,
Or other names.

You could read that aloud to someone in a natural cadence and they’d never suspect it rhymed at the end. Wonderful! I also think this is a good example of a poem that seeks out and provokes feelings difficult to identify without oversimplification. Snodgrass writes personal poetry well; not too wry, not too simple, not too shrewd, not too naive. His writing is a fusion of images and impressions that convey personal experience without sentimentality.

Do I enjoy his poetry now as much as I did when I was younger? I do not know how to answer that question. I want to say not quite, but that’s not the whole story. I read him differently now, and I do not like all the same poems best that I used to, but my appreciation for Snodgrass has perhaps even grown, in a way. Even though I’ve moved on to favor other styles of poetry, and have discovered many poets whose work I prefer to read, there’s something singular and familiar about returning to poems by Snodgrass. I experience a sense of recognition, and the feeling that he is speaking directly to me, in language I am particularly disposed to understand. I think he gets me. And furthermore, I owe Mr. Snodgrass my gratitude for being the poet to initiate me.

After Experience culminates in a series of translations. I will end with this one:


—Rainer Maria Rilke

You found me, not so long ago
When I was small, so small;
I bloomed, then, like a lindenbough
Silent in you, that’s all.

I was so small, I had no name
And dwindled longingly
Until you said I was too great
For any name to be.

I feel now I am one within
Myth, May and the main sea;
Grown heavy as scent of wine within
Your soul, now, that contains me.

After Experience, W.D. Snodgrass (Harper & Row, 1968)


I’ve had a great first month. It turns out that reading poetry knowing I’ll be writing about it means I read it more closely. I worried such an intention would sully the reading experience, but I think it has only enhanced it. I’m paying closer attention to the poems. I hope you have enjoyed the entries so far, and found some new poets too.

Here is what I’m going to read and write about in March.

W.D. Snodgrass, After Experience (Harper & Row, 1968)

Kay Ryan, Say Uncle (Grove Press, 2000)

Nick Laird, To a Fault (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007)

Phlip Arima, Pin Pricks (Quattro Books, 2014)

Kathryn Cowles, Eleanor, Eleanor, Not Your Real Name (Bear Star Press, 2008)

four – Aaron Baker, Mission Work


I was surprised to learn that this is Aaron Baker’s first book. It sure didn’t feel like one. It is set in Baker’s childhood, when from the ages of six to ten he lived with his missionary parents among the Kuman people in the Chimbu province of Papua New Guinea, a place in the world so far removed from modernity that wars between neighboring tribes are still fought with bows and arrows.

Reading the description on the back of the book did not produce in me any great expectations for its quality. I admit I expected poetry subordinated to some trite ideological gimmick. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I often do when I open a book of poems in a bookstore, I read the first poem first. Here it is, and here’s why this book left with me:


When the villagers stake out a hundred pigs
and two men wade in with clubs,
watch how they float, cold as light out of heaven,
above the scene. When the pigs scream
and buckle with their skulls caved in,
remember that not one thing in this world
will be spared. Not one leaf. Not one
hair on a child’s head. See the women
hauling rocks to the fire-pits,
the boys kneeling to collect blood
in banana leaves, and think of St. Peter’s
vision: cloven-hoofed creatures descending
on a sheet, the sky saying “Take, eat.”
Learn to sit in the smoke with hunger sated
as children play with bladders they’ve inflated
like balloons. Learn a new language
for fellowship, and when you walk home
through the fields see if you can translate
the gloam-wrapped mountain’s whisper
as Come. Then, if there is a place
prepared for the saints, you will know
which way to turn at the crossroads.
You will not trouble the angel at the garden
gate for a way past her sword. You will
not remember what blood washed you clean.

These visceral specifics are about as far from trite as a poet could get. I feel like anything I could say about the poem as a whole would be an oversimplification: the poet blends Christian and native religion, the poet imbues his grown eye with the vision of his childhood sight, the poet uses violence as an occasion for grace. I will say that this poem’s complexity cannot be paraphrased, and that it left me with a curious feeling of uncertainty. I like it.

Many of Baker’s poems in this collection are highly narrative, and as such, they pay careful and continuous attention to the highland wilderness setting. Everywhere are taban trees, birds of paradise, cicadas, mosquitos, bamboo, snakes, bees, pigs, men and the children of men. At all times the reader is aware of being in an unfamiliar place, even when what is described is made somehow not to seem very strange. In Mission Work, the land itself is made to seem alien, haunted by ancient spirits, and yet still a thoroughly human realm occupied by human lives and pastimes. The poems worked well upon my imagination and I often felt transported.

The modernized, outside world is only present in the form of stories and curious remnants, as in this poem:


Between wars, the old wars brood over our bodies.
Stunned — having once fed so well —
they drift toward sleep as they starve.

Look: high in the canopy, forty years
since it fell almost to earth, the fuselage
hangs, its Rising Sun a circle of rust.

Vines spill like a Gorgon’s hair
from the cockpit,
birds nest in the guns,

and from the wings, tree spiders spin
sunlight out of hatred from heaven.
May it never reach earth. May it hang there

forever so we can come, as often as needed,
to let its strange peace come over us
when we think of the skeleton slumped

in a moldering uniform over the shattered
yoke, the tree-snakes pouring over the jaw
like an unsilenceable, unlistened-to tongue.

If I taught a poetry class to high school students, I’d be eager to give them this poem to read and discuss. (That’s meant as a compliment.) It’s begging for discussion. Why the allusion to Medusa? What is the hatred from heaven? Why the use of the word “yoke?” What are the old wars? The oldest war? Baker holds the poem in as much tension between word and image as the fuselage is held between sky and earth.

I highly recommend this book of poems. Besides his close attention to environment and spirit, Baker permits a distinctly mythological element to permeate his remembered world, influenced by both Biblical events and a tribal sorcery akin almost to voodoo. Some of the most prominent poems in the collection, too long to reproduce here – “Commission,” “Second Genesis,” “Darkness Legend,” (a prosy poem about an eighteenth century volcano’s fallout which, in my opinion, is the best in the book) and “Highlands Mission” are all rich in the language and imagery of an ancient cosmos somehow both pagan and baptismal, whose magical happenings are bound up inextricably in human life and death.

I’ll end with one such, about the discovery of a cavern full of human bones, in which the visible world is depicted as a cave of the dead:


Black and yellow lichen-spotted limestone,
mosquito-loud shadows full of cold-kept secrets,

the smell of copper in stagnant red pools.
Rivulets spume from underground,

slide in slick diffusion down the rock face
where I make out grimaces of stone,

moss beards flapping, tongues of froth.
Who dragged corpses to the cave,

loose heels knocking up the path,
hands trailing as if to find some futile

hold on the world? No one knows or will say.
Above the cave-mouth, switchbacks

dissolve into the lemon light. Meugle
takes my rucksack, taps a smoke

as I crouch through the blood-scented
black toward a distant drip drip of water.

Boots crunch tinder-bones of fingers and feet
as I raise my trembling beam to the web-

shrouded orgy of the heaps:
fused pelvises and rib cages, jutting fibulas,

toothless skulls lolling away from the light
to face down the cave’s off-kilter throat

where, if anything comes for them now,
it will come. I stiffen my spine as with insult,

steady the beam into every corner
of the cave, and know with first urgency

that God will come into this world from the bit
of blue that remains. He will come

and I will leave with my skin. Faces nod
in my light, keep their distance and grin.

Mission Work, Aaron Baker (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2008)

three – Eric Pankey, Oracle Figures


There are probably as many definitions of poetry as there are poets, but one of my favorites is D.H. Lawrence’s account of poetry as “an act of attention.” I have always taken this to mean both attention to the thing one is writing about and attention to the form of the writing. I thought for some time that only the thing itself was concrete, and the form of the writing was rather a representation, but Eric Pankey’s Oracle Figures has me rethinking that position. He seems to be insisting, in poem after poem, that both the reality and the writing are concrete representations – in other words, when he writes about fox tracks on a sandbank, or a maple leaf, or digging a sliver out with a needle, he represents in writing what is already representing in reality  deeper, underlying movements of the world. His verses are full of weaving and vanishing, flames and shadows, seeming and being.

I’ll try to explain myself. When I picked up this book last month, the first poem I read was the first poem in the collection:


I open my eyes and a season passes:
A single moth wing shudders on the sill.
The gate cannot open into the overgrown grass.

But the way, lit by foxfire and firefly,
By the flint-flash of grit at the pearl’s heart,
Is a past words cannot return to history,

To what the swallows inscribe on the air,
And here, on the outskirts of memory,
I look off again into that distance,

As if into a future, the lightning opening
Before my eyes like Scripture.
The equation at hand can be proven

By the spiral descent of the fishhawk,
By the curve of a tiger-lily’s stalk.
Yet all I see is surface glare,

An afterlife of the afterimage.

I was immediately pleased by the quiet, meditative quality of Pankey’s images, and after reading more of the poems, I became convinced that he would add to Lawrence’s description that poetry is also an act of divination by natural means. The movements we observe in natural things become signs of a great undercurrent, a “way, lit by foxfire and firefly,” a way perhaps composed of light itself, not a path exactly, but a way things are.

He is also deeply concerned with the relationship between things as they are and things as we name them in poetry. Consider some lines from the sectioned title poem “Oracle Figures”:

There is that moment
In the quarried dark of late winter
When a word begins to adhere to its object.

That moment, as all moments, is transitory.

These lines bring to my mind St. Ignatius of Loyola’s compositio locii, the composition of place which he says is the starting point of proper meditation. This is perfectly comparable to the poet’s contemplation of a time-and-place image as he writes. From the same poem:

If I squint my eyes I can see the floating world where all
forms are born.

This somewhat tongue-in-cheek aside concerns the poet, who looks on the substantial impermanent world in hopes of seeing that-which-is-behind-all-things shine through. The poet’s act of attention, furthermore, culminates in re-presenting to others the images he contemplates, as Pankey hints in “Improvisation”:

Beneath the chandelier, a single wooden chair with a
braided velvet cord draped over its arms. The poem is not
the chair, but the reconfigured function of the chair: to
be seen

This notion of poetry’s ability to transform mere objects into objects of vision, meant to be seen, informs many more of the poems in this book. Here is an example which illustrates one of the book’s common symbols; the image of the world as an overlaid map, with the territory of the unseen world both a place of mystery and an object of longing. From the fifth section of “Shelter”:

For so long, I looked and stared,

Believing the out-there would reveal a glimpse
That might dislodge this aphasia.
A quandary of crows above the wood’s one path

Caws a cartography of elsewhere,
An ægis under which I walk.

There is much, much more in this collection  I want to show you, but I’ll restrict myself to one more poem. “Tableau” is situated toward the very end of the collection, after the poems have gotten gradually more visionary, and brings together many of Pankey’s images into something I consider truly beautiful. Think, before you read it, on the possible glimpse of something unchanging which Hans Urs von Balthasar said “causes worldly beauty gradually to become metaphysical, mythical and revelatory splendor.”


As if to repair the apparent,
Or anneal with the flame of a gaze,
I look out, behold the pied and patched,
A redwing blackbird like a shuttle
Slipped between threads of shadow and light,
The leaves shuffled, the leaves unshuffled,
The barbican of the marsh cedar,
The talcum smear of the late day-moon.
As if by noting here the pieces,
The peculiar, the particulars,
The immanent might disclose itself.

Oracle Figures, Eric Pankey (Ausable Press, 2003)

two – Mary Karr, Viper Rum


Mary Karr’s 2006 collection Sinners Welcome  is one of my favorite books of poetry, so I was excited to dedicate some time to reading the book that preceded it. I purchased this one at the Bookshop three years ago and never got around to it until now. Given how much I liked Sinners Welcome, I wonder why I put off reading this one. Perhaps it was a subconscious worry that my impression of the one book would be affected by the other.

In any case, having now finally read Viper Rum in its entirety, I have the formidable task of introducing it to you. It is something like introducing an extraordinarily talented and funny friend with whom you’ve been on some disreputable adventures and who knows all your worst secrets to your family for the first time. Perhaps they might not approve of such a brash acquaintance.

I love a poet who can make you wonder aloud “What is she up to?” on one page, and exclaim under your breath “My God…” on another. Before I say anything else about the book as a whole, I want to share a primary example of the latter moment. This poem moved me deeply.


When Tom passed out in the snow
and blowing wind behind the bar,
he was flushed by spirits from solar
plexus to extremities.

But once the surgeon sawed away
his frost-black hands and feet,
Tom could no longer stand
himself, nor hold a doorknob,
nor, when lonely, fondle his lower parts.

He sat in the dayroom reading sports
(four stumps and an awful cough).
Custodians mopped a bull’s eye round his chair,
or gave him lights, while a psychotic
tracked the flight of a winged skull
around the ward’s perimeter. Sometimes
Tom felt his phantom hands appear
folded in his lap as if poured
from liquid fire, fingers locked in prayer.
Then he’d ask for Halcion, and sleep.

Released, let loose, back on the street, Tom begged enough
to keep a pint between his knees,
but finally couldn’t draw sufficient
ethyl alcohol inside to meet
his nervous system’s screaming needs.
Then he began to scream. A medic came
and knelt there on the street and didn’t mind
Tom’s pants were wet. This
was all the grace there was, unless you count
the patient janitor who once stubbed his smokes,
other maniacs who cut his meat, the coroner
who shook her head and said, Please God, above the corpse.
And you, dear reader. If you drove past

Tom’s original post in snow, you might have stopped
and heaved him up all whole. That tale’s
unwrit: We cannot make it so. This wheeling,
juniper-scented universe took him to sleep in blue ether.
So let us stand in company and grieve that fact:
Hail, Tom, asleep under snowflakes,
slack-jawed in burning cold.

If you feel the sheer force of that poem, and are also moved by its blunt confrontation with horrors inaccessible to reason, you will like Viper Rum. It is a grim and carnal vision, full of the paradoxes of flesh and spirit, struggles with faith and doubt, and tongue-in-cheek moments of self-examination. Of particular interest to me were the moments of incarnational theology almost unique to the bizarre species convert to weird Roman Catholicism, which Mary Karr, as of 1996, is. And she does not make that fact easy to figure.

Stay with me here. Compare the end of ‘The Wife of Jesus Speaks’ (which seems to be a direct reference to Aeneas and Dido in the underworld)

When he came down to hell and held out
that pale hand for rescue, I turned my back
(the snapped vertebra like a smashed pearl).

So my soul went unharrowed.
In these rosy caverns, you worship
what you want. I have chosen that time

in time’s initial measure, history’s
virgin parchment, when with his hard
stalk of flesh rocking inside me, I was unwrit.

Before me, I hold no other god.

with the graceful end of the very next poem, ‘The Last of the Brooding Miserables’

Lord, let me enter now
your world, my face,
dip deep in the gloves
of these hands formed
to sow or reap or stroke
a living face. Let me rise

to your unfamiliar light,
love, without which the dying
wouldn’t bother me one whit.

Please, if you will, bless also
this thick head I finally bow. In thanks.

and the end of ‘The Grand Miracle.’

That some creator might strap on
an animal mask to travel our path between birth
and ignominious death—now that

makes me less lonely. And the rising up
at the end into glory—the white circle of bread
on the meat of each tongue that God

might enter us. For 2000-near years
my tribe has lined up at various altars,
so dumbly I open this mouth for bread and song.

What is she up to? Among other things, Mary Karr seems to be trying to piss everyone off. Why is she being so open about such archaic beliefs? And does she have to be so, well, fleshy about it? One would almost be inclined to place the attribution of such holiness to humble matter among the vaguest superstitions and heresies, wouldn’t one.

Also, I want to know if she had Denise Levertov’s ‘On a Theme from Julian’s Chapter XX‘ in mind when she wrote ‘Christ’s Passion.’

The collection as a whole features several recurring figures – a son, a mother, unfamiliar men, alcohol, the shape of suicide – but none are mere symbols or motifs. At the same time, the purgatorial, biographical narratives do not tell all. Karr’s poetry is straightforward and colloquial, and at the same time elegant and musical. It is unpretentious, natural iambic almost throughout. I especially appreciated her skillful internal rhymes.

The collection ends with a very cheeky essay entitled “Against Decoration.” It’s important and you should read it. She administers a brisk drubbing to the purple practitioners of “ornamental” verse, many of whom are well-respected poets with a certain elite status.

Since Mary Karr is also wickedly funny, I’ll end with this short poem:


Dear X—
Finally met your wife
in Beef and Beer.
She hates it that you let me
pierce your ear, and time
you lost to me she guessed.
Still, we fell in love.
Please send her clothes
to my address. Best
wishes, no regrets—Another X.

Viper Rum, Mary Karr (Penguin Books, 2001)

one – Frieda Hughes, Waxworks


This nice hardcover has been sitting on my shelf or in a trunk of books for almost two years since I picked it up in Bookmans. I remember being immediately fascinated by its conceit. All of the poems are about legendary, mythical or historical figures and titled with their names, as if Hughes had wandered through history and legend and plucked out a diverse rogues’ gallery to be set in her own wax museum of words. And, as one would reasonably expect the violent and weird effigies in a real wax museum to be the most fascinating, Hughes has mostly selected infamous and terrible names for inclusion. Everyone’s there, from Pandora to Morgan Le Fey, Houdini to Sweeney Todd, Judas to Malvolio. The collection is frequently bleak and haunting, and sometimes darkly funny.

The poems are not difficult to read for the most part. The meter is stark, the vocabulary forceful, and the imagery sharp and fiery. Though pleasantly readable, they are not always for the faint of heart. There’s a lot of strife between the sexes, murder, hatred, and violence in these chronicles of the unsavory. But hey, that’s history, and this is old-timey horror.

Most of the poems are written in the third person. The only five written in the first person are Narcissus, Vlad the Impaler, Echidna, Satan and the Third Horseman of the Apocalypse. Make of that what you will.

The figures receive new treatments, which sometimes make perfect sense (Rasputin as a salesman, Loki as a penniless moocher barfly) and sometimes appear more obscure (Job recast as a present day woman).

I’ll supply a few examples and excerpts. I was struck by Sisyphus depicted as carrying his wife’s body back and forth across a river:

Dead, she is piled on his back
For the river crossing.

Before, he rolled his stone
Up the mountain while
His wife watched. And then
They watched it roll down again.
It defied him. Now he is
Carrying his wife’s carcass.

He reaches the river bank. Mud
Is thick at his ankles.
Her body stinks from
The buckle of his shoulders
But the gathered crowd
Will not land him. They stand,
Bank-stuck, their words
Sharp like swords, and hold him off.

Slowly, current tugging at his
Bent knees, he turns. Slowly,
He wades back. But they are
Waiting there too, tongues pointed
Like knives. And his wife
Is weighing heavy for her burial.

He turns again.

One of the gothic metaphors from Medusa:

If you could look away,
The song from the cathedral of her mouth
Would fall to the floor like a lie.

A little premarital dread excerpted from Medea:

Jason feared this woman:
This sharpened axe
With an eye for the thing he carried
Between his thighs, and the gap
On her ring finger.

A moment of casually violent divine action from Pontius Pilate:

Craving justice, he contrives
To cast blame from himself, so when
His sister calls upon the strength of God
In church, in judgment for sentence,

And God drives the ball of his fist through the roof,
Leaving his mother dead in the fallen debris,
She dies believing his hands innocent
Of the fingers that pointed her out,

Calling for water to wash in.

The book is a little uneven from poem to poem, but tightly woven as a whole. Waxworks is a fine work of the sinister imagination. Hughes suggests motivations or scenarios that anyone familiar with the standard legends will find exciting and thought-provoking, and there is much to discuss about the work’s overall progression, which ends with Cerberus at the very mouth of Hades. (Is the reader leaving Hell, or entering it?)

I only learned after finishing the book that Frieda Hughes is the daughter of the poets Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. That shed some new light on the poems I had already enjoyed, especially Sisyphus.

If you pick up a copy, be sure to read the one about Lucrezia Borgia and the one about Faust. The first is short and clever, the second long and desperately hellish.

Because it has something to annoy everyone, I’ll end here with Cinderella. Be not fooled; Frieda Hughes is wry, lurid, and kind to neither man nor woman.

Cinderella climbs from the dishwasher.
She has picked the last scrap
Of her stepmother’s linguini
From the open pores
Of the metal drum.

With her hands in the ashes
Of the grate in which hope smoulders,
She is doubtful of rescue by her prince
And a golden slipper. She decides
To go it alone and leave home.

It will free her from waiting
At her stepmother’s hearth
For a man wielding a shoe and a scrotum,
While her sisters toss her
Fish heads and bones.

She has choices now, and if age
Should outweigh her womanhood
Before she finds a husband,
She’ll use a cell donor for the extra
Chromosomes, or be cloned.

Waxworks, Frieda Hughes (HarperCollins 2003)


I’ll be choosing and announcing the month’s poets and collections in advance. Here is what I’m going to read in February.

Frieda Hughes, Waxworks (HarperCollins, 2003)

Mary Karr, Viper Rum (Penguin Books, 2001)

Eric Pankey, Oracle Figures (Ausable Press, 2003)

Aaron Baker, Mission Work (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin, 2008)