Anderson_APR poems January 2017

Two Poems by Scott Edward Anderson in The American Poetry Review

Ben Franklin was wrong. Only death is certain; taxes fluctuate — and some even get away without disclosing or paying them.

Last April, my friend the poet A.V. Christie died. It was not entirely a shock, she’d been battling stage 4 cancer for several years, but the fact that she was my age and we’d shared a stage together reading our poems meant it hit close to home.

Four and half months before that, another poet friend, David Simpson, died. I last saw David reading his poems in New York, his book had just come out. He was seriously ill, but celebrating. That was a lesson for me to choose abundance.

Add to that the myriad of more well-known and lesser known poets who die in any given year and it starts to add up: Heaney, Angelou, Kinnell, Waring, Batin, Knott, Strand, Levine, Ritvo, Harrison, Williams, Lux, Tolan, Walcott…the list goes on.

All this death — certain, inevitable death — and a growing number of memorial services and poetry reading “remembrances” over the past few years prompted me do two things: 1.) I started celebrating living poets by acknowledging their birthdays and sharing one of their poems on Facebook; and, 2.) I wrote a poem that tried to shed a little humor on this dark subject.

The poem is called “Deaths of the Poets,” turning on its head the famous Samuel Johnson title, “Lives of the Poets.” I see it as a tribute to the poets who have passed and a kind of companion piece to my poem, “The Poet Gene.”

This poem borrows a few lines from the Lynyrd Skynyrd song, “Free Bird,” which I’ve always wished someone would shout out at one of my readings, as was done at concerts back in the 70s and 80s. (Imagine the lines read in “poet voice,” if you will.)

I threatened to shout for “Free Bird” if my friend the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming didn’t open a recent reading by singing a few bars of “Stairway to Heaven,” which is the title of her new book of poems. She did it brilliantly and I have photo evidence. Alas, no recording.

Here is my poem, “Deaths of the Poets,” which appeared in The American Poetry Review earlier this year:

Deaths of the Poets

Sweet sorrow then, when poets die,
as so many of them have this year.
Goodbye to them, as we linger
over their works, forgiving their deeds,
maleficent or magnanimous.
We remember their kind gestures,
wholesome smiles, constructive criticism,
and witty remarks over drinks or dinner.

We seldom recall what a bore they were at readings,
droning on about their poems or rushing through them,
or how they showed up ill-prepared,
rifling through papers trying to find
the exact poem they wanted to read next
or constantly looking at their watch
and asking the host or hostess,
“How much time do I have?”

Sometimes when I hear poets read in their “poet voice,”
I want to shout out “Free Bird,” like hecklers at old
rock concerts. “Play ‘Free Bird’!” ‘til they recite,
“If I leave here tomorrow
Would you still remember me?

For I must be traveling on, now
‘Cause there’s too many places
I’ve got to see.”

Sweet sorrow in their passing then,
poets gone this year and last and yet to come.
And in our mourning let us not forget
Seamus Heaney’s story about two Scottish poets
at a reading, one on the podium struggling
to find his poems and the other, seated in the front row,
saying, “When they said he was going to read,
I thought they meant read out loud…”

–Scott Edward Anderson

c) 2017 Scott Edward Anderson

First published in The American Poetry Review, Vol. 46, No. 01, January/February 2017

Dark Harbour Sunset, August 2016

For several years our friend, the poet Alison Hawthorne Deming, told us about Grand Manan Island off the coast of New Brunswick, Canada. Alison is a long-time summer resident on Grand Manan.

We finally made it up there last summer – and were we glad we did.

To say the island is a special place is a bit of a cliché and certainly doesn’t do the island justice. But then, when is a cliché not mostly true?

Remote and fairly difficult to get to from New York – you drive to the edge of Maine and keep going — Grand Manan sits on the western end of the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and was formed by colliding plates. You can see the fault line where Triassic and Cambrian rock meets.

Here time is marked by arriving and departing ferries, dramatic in-coming and out-going tides, and when the herring is running. The landscape is rugged basalt and a dense forest of birch and conifers, with pockets of wetlands, marshes, and rocky cliffs all formed and deformed by the sea, salt spray, and wind.

One evening before sunset, Alison took us over the top of the island to the other side, to Dark Harbour, a place that seemed somewhat stuck in time. I felt a bit like an intruder, although the place was oddly familiar as well, surrounded by encroaching darkness. There are rumors of pirates or a pirate curse in Dark Harbour.

Dark Harbour is also the dulse capital of the world. Dulse is an edible seaweed harvested by hand at low tide and dried in the sun outside during the summer months. Grand Mananers love their dulse, which seems a healthy substitute for chewing tobacco or potato chips. Dulsers are a special breed, as this video from Great Big Story attests: http://www.greatbigstory.com/stories/dulser-dark-harbor

Several poems in Alison’s new book of poems, STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN, feature the people and landscape of Grand Manan. There are echoes in these poems of another Canadian Maritime setting by another poet from New England with Maritime ties, something about the cold and crystal clear water, a quiet observation and an older way of life, the dark forest and the sea.

We’re going back this summer.

Here is Alison Hawthorne Deming’s poem, “Dark Harbour”:

 

“Dark Harbour”

 

Dulse camps teeter on cobbled basalt

where storms have heaped a seawall

topped with tumult of silvered

wharf timbers and weir stakes

enough driftwood scrap to salvage for a shack

paint the battered door dusty blue.

 

A rusty slatted bed kerosene pooled

in a glass-chimney lamp waiting for a match

dirty teapot on the camp stove

it’s home for a night or two

when tides are right for gathering.

Stone slips wait gray and smooth from wear

 

where yellow dories are winched and

skidded to motor offshore headed

for the dulsing ground. A man

who works the intertidal shore

says I can smell the tide coming in.

I raise my face to the wind to try to catch

 

what he knows. Cold and crystal clear

the water laps the rocks and rattles them

as it recedes. The man pulls fistful

of purple weed off tide-bare rocks

a gentle rip sounding with each pull

the ribbons gathered in his basket

 

dark as iodine deep as hay scythed

and piled in ricks harvest picked by hand

gathered from the transmutation of light

that sways at high tide like hair in the wind

and lies still for combing when the tide recedes

cropland where sea and rock do the tillage.

 

–Alison Hawthorne Deming

c) 2016 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Used by permission of the author.

 

gran_sd4For the fifth and final week of National Poetry Month this year, I’m featuring one of my own poem, “Villanesca.”

This poem was published last summer in Cimarron Review, thanks to poet Alfred Corn, who chose the poem in his role as a contributing editor.

Alfred also provided some critical guidance to help me finish this poem, which I’d been working on for several years. The poem sprang from a conversation overheard between my friend and colleague, Jan Almquist, and his daughter on the train to DC a decade ago.

We were traveling down to pitch the design of The Nature Conservancy’s Annual Report when Jan got a call from his then teenage daughter about leaving her score for Enrique Granados’s “Spanish Dances,” at home and asking him to bring it to her. That was all I needed to prompt the poem, although it obviously went in a different direction.

Sometime later, after boarding a plane, I found a program of Granados on the audio channel featuring the fabulous interpretations of De Larrocha. Obviously, I had to get that into the poem somehow and it helped build another layer.

As mentioned in last week’s post, I shared this poem with poet A.V. Christie a few months before her death. I was very touched by her response to the poem. She wrote, “I love the tone of this poem & the subtle/textured types of communication it’s built up out of…I experience it…it’s so active & in motion…”

Here is my poem, “Villanesca,”

 

Before the cabin door shuts, I check messages.
You forgot your score for “Spanish Dances” on the piano,
left open at the “Villanesca,” a piece with pastoral repetitions
you found hard to reproduce. Your rough interpretation
reminds me of your voice and its effect (or its affect).

Headphones on, I listen to Alicia de Larrocha
performing Granados. The program host has a soothing lisp,
enunciating every syl – la – ble, like a reporter on NPR.
Quoting from a review, she says De Larrocha’s playing speaks
to “a glorious inevitability achieved through immense discipline.”

“Can you bring the score to my rehearsal?” you ask
via voice mail, forgetting my flight this afternoon.
Unlike De Larrocha you always forget the score,
ignore signals, struggle to find the right notes, refuse
to face the music of our own inglorious inevitability.

I press delete, choosing not to repeat past mistakes;
at least, for the duration of my flight.

–Scott Edward Anderson

 

A.V. Christie (Photo: Darcie Goldberg)

A.V. Christie
(Photo: Darcie Goldberg)

Poet A.V. Christie died this month. Poets die all the time – celebrities, too, and friends, family members. Death is inevitable. We are all dying as we go on living.

Over the past two years there have been countless poets passing, some well-known, such as Seamus Heaney, Galway Kinnell, and Philip Levine; some not as known as they should be: Belle Waring, Wendy Batin, and David Simpson.

Somehow, though, Ann Christie’s death hit home more than the others. Perhaps because she was my age; perhaps because I was in Philadelphia when I heard the news, across the river from where she lived. Perhaps, too, because we’d read together over the years in different venues in the Philadelphia area.

But also because we had just corresponded a few months back via Facebook, as she continued to battle Stage 4 cancer. When I asked if there was anything I could do to help her with her struggle, she asked me to send a recent poem. (I did and will share it you next week.)

Ann was generous like that and cared deeply about poetry and people. She experienced a great deal of pain in her life – her brother committed suicide when he was 32, which she wrote about so eloquently and forcefully in her first book, Nine Skies (University of Illinois Press, 1997).

I’ve been re-reading Ann’s work the past week or so, and eagerly awaiting the publication next month of her last chapbook, And I Began to Entertain Doubts, coming out from Folded Word Press. Her other books include, The Housing (The Ashland Poetry Press, 2004) and The Wonders (Seven Kitchens Press, 2014).

In thinking about a poem of hers to share, it suddenly dawned on me – actually, as I struggled to fold a fitted sheet in our laundry room the other night — that a poem that shows off the facets of Ann’s poetry jewels is her poem on that subject, “Folding the Fitted Sheet,” which of course is about more than that, but it made me smile thinking of and reading it again, which is what her poems do best: rouse us out of our everyday reality.

Her poems make us feel something new, look at things a different way – from heartache to routines – they challenge our perspective on the world. This, in the end, is what great poetry is supposed to do.

Here is A.V. Christie’s poem, “Folding the Fitted Sheet”:

 

There is a way to do this.
The sheet stiff from the line
and king-size overwhelming as an hour can be.
Arms outstretched.
She apes a stance that looks like welcoming.
This obstinate sea!
The day has been so far fear and syllables rippling.
So commence to fit each messy gather
one to the next—.

 

Pulled to, like a widespread inner panic managed
repeatedly.

 

One corner puckers, then droops— a sun
that, disaffected, simply drops from out of the sky.

 

In this method the right side and the wrong
confound. She says aloud the words Counterpane—
Horizon
— thinks out the demands of tomorrow’s
presentation, velocity, the power-point resources
circulating and the cool weight
of what gets infolded.

 

We watch her,
the one moving deeply along a nerve—
toward some far city or god.

 

-A.V. Christie (1963-2016)

Source: Cave Wall (2009)

You can learn more about A.V. Christie’s poetry here: http://www.avchristie.com/

A Memorial reading will take place at Moonstone @ Brandywine Workshop in Philadelphia on 26 May.

Gregory Pardlo reading at LIU Brooklyn. Photo by SEA

Gregory Pardlo reading at LIU Brooklyn. Photo by SEA

When I heard that Gregory Pardlo won the Pulitzer Prize last year for his poetry collection, Digest, I thought about the phrase “booty call.”

That’s right, booty call.

I had this memory of meeting Gregory Pardlo in Camden, NJ, sometime in the early 2000s, standing out front of a bar with Daniel Nester and Tom Hartman after a reading or an editorial session of Painted Bride Quarterly, which I helped edit at the time.

We were discussing the poetical possibilities of the phrase. I’m not sure where the conversation went after that; there were other phrases we thought had a natural tone and scanned well, but this was before phrases like “person of interest” and “shelter in place” became well known.

Pardlo, who was born in Philadelphia, but grew up in Willingboro, NJ, earned his BA from Rutgers-Camden and later got an MFA at NYU. Somehow I missed his first collection, Totem, which won the APR/Honickman Prize and was published by Copper Canyon Press in 2007. Digest seemed to come out of nowhere to nab the Pulitzer.

So when Pardlo read at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University this past February, I had to answer the call and go hear him. I was not disappointed.

Pardlo has an engaging reading style that is part college professor, part Brooklyn stoop-storyteller. And the complexity and tenderness of his poems, what one critic called “both dense and accessible, literary yet urban,” is captivating.

In his poem “Epistemology of the Phone Booth,” a fourteen-year-old boy uses a prepaid phone card, the back pages of a local free weekly, and a phone booth to seek a knowledge of the unknown and, perhaps, unknowable. He’s on the brink of discovery and, simultaneously, on the verge of repentance only to find that the ability to acquire knowledge in this manner may be finite. It’s a kind of “booty call” about the nature of knowledge.

Here is Gregory Pardlo’s poem, “Epistemology of the Phone Booth”:

 

 

I found the scrap of City Paper

classified, the 1-900 number and photos

like candidates there, in love’s voting machine.

 

Discomfort station. No pissoir. Hothouse maybe for

a fourteenth-year sprig: me. Light box

to slideshow the introvert

cloaked in a prepaid identity

 

discreet as a shirttail in the fly.

Ma Bell’s shelter

was brutal & snug. I’d heard the ram’s horn hum.

A hymn. Just like prayer I thought. No answer.

Clack’d the splendid tongue

and bloom!

Salutations rose like pollen, prepped me for

the inverse of police

sketch artists, the one who would evoke so I could render,

in my mind, the enigma of the wanted; one to source

the vacuum wrenching stutters like rivets

 

off my tongue.

Plink. Into the sewer of the mouthpiece.

Then the universal ballad of the waiting room.

Casiotone.

Hold (me) music.

 

No orgone

closet. More like that other-lonely doom—the body

encapsulated, its inventory ever unknown.      Dantean vestibule.

Anti-chat room.

When the genderless voice beyond

began to lavish I grew ears all over,

inner ears

swiveling from one tepid libretto to the next

tuning for some satin frequency the culture

promised until, I repent (forgive me father), the card went bust.

 

–Gregory Pardlo

Copyright @ 2014 by Gregory Pardlo. Used with permission of the author.

Read more about Gregory Pardlo and his work at http://www.pardlo.com/

 

Peter Krok, Eileen Moeller, Cameron Conaway, and Scott Edward Anderson at MRAC, November 2015. Photo: Ron Howard

Peter Krok, Eileen Moeller, Cameron Conaway, and Scott Edward Anderson at MRAC, November 2015. Photo: Ron Howard

Late last year I read at the Manayunk-Roxborough Arts Center in Philadelphia. The event was billed as “Poets with a Cause” and featured two other poets neither of whom were familiar to me, Cameron Conaway and Eileen Moeller.

There were some common themes in our work – nature, travel, and spirituality — and, after the reading Eileen and I exchanged books, as poets often do.

As with my book, Fallow Field, which compiled work written over a 25-year period, the poems in Eileen’s book, Firefly, Brightly Burning were written over many years.

“When I first put the manuscript together, it seemed like a patchwork of unlike things, perhaps because it contains a number of serial pieces,” Moeller said in an interview. “Many of the poems come from a fictional, narrative impulse, though certainly not all.”

One series, the “Anna God” poems, Moeller relates in the interview, “were instigated by a photo in the newspaper of a college girl asleep on a couch in a triangle of sunlight. Her name was, yes, you guessed it, Anna God.”

Moeller’s Anna God poems at first seem surreal: a smitten skunk follows Anna around; she gets a “B” for a fifth-grade diorama of a clay man “throwing paper girls/ across the sky like tiny airplanes”; Death comes to visit and asks for a better contract; “she thinks of each leg hair as a redwood tree” and she can’t find a razor big enough to do the job.

“My aim in the poems is to catch the reader in an erotics of sound, story, and feeling,” says Moeller in an artist’s statement about her work overall. “The web that stretches between the poles of lyric and narrative. I look for surprises, wait for them to leap up out of the quotidian, like fish breaking the surface of the poem at its ruptures of juxtaposition and metaphor. We read the world through the lens of the body, and I try to ride its hungers, triumphs, joys, follies, wounds, even its decay. So, the soul evolves in its salt brine of words.”

Here is Eileen Moeller’s poem “Anna God Remembers,” which I find particularly haunting:
 

Ann God Remembers

 
the time she followed in
her father’s footsteps,
tiptoeing through the night
behind him as he left for the barn.

She was only two years old but she remembers
how the front door locked behind her
and he went off to do the milking,
not even seeing her standing there
in her little coat and rubber boots.

She remembers singing to herself
as she curled up on the front porch
to get out of the wind.

But her mother never heard her over the wailing.
The rest she only knows from stories:
how she froze like a porcelain doll there,
on a night that dipped to eight below.

(Her mother always cried at the part
where she found Anna blue as skim milk,
and drove her to the hospital,
dead and stiff on the back seat.
Anna would cry too, over how
the Doctors swore and wept and pleaded,
thawing her out, coaxing her heart into beating again).

It’s fuzzy, but Anna remembers
being startled awake by warm hands
kneading her arms and legs,
and the voices saying: Come on, open your eyes.

Once in awhile she dreams she is her father again:
dozing in the straw against the kindly beasts,
warm as a newborn calf.

–Eileen Moeller

from Firefly, Brightly Burning (Grayson Books, 2015)

Used by permission of the author.

You can read more about Eileen and her work at http://eileenmoeller.blogspot.com/

Erin Belieu (photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu
(photo by Gesi Schilling)

Erin Belieu is one of the poets of my generation whose work I turn to most.

Ever since her first collection, Infanta, came out in 1995, Belieu consistently impresses me with her witty, philosophical, and deceptively conversational poems that are actually the result of rigorous revision.

“I’m very much a sculptor with my poems,” Belieu said in an interview. “It’s getting it on the page where the ditch digging begins.” That may be one aspect of her work that attracts me – although it flows on the page as naturally as a phone conversation, I know it’s the result of much effort.

Another aspect is her clarity of language – she has an “aversion to artifice” and “can’t abide pretension,” as two critics have said of her work. Her humor and pathos and contrariness keep bringing me back to the poems, where I also find moments of real vulnerability.

“You’d hope we’re something/ more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined/ by random gristle,” she writes in “The Body is a Big Sagacity.” Nietzsche’s phrase, from the “Despisers of the Body” section of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, reads “The body is a big sagacity, a plurality with one sense, a war and a peace, a flock and a shepherd.”

Yet, while Nietzsche espouses a vision where there is no difference between the physical and psychological ability of the body, where a human being’s purpose is to surpass itself, Belieu’s “little man, with itty hands” requires a giant, superhuman truck to surpass the abilities or limitations of his own body.

In a poet of lesser gifts, Belieu’s wry observations may seem mean-spirited; and then she counts herself among the challenged, claiming her own body “once was whole, symmetrical, was/ actually beautiful for three consecutive years,” to reveal where her sympathies lie.

Belieu once said she was “under no illusion that the world can’t sleep without the next Erin Belieu poem.” There are many among us who beg to disagree. Here is Erin Belieu’s poem, “The Body is a Big Sagacity”:

 

The Body Is a Big Sagacity

 

is another thing Nietzsche said

that hits me as pretty specious,

while sitting in my car in the Costco

parking lot, listening to the Ballet

mécanique of metal buggies shrieking,

as each super, singular, and self-contained

wisdom of this Monday morning rumbles

its jumbo packs of toilet paper and Diet Coke

up the sidewalk. So count me a Despiser

of the Body, though I didn’t generate this

woe any more than the little man parked

next to me, now attempting the descent from

his giant truck, behemoth whose Hemi roars

like a melting reactor and stands

as the ego’s corrective to the base methods

by which the body lets the spirit down.

 

Buzz-clipped, tidy as an otter, he’s high and

tight in his riding heels. Pearl snaps on

the little man’s shirt throw tiny lasers

when he passes. But who isn’t more war

than peace? And how ridiculous to suffer

this: to be a little man, with itty hands

and bitty feet, to know yourself lethal, but

Krazy Glued for life to the most laughable

engine. Recycled, rewired, product of

genes and whatever our mamas thought

to smoke: the spirit gets no vote, Fred.

 

My body once was whole, symmetrical, was

actually beautiful for three consecutive years,

expensive as a rented palace, and yet I blew

that measly era watching my clock hands move,

as if I were the trigger rigged to homemade

dynamite. But if you would look inside me,

into all the lonely seeming folks here loading

their heavy bags, you’d hope we’re something

more than a sack of impulse, of soul defined

by random gristle. Which is why the little man

pauses on the sidewalk, why he stops to look at

me looking at him: this pocket-size person,

whose gaze unkinks a low, hairy voltage from

my coccyx. And thus speaks Zarathustra,

You Great Star,

what would Your happiness be

had You not those for whom

You shine?

Ask the little man, neither ghost nor plant,

his bootheels ringing down the concrete.

 

 

–Erin Belieu

from Slant Six (Copper Canyon Press)

Copyright © 2015 by Erin Belieu

All rights reserved. Used by permission of the author.