Robert Creeley and Yusef Komunyakaa

robert creeley

“The Flower” 

I think I grow tensions

like flowers

in a wood where

nobody goes.

 Each wound is perfect,

encloses itself in a tiny

imperceptible blossom,

making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,

like this one,

like that one,

like this one.

“The Flower” was the poem I most enjoyed reading from the selection of Creeley’s poems in the anthology. I especially enjoyed the inside-outside tug of war that the speaker engages in throughout the poem. At the onset of the poem, the speaker’s isolation is established through his use of the word think. When I first read the poem, it seemed like Creeley was describing the wood as an embodiment of his own mind, a place where he can fitly describe how his inner feelings of tension (his emotional truth, perhaps?) manifest themselves in a sort-of outer reality. I’m still not sure about this initial reading though. Creeley muses that he himself grows these “tensions.” Creating a feeling of uneasiness, he ponders his “tensions,” likening them to the flowers that inhabit the wood. Indeed, Creeley sets the scene in a lonely wood where these flowers grow and where no one else visits.

 

The second stanza builds upon the idea of the tensions that afflict Creeley, describing them as wounds. The equation of those wounds with the idea of perfection was initially confusing, but I think that its use transitions into the comparison of these afflictions with a flower blossom. The poet builds upon the idea of the inner conception of pain in these wounds which are enclose[d] in a tiny / imperceptible blossom, making pain. The wounds blossom into the pain the poet experiences. The inner, or enclose[d] wound lives within the blossom to grow the tensions, to make pain, to be the outer flower of pain that the speaker can’t seem to escape from in the final stanza. It’s as if the speaker points that way and this way to that flower and this flower surrounding him in the isolated wood. His pain is evident in this final stanza, as he seems to find no escape from the inner turmoil that makes itself known in his life and to the reader.

 

Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Facing It” details an inner-outer dilemma, as the speaker’s identity in reflection becomes one with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the emotions/memories conjured by his visit. Komunyakaa masterfully portrays his inner pain of remembrance as an experience where he becomes one with the memorial as he is both stone and flesh.

 

“Facing It” | Yusef Komunyakaa
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way–the stone lets me go.
I turn that way–I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.

Adrienne Rich and Eleanor Lerman

quote-Adrienne-Rich-poetry-is-above-all-a-concentration-of-218170
“Power and Danger: Works of a Common Woman,” On Lies, Secrets, and Silence, p. 248

I really enjoyed the excerpt “Dedications” from Adrienne Rich’s An Atlas of the Difficult World. Even though I’m not sure what content Rich’s “Dedications” conclude, I was struck by Rich’s direct address of her audience and the relationship implied between Rich and her audience.

rich, adrieene

I know you are reading this poem occurs at the beginning of each sentence in the poem 12 times. Rich assumes her audience will read her poem in the different scenarios of life that she imagines her audience members could experience. It’s as if when she was writing the dedications, she imagines a diverse audience that fulfill different roles, ages, genders, jobs, locations, races and/or ethnicities, physical positions/ motions, emotions, etc. The audience members are just familiar enough that one can begin to sketch out their figures and setting but faint enough that each of their faces remains a blur. I sensed conflict between, or at least juxtaposition of, collectivity and individuality within Rich’s construction of her audience.

Lines 33-35 stood out to me for their unique inclusion of Rich’s desire along with her construction of the audience members’ desire: I know you are reading this poem which is not in your language / guessing at some words while others keep you reading / and I want to know which words they are. Rich desires to know which words keep you reading. My guess is why she would want to know which words keep you reading is that she thinks that there is a bond between her as the author and this particular audience member as a reader. There is something shared between the two that even language can’t separate, and she wants to know what words can bridge this gap, can connect, bind.

Rich’s poem reminds me of Eleanor Lerman’s poem “Starfish,” which similarly creates a scenario of a person’s life with enough specificity that one can begin to imagine the scenes described. However, Lerman utilizes the second person pronoun you to encourage participation with the reader, simulating commonality in what life does, as if life can do “this” or “that” both for the person she writes about and for her reader. She also writes about the different stages that most people experience in life, cultivating commonality while also cultivating individuality with specific encounters that may only be experienced by the person in the poem.

“Starfish” | Eleanor Lerman

 

 This is what life does. It lets you walk up to
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder,
is this a message, finally, or just another day?

 

Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the
pond, where whole generations of biological
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper,
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old?
There is movement beneath the water, but it
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.

 

And then life suggests that you remember the
years you ran around, the years you developed
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon,
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have
become. And then life lets you go home to think
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.

 

Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one
who never had any conditions, the one who waited
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave,
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you
were born at a good time. Because you were able
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you
stopped when you should have and started again.

 

So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,
with smiles on their starry faces as they head
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.

 

 

Langston Hughes and Ruth Ellen Kocher

hanging bridge

Langston Hughes’ “The Bitter River” is one of the most powerful, moving, and elegiac poems that I have read. In the poem, Hughes memorializes the deaths of two boys who were unjustly lynched in 1942, describing the societal stigma against black Americans as a bitter river. Hughes’ use of figurative language in this poem inverts the stock image of the revitalizing river to instead communicate the reality of the bitter river that kills and drains the power from black Americans “forced” (55-56; 62) to drink from its waters. Indeed, healing is also associated with the traditional use of rivers in writing; however, Hughes’ language does not support this meaning as he describes a river that is “dark with filth and mud” (6) and injected with “evil poison” (7). Moreover, lines 9-37 describe the bitter river as one that drowns hopes, strangles dreams, and reflects no transcendence but only imprisonment and continued oppression:

I’ve drunk of the bitter river

And its gall coats the red of my tongue,

Mixed with the blood of the lynched boys

From its iron bridge hung,

Mixed with the hopes that are drowned there

In the snake-like hiss of its stream

Where I drank of the bitter river

That strangled my dream:

The book studied-but useless,

Tool handled-but unused,

Knowledge acquired but thrown away,

Ambition battered and bruised.

Oh, water of the bitter river

With your taste of blood and clay,

You reflect no stars by night,

No sun by day.

 

The bitter river reflects no stars—

It gives back only the glint of steel bars

And dark bitter faces behind steel bars:

The Scottsboro boys behind steel bars,

Lewis Jones behind steel bars,

The voteless share-cropper behind steel bars,

The labor leader behind steel bars,

The soldier thrown from a Jim Crow bus behind steel bars,

The 150 mugger behind steel bars,

The girl who sells her body behind steel bars,

And my grandfather’s back with its ladder of scars

Long ago, long ago—the whip and steel bars—

The bitter river reflects no stars.

Hughes utilizes repetition and rhyme at the end of each line in the second stanza above to highlight the bitter river’s reflection of steel bars in each of the lives mentioned and to solidify the feeling of hopelessness. As the poem continues, the phrase “swirl of the bitter river” is repeated three times (40, 44, and 48). Hughes’ use of “swirl” continues the initial movement of the river as “flowing” in line 2 and describes the river’s impact to take away, carry away, and sweep away the false hope, or “lies” offered by white Americans (indicating that the speaker thinks that the flow of the bitter river [or oppression] will continue?). Indeed, the form/language of the poem seems to imitate the flow of a river as its stanzas move forward and then recirculate with the repetition of certain poignant phrases. Repetition reigns in the final lines (74-89) which lament how weary the speaker is of the current racial reality through the word tired.

As I re-read the poem, I keep returning to the fifth stanza which reflects a haunting truth from the speaker’s own experience: “I did not ask for this river / Nor the taste of its bitter brew / I was given its water / As a gift from you” (50-53). Moreover, line 54 strikes me to the core, as the speaker calls out his oppressive addressees: “Yours has been the power / To force my back to the wall / And make me drink of the bitter cup / Mixed with blood and gall” (54-57). I can hear him crying out—It’s all on YOU! I didn’t’ ask for this! The agency he assigns to his addresses correlates perfectly with the agency Hughes attributes to the river as a symbol of oppression.

In her poem “Skit: Sun Ra Welcomes the Fallen,” Ruth Ellen Kocher offers a more hopeful perspective of “the sublime horror of our racial reality.” Kocher explains the form and intention of her poem: “This poem makes myth out of tragedy as a way to cope with the sublime horror of our racial reality. We hear stories of black men and boys being gunned down everyday. Most of us wake up in the morning without expecting such a narrative to unfold in our own lives but, for me, and most other Black Americans, the body in the street is my husband. The body is my son. The body is my grandson who was sitting with me last night on the couch eating pizza. Sun Ra is a fantastic and mythic hope, a cosmic embrace, that refuses the familiar narrative of slain black bodies.” Hughes utilizes figurative language to communicate his elegy, while Kocher juxtaposes reality and myth to talk about the racial issues of today. Alluding to the mythic Egyptian god of the sun “Ra” and the jazz artist Sun Ra’s “cosmic philosophy” influence, Kocher’s poem definitely seems more hopeful than Hughes’ poem which cannot glimpse into the cosmos for lack of a “reflection.”

“Skit: Sun Ra Welcomes the Fallen” | Ruth Ellen Kocher

 Jupiter means anger. Sun Ra does not. Sun Ra dances the Cake Walk on Saturn’s pulpy eyes. If you believe that, I’ll tell you another one. The first is 13 and the next is 20. They were not good boys but they were boys. They were boys who died for this thing or that. The next was 16 and the last was 18. One had a cell phone. One had a gun. On earth, a goose opens its chest to a sound. The goose takes the bullet this way.  A sacrifice denied to the wind since there is no such thing as sacrifice anymore having succumbed to fever and the millennium. The bullet is all consequence. Sun Ra refuses red—long and high, low and deep. His arms are long enough to embrace them.

 

~ More info about jazz artist Sun Ra: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sun_Ra

Claude McKay and D. A. Powell

When I just now finished reading Claude McKay’s poetry, I audibly sighed I wish there was more. I’m left wanting more—not more in the sense that something is lacking from his lines—I merely desire to read more of his thoughts and re-read what’s there because his poetry’s significance is timeless and its form so well executed. Let’s just say, I’m now an official fan of Claude McKay.
The poem “Outcast” was one of my favorites of our anthology’s selection of McKay: outcast

 

Lines 1-5 address the speaker’s fond reminiscence of his native land and his desire to return there. Lines 6-8 interrupt the speaker’s fantasies of home with But, explaining his problem of national identity. Lines 9-12 (third quatrain) offer the implications of the speaker’s problem—his alienation and his status as a “ghost among the sons of earth, a thing apart.” The final two lines complete the sonnet with a final assertion of the speaker’s predicament.
I can feel the passion with which he writes, the personal experience that both haunts his lines and prompts his message. I definitely made many markings to this poem in my anthology, circling/underlining/highlighting the words and phrases that clustered around the themes of alienation, nationality, and oppression, the language of darkness, and—what reminded me of Du Bois’ language—the references to the spirit and song.

alienation

  • regions whence my fathers came”
  • “a ghost” (reminded me of Ellison’s invisible man lacking being)
  • “a thing apart
  • far from my native clime”
  • out of time”
  • “something in me is lost, forever lost

nationality:

  • dim regions whence my fathers came”
  • forgotten jungle
  • “my native clime
  • go back to darkness and to peace”

oppression:

  • bondaged by the body”
  • “the great western world holds me in fee
  • never hope for full release
  • “to its alien gods I bend my knee
  • under the white man’s menace

darkness:

  • dim regions”
  • “go back to darkness

spirit:

  • spirit longs”
  • “my soul would sing”
  • vital thing has gone out of my heart
  • something in me is lost”

song:

  • “my soul would sing
  • “forgotten jungle songs

The more I re-read this poem, the more I’m struck by the poet’s allusion to a sort of double identity, which again reminds me of DuBois, this time with his idea of double consciousness. I’m also left with a couple questions concerning the words/phrases above. The speaker refers to his native land with the adjectives dim and darkness and his usage of these adjectives seems to be positive. I wonder if McKay utilizes the adjectives dim and darkness to allude to blackness and imply positivity about blackness through his usage of these adjectives? Moreover, in the third quatrain, is what is being lost in the speaker a sense of being/identity, his African nationality, or blackness? Or, is it a combination of all three that he loses?
D. A. Powell’s poem “Long Night Full Moon” reminds me of McKay’s poetry for its attention to issues of race, but mostly for its witness to those issues. Powell explains his poem’s witness: “This poem was inspired by the death of Michael Brown, particularly the way in which Brown’s death and the ensuing protests were covered (or, in many cases, not covered) on mainstream media. Social media and the #BlackLivesMatter movement kept this story from being buried or ignored. This poem is about witness, the most powerful tool we have against injustice and state-sponsored violence, terror, discrimination, and murder. The poem is not an elegy. It is a report on America.” Both authors report about issues that pertain to their specific moments in American history, offering invaluable witness, as Powell contends, against injustice and state-sponsored violence, terror, discrimination, and murder. I enjoy how Powell both concisely articulates and plays with language associated with weather in order to communicate his report.
“Long Night Full Moon” | D. A. Powell
You only watch the news to find out
where the fires are burning, which way
the wind is blowing, and whether
it will rain. Forecast ahead but first:
A mother’s boy laid out
in the street for hours.
These facts don’t wash away.

William Carlos Williams and Ronaldo V. Wilson

William Carlos Williams’ poetry carried me on an enjoyable reading journey this week. I especially enjoyed his poem “Spring and All.” As with some of Williams’ other poems which feature movement of “descent,” this poem also feature movements as an integral component to its structure and content.
“Spring and All” begins with the poet describing the sky: “By the road to the contagious hospital / under the surge of the blue / mottled clouds…” (1-3). The poet then begins a gradual descent with his description of the “broad, muddy field / brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen” (5-6). This descending movement describes not only the poet’s shifting of the literal landscape but also his attention to the desolate season of winter that precedes the life-giving season of spring. Williams continues to utilize descriptive language that sinks the movement deeper into the symptoms of the diseased status of nature in winter time:
patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

 

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—
He even describes spring as an entity sickened by winter’s harming contagions: “Lifeless in appearance, sluggish / dazed spring approaches—” (14-15). However, the movement continues slightly upward in these lines to the sickly but hopeful force of spring. The lines that follow, with their birth-like, awakening language—“They enter the new world naked, / cold, uncertain of all / save that they enter”—further propel the movement upward (16-18). Enter is the word on display here because even though “their” surrounding remains uncertain and cold, “they” are only cognizant of entering. Lines 20-27 accelerate the upward movement with descriptions of the grass growing and leaves forming:
Now the grass, tomorrow
the stiff curl of wildcarrot leaf

 

One by one objects are defined—
It quickens: clarity, outline of leaf
The next line puzzled me when I first read it because of the word “But” that began it (24). Indeed, the movement upward felt somewhat halted by this conjunction’s presence. But, after a second, third, and fourth reading, I recognized a sense of pause to explain the updated movement of entrance. “Dignity” is now assigned to entrance, whereas before entrance was marked by this startling, rushed, unformed entrance that has now taken shape, has “clarity” to it, and will even take root at the close of the poem. Birth has progressed to growth. Even though this growth is still new, in its beginning stages, the line that begins with “Still” cements the significance of the growth: “Still, the profound change / has come upon them” (25-26). The movement seems complete in these final lines signaling “the profound change” that spring has ushered (25-27). The movement has ascended to a state of re-birth with spring’s arrival, but it also descends from the poets descriptions of the “clouds” in the sky to his description of the new plants being “rooted” in the ground. In my mind, there seems to be two movements occurring in tandem taking form in these images:

                “clouds” (sky)                                                                                            “spring”

                ↓                                                                    ↑

              “rooted” (ground)                                                                                      “winter”

When I read Ronaldo V. Wilson’s poem “71. Realizing Lucy” recently, I was also struck by the movement occurring in his poem. Wilson explains the context of his poem: “”71. Realizing Lucy’ is part of a series of seventy-two persona poems from my forthcoming collection, Lucy 72, unveiling race as slippery vantage points: thin white woman / fat brown man, or plain girl / bulky boy, flash of light, rocks, streams, running, simmering, retreating.” In Wilson’s poem, Lucy is ushered along by the movement of running up the mountain where, along the way, manifestations and phantasms concerning issues of race “move” around her and throughout her mind.
Ronaldo V. Wilson | “71. Realizing Lucy”
At the top of the hill, before the light gives way to the pine that
fractures across the sky, and the farmhouse, opens its door to shadow, there is a signal.

 

It is not the dead bird, lying out flat and face down in the middle of the street, its brown
belly on the pavement, cooled by the wind.

 

It is not in my chest, which opens up into sections as I breathe in the air that almost
shocks me into falling face down as I climb the hill.

 

It is not the breath. It is not the sky, which I haven’t looked at, staring up at the
mountains, which spreads down through the range up the curve.

 

It is not my knee, which seems at any moment will collapse into if nothing else,
the breaking beneath my legs, the final moment I push up, towards the end of the light.

 

There are shadows which cover the sign: SUN, painted in blue at the peak of the hill.
So, where, today, will I direct my anger?

 

Where will I turn, running past the women, who hover up the road, no cars,
crawling into their beers in the middle of the day?

 

Fat and White. I refuse to grow any fatter, or to not tan. This summer,
I burn off another self, sprinting up the high hill of my own making,

 

burning Kcals toward the peak of my own release.  In this face, “What a view?”—
someone asking another. Was I supposed to seek something else into which to slip?

T.S. Eliot and Natasha Trethewey

peters burnt norton

Not surprisingly, another comic strip by Julian Peters (http://www.tfqm.org/Julian-Peters1.html) features some of my favorite lines from Eliot’s “Burnt Norton.” Here’s also an excerpt of “Burnt Norton” recited by Lana Del Rey: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKY6QGLeHEc.
There is something about this first of the Four Quartets that is eerily beautiful when read. Eliot combines abstract, philosophical notions of time, reality, and consciousness with beautiful, lighthearted images of children laughing (definitely eerie as well) in the trees within a rose garden with a (talking?) bird serving as a guide to the one entering the garden.
The lines (11-15) Peters’ extracts into his strip seem to be where Eliot moves from wrestling with more abstract language and into connecting that abstract language with images and a more tangible scene. At times, Eliot’s lines rhyme, presenting a lyrical tone to sections of his poem. References to music throughout the poem heighten one’s attention to the lyrical effect Eliot enacts within some of the lines of the poem. Lines 49-63 in section II display this rhyme and offer unique images centered on the tree:
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree.
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
Appeasing long forgotten wars.
The dance along the artery
The circulation of the lymph
Are figured in the drift of stars
Ascend to summer in the tree
We move above the moving tree
In light upon the figured leaf
And hear upon the sodden floor
Below, the boarhound and the boar
Pursue their pattern as before
But reconciled among the stars.

 

Similar to Eliot, Natasha Trethewey’s “Theories of Time and Space” also discusses the subject of time. Utilizing ten free verse couplets, Trethewey focuses on the implications of the abstract notion of past, present, and future time connecting travel as a more tangible experience to describe the passing of time and how it changes a person. Her lines certainly create moments in time for the reader to picture when thinking about the places she recommends the reader to travel to. She utilizes very specific images and numbers that create those moments of reference for the reader. I am not left with an eerie feeling upon reading Trethewey as I was when I read Eliot. Indeed, I especially enjoy the final couplet where she equates a photograph with the past version of person—what a lovely image.

 

“Theories of Time and Space” | Natasha Trethewey
You can get there from here, though
there’s no going home.

 

Everywhere you go will be somewhere
you’ve never been. Try this:

 

head south on Mississippi 49, one—
by—one mile markers ticking off

 

another minute of your life. Follow this
to its natural conclusion—dead end

 

at the coast, the pier at Gulfport where
riggings of shrimp boats are loose stitches

 

in a sky threatening rain. Cross over
the man-made beach, 26 miles of sand

 

dumped on a mangrove swamp—buried
terrain of the past. Bring only

 

what you must carry—tome of memory
its random blank pages. On the dock

 

where you board the boat for Ship Island,
someone will take your picture:

 

the photograph—who you were—
will be waiting when you return

 

T.S. Eliot and Brynn Saito

I had never read T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” until this week. In reading this poem for the first time, I noticed consistency with the dark themes Eliot focuses on in the majority of his poetry. I was also struck by the many allusions sprinkled throughout the poem from authors like Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare, Dante, and even Jesus’ words from The Lord’s Prayer.
These allusions helped enliven (ironic?) the text for me, prompting me to keep reading and consider how these allusions connected or disconnected the ideas between their texts and Elliot’s text. The Heart of Darkness epigraph certainly captured my attention, as it is one of my favorite works by Conrad. Through knowledge of these allusions, I felt like I had a starting point for imagining the themes and images Eliot introduced in his poem.
Similar to the dark themes Eliot conjures in his poetry, Brynn Saito’s “How to Prepare the Mind for Lightning” has a dark tone to its lines. I connected the poems of Eliot and Saito through their shared attention to hollowness and emptiness. Eliot weaves this idea of hollowness/emptiness throughout his poem; however, he strays from its focus at the end of his poem in section V. For Eliot, emptiness or hollowness is a condition of the men that seems unshakable.
Saito presents emptiness as a goal for the woman in her poem. She works up to this eventual status of the woman in the last four lines of her poem with the majority of its lines focusing on what is needlessly filling and imprisoning the woman’s mind. The emptiness is portrayed as a positive outcome for the woman in Saito’s poem instead of a negative essence for the men in Eliot’s poem.

 

“How to Prepare the Mind for Lightning” | Brynn Saito
In the recesses of the woman’s mind
           there is a warehouse. The warehouse
                         is covered with wisteria. The wisteria wonders
what it is doing in the mind of the woman.
           The woman wonders too.
                         The river is raw tonight. The river is a calling
aching with want. The woman walks towards it
           her arms unimpaired and coated
                         with moonlight. The wisteria wants the river.
It also wants the warehouse in the mind
           of the woman, wants to remain in the ruins
                         though water is another kind of original ruin
determined in its structure and unpredictable.
         The woman unlaces the light across her body.
                         She wades through the river while the twining  wisteria
bleeds from her mouth, her eyes, her wrist-veins,
           her heart valve, her heart. The garden again
                         overgrows the body—called by the water
and carried by the woman to the wanting river.
           When she bleeds the wisteria, the warehouse
                         in her mind is free and empty and the source
of all emptiness. It is free to house the night sky.
           It is free like the woman to hold nothing
                         but the boundless, empty, unimaginable dark.

 

P.S. For those of you interested, you should check out Julian Peters’ comics. He does a great strip on Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”:  http://julianpeterscomics.com/page-1-the-love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock-by-t-s-eliot/  Enjoy! 🙂