Fall for the Book lineup: Robyn Schiff’s “Revolver”

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Fall for the Book – a DC-area literary festival – began Sunday and will run through Friday night. On Tuesday night, poet Robyn Schiff will be reading at George Mason University from 6:00 – 7:30 p.m. (Grand Tier III, Center for the Arts). I have been reading Schiff’s second book, Revolver, in which she examines the inventions originally displayed at the Great Exhibition of 1851 through a contemporary lens. Using objects as diverse as a sewing machine, revolver, envelope machine, prefabricated home and eighty-blade knife, Schiff reminds us how the machinery in our lives defines, separates, and coaxes us to evolve in different ways.

As the title image suggests, our creations – regardless of their original intentions – can lead us toward violence and psychological estrangement. In the poem, “Colt Rapid Fire Revolver,” Schiff describes the sugar gun-adorned wedding cake of inventor Samuel Colt and his new wife, suggesting that the fortune that makes their marriage possible comes with a price:

…the cake
was six feet high and how could I resist
pistols winding tier up-

on tier up the icing reverberating in
decoration the prudence of
a revolver’s placement in the holsters
of a row of guards under whose raised arms that
beam a private arbor the
bride and bridegroom enter their union. Re-
petition of pistols

map a rebus of progress marching since the first
firearms to devise a weapon
that can repeat fire without reloading.

Similarly, in “Silverware, by J.A. Henkels,” Schiff uses the example of a silverware factory to demonstrate how technology slowly invades our lives:

A pettiness in me was honed
in this cutlers’ town, later bombed,
in which Adolf Eichmann, who was born there
alongside my wedding pattern, could hear
the constant sharpening of knives
like some children hear the corn in their hometowns
talking to them through the wind.

 

The book presents a world that is simultaneously being built up and broken down. As demonstrated by the many-bladed knife in “Eighty-blade Sportsman’s Knife, by Joseph Rodgers & Sons,” we cannot predict the complications – “all the ways a point mutates” – that our inventions create:

What catalog
of hot tools. Splayed it is

a bouquet of all the ways a point mutates. It
contains the bayonets piercing
the chain mail at the end of the mind.

 

When something new is invented, an old technology is left behind, to founder or reinvent itself. In “Project Huia,” a city is rebuilt on unstable ground:

Built on the site of a massive earthquake
in the Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand…
an Art Deco city
with lightning bolts and sun bursts carved
into its white stone walls stylizes
annihilation. Obliteration is an

opportunity.

In “Lustron: The House America Has Been Waiting For,” the speaker leads us through the strange new world of a prefab house:

It’s so safe here, porcelain flowers
live forever in a porcelain-reinforced
saferoom, luster on steel like
living in the barrel of a mythic Glock. Imagine a whole
life that feels like the satisfaction of passing through security with undetectable
weaponry in your carry-on.

 

Anyone who has ever tightened a leaky faucet, built a shelf, or changed a tire knows the unique satisfaction of having a hand in making something work.  Schiff suggests that this feeling of “rightness” can be dangerous, absolving us of responsibility for what we have created:

It is a joy to place the Philips-
head in the Philips-shaped slits
in the world. Twisting it, you can feel the
rotation of the earth, you can feel the
revolution in your

wrist.

…When we use the
tool intended for the job
we are neutral. The right tool for the right
task is objective truth.

 

The book’s final poem, “Project Paperclip,” reminds us that however our inventions enable us, nature and new technologies are constantly unravelling them.  Here, a maid in a garden finds that she can no longer read the assembly directions of folding chairs etched into their wood, as insects have made that impossible:

…lines of poems Chinese woodworkers once
carved into joinery of portable furnishings
to guide reassembly when the

maid charged with dismantling chairs
in the rhododendron garden is called away
before having time to reconstruct
them in the fragrant orchard…

(how will she join the pieces
when Asian Longhorned Beetles
colonize arm rails seatbacks
headrests emendating what’s
written there by chewing a
recess in the bamboo-strip

veneer, a wall-niche in a
beetle cloister, laying eggs
where a stone patron would a-
wait the second coming deep
in the alcove of the word)…

The final poem – with its images of 9/11, the bombings of World War II, and the colonization of America – reminds us that the acts of creation and annihilation are part of a much larger “game:”

…Had

you lost an eye in World War
II you would have been fitted
with a glass ball made in a
marble factory in Lau-
scha, Germany, and seen the
new world from the point of view

of one globe knocked from orbit
in a game of marbles.

Fall for the Book lineup: Shara Lessley’s “Two-Headed Nightingale”

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Next week, the Fall for the Book literary festival takes place at various venues in and around Washington, DC.  (The full schedule is here.) One of the many fine poets featured at the festival is Shara Lessley, whose book Two-Headed Nightingale won the 2012 New Issues Poetry Prize.  She will be reading at Old Firehouse #3, a restaurant/bar in Fairfax, Virginia, on Friday, September 27th from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m., with poets Carmen Calatayud, Joseph Ross, and Donna Lewis Cowan.

In the title of the book, Lessley invokes the nightingale – a bird imbued with symbolic meaning by poets throughout the ages, most famously in Homer’s Odyssey – as a symbol of lament, tragedy that must be overcome, and a lost voice that must be found.  Lessley finds meaning in the journeys of birds, bats, and marginalized creatures that must transcend the darkness of their experiences. In image-rich verse, she presents the natural world and its inhabitants as “two-headed,” darting between entrapment and freedom, silence and crescendo, paralysis and flight.

In the first leg of her journey, the speaker experiences a forced stillness:

In the dark undersurface of sea,
five hundred fathoms beneath,
dark as the giant squid’s indigestible beak

lodged inside the sperm
whale’s second belly, the ocean’s
sleek anatomy reveals itself:

– from “Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific”

 

In the long night called girlhood the heart holds
tight in its bony crate. Like a bird of fire caged
its throat repeats two notes two notes

– from “Metronome”

 

As the speaker progresses, we see a shift from paralysis into slow movement, in the ability of even the smallest creature, or seed, to grow. This “breaking” and “dispersing” is part of the healing, and a rejection of the old mythologies that would enclose her:

That you bore into coffins–drilling

through century-old oak, rustling, fluttering,
haunting the skulls of kings–then emerge,

racing sightless through night in pursuit
of a lover, your flared wings patrolling

her scent: part defense, part desire.

– from “Portrait Hepialus

 

…Daybreak. I lay my body down

in powder. Roots torque up through the chest’s
blankness, snarl of knots unloosed. What comes,

on parting you insisted, will come. Ice splits,
in the distance. What breaks will break. Let it.

– from “Wintering”

The dandelion’s

core dispersed to places unimagined. Chorus
of a hundred directions. Each sliver
a possibility somewhere anchoring itself in dirt.

– from “Tooth of the Lion”

Finally, the speaker completes the circle of her evolution, finding that her “two-headedness” gives her the power to write her own story; that “no myth I was holds true:”

 

Yourself, the rule.
Yourself, the maker of its exception.

– from “The Countervoice”

 

…And the past rises
again before me. As I

navigate its pitched surface
daughter lover sister other
no myth I was holds true.

– from “Self-Portrait as (Super/Sub) Pacific”

Melanie McCabe’s Poetry of Summer

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I first read Melanie McCabe’s beautiful first book of poetry, History of the Body, last year, but it seems right to talk about it now, in this season of heat and harvest.  As the title suggests, this is a book that revels in the visceral and bodily, and in the poems she writes about summer, McCabe finds a multiplicity of meanings in the season.

In many areas of the country, summer is hurricane season. In McCabe’s poem “Waiting for Power,” a family mourning over the loss of a father is pitched again into darkness:

…The sultry
swell of heat filled the room from the ceiling down, so Mama
peeled off her dress and leaned

in her white lace slip before the narrow
yellow flame–a daguerreotype, an oval-flamed ancestor from
the cracked album in the cedar chest. Hours passed without
clocks. The heat moved back

and forth with our fans, but it was still
heat, and no men came to put things right.

Similarly, in the poem “Safe,” the speaker finds safety from the storm in her home:

All day at the glass the wind swoops,
dives, rallies, looks for cracks to permit
entry–but caulk holds. Panes shake.

I look through them at the storm. All day
the air conditioner thrums off and on.
All day July transpires outside the glass.

 

In McCabe’s poems, summer is a season marked by desire, and the waiting game that must be played. The imagery in her poem “Ripe” illustrates this tension:

The long tendrils of the melons rustle as they creep
from the garden. The moon is the only eye to see,
but in my bed I listen for the whisper of green on green.
____________________________________________
My vigil to morning weaves between nerves and dream.
Somewhere tongues take sacraments, glistening and sweet.
I knew this night always, before I planted a single seed.

Her poem “Patience” reminds us of all that waits for us, even when the world seems still and barren:

Emptied of desire for whatever it is that horses desire,
they bide
their hours, reconciled to the day’s slow, scorching
revolution across the bent stalks and red earth, patient in
their bodies’ memory that evening always comes, that winds
can stir,
that the field is not lost to them, but waiting.

 

Most interesting to me are McCabe’s poems about summer that focus on its dark side: how summer forces us to confront our pasts, and how the physical world becomes a reminder of those lost summer loves. The next two excerpts beautifully convey this melancholy:

From “Translation From The Green:”

Between the trees, you say, there are spaces where we can
reclaim what we have lost. A quiet is there that will always

remember who we were. Nothing is on our lips now but flat, doltish
words. It is leaves and branches only that allow us to hear the wind.

From “This Wide World:”

You have always known how the earth can be excavated, changed, then

reunited with itself, or how a flower can travel miles to finish its life far from
where it began. Once you showed me a sky you called live-for-forever blue,

as if we might, as if that were possible. Sometimes I search for your name
to find out if you are gone. Death would be an explanation I could understand.

I know you think of me. The wind tonight is freighted with honeysuckle
and salt. The moon slides like a postcard in and out of the clouds.

 

McCabe’s poem “The Body Goes To The Beach” takes a familiar source of summer self-consciousness – how we appear in a swimsuit – and turns it into a deeper moment of mortality:

What once paraded, strutted to be seen
now only hopes to move unnoticed among

this supple horde, this muscled flesh–
a spy stealing from corner to lamppost,

from gray to gray. To be unlit, to take up
no space. We have nothing to wear but

the body, this old thing…If it makes

a sound, it will be the clicking of needles
pulling taut a gap, an unravel in yarn.

It will be the tick of insect legs over
gift wrap…Bones rehearsing their pop

and clatter. Their star turn.
Their last role.

As the summer progresses, I’ll share more of my seasonal favorites – but I think McCabe’s poetry is an excellent place to start. :)

Our Favorite Teachers

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Last Thursday was the last day of elementary school in our city, and my first-grade daughter alternated between summer-fun-anticipation and heartbreak about no longer seeing her adored teacher every day. I picked her up from school, and seeing all the teachers waving goodbye to the kids as we passed was more than we could take. By the time we made it to the car, my daughter was crying, I started crying because she was crying, and my other daughter started crying as well. Her last day was doubly poignant since she will be starting at a new elementary school next year – in our city, kindergarteners and first graders attend a separate school – so that will be a big change.

Happily, when we unpacked her backpack several hours later, we found a sheet with the teacher’s home address, with the suggestion that students become her penpals. My daughter got immediately to work on a letter, which said simply, “I miss you SO MUCH!!!” I’m sure her teacher will be impressed by the depth of her feelings, particularly when she had left her class only four hours earlier. :)

Although I’ve had a number of wonderful teachers, I felt particularly fond of, and changed by, my third grade teacher; most people seem to have such memories of a special elementary school teacher. There is something about the relationship between student and teacher in the early years that is particularly moving and powerful. Perhaps it is our first major exposure to a real authority figure other than our parents, someone who is not just babysitting; someone responsible for both our academic and social development and able, even in a packed classroom, to make us feel special and unique. Someone who – unlike a parent – is able to see our strengths and weaknesses in a more objective way. Someone who helps us find our footing in the world outside of our family, who shows us the many possible paths.

My daughter’s first grade teacher was such a teacher, and I think that’s why I was crying harder than my daughter: I know that her next teacher may not connect with her in the same way.  When we send our children off to school, we want them to receive something like the love they feel at home; we want them to be accepted, encouraged, hugged, high-fived for even those small successes. When a teacher is able to do that – while also juggling the tasks of classroom life, and the similar needs of other children – it is nothing less than miraculous.

I wanted to share an excerpt from my poem, “Children,” which describes how our children bloom as they encounter new worlds:

Spring, and I watch you from my chair,
streaming electric, gathering gravity
around you like permanent planets.

I imagine the thread of your roots
wrapping this garden up tight -

each segment in the darkness
a maze of one world
finding another.

Poems for Memorial Day

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As I did last Memorial Day, I’m posting excerpts from poems that especially speak to me today. I hope you enjoy these, and will share some of your favorites in the comments.

1) “It is Dangerous to Read Newspapers” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

…Now I am grownup
and literate, and I sit in my chair
as quietly as a fuse

and the jungles are flaming, the under-
brush is charged with soldiers,
the names on the difficult
maps go up in smoke…

Even my
passive eyes transmute
everything I look at to the pocked
black and white of a war photo,
how
can I stop myself.

It is dangerous to read newspapers.

Each time I hit a key
on my electric typewriter,
speaking of peaceful trees

another village explodes.

2) A Mad Fight Song for William S. Carpenter, 1966″ by James Wright (full text here):

At the edges of Southeast Asia this afternoon
The quarterbacks and the lines are beginning to fall,
A spring snow,

And terrified young men
Quick on their feet
Lob one another’s skulls across
Wings of strange birds that are burning
Themselves alive.

3) “Learning Experience” by Marge Piercy:

I have come out on the train from Chicago to talk
about dangling participles. I am supposed
to teach him to think a little on demand.
The time of tomorrow’s draft exam is written on the board.
The boy yawns and does not want to be in the classroom in Gary
where the furnaces that consumed his father seethe rusty smoke
and pour cascades of nerve-bright steel
while the slag goes out in little dumpcars smoking,
but even less does he want to be in Today’s Action Army
in Vietnam, in the Dominican Republic, in Guatemala,
in death that hurts.
In him are lectures on small groups, Jacksonian democracy,
French irregular verbs, the names of friends
around him in the classroom in Gary in the pillshaped afternoon
where tomorrow he will try to fail his license to live.

4) “19 January 1944″ by Salvatore Quasimodo (full text here):

Someone is alive.
Someone, perhaps, is alive. But we, here,
absorbed in listening to the ancient voice
seek for a sign that outreaches life,
earth’s dark sorcery
where even among the tombs of rubble
the malign grass rears up its flower.

The Basket of Curiosities

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I have trouble getting anything done when there is visible clutter. This morning, the house was overrun with scattered toys, cuttings from various papers, books, and game pieces. So I spent twenty minutes getting everything back to its container and shelf. Unfortunately, there are always items that defy classification, don’t really have a place: kid’s meal toys that must be kept until they are forgotten about (for us, about a week); pieces large or small from games that are temporarily missing; “prizes” obtained from school – like decorative erasers – that must be kept but aren’t useful; bottles of soap bubbles. I guess everyone needs a junk drawer for all these things, so that the house doesn’t resemble the Island of Misfit Toys, and I found a deep basket to accommodate all these random shapes and sizes.

In one’s life, there are many such junk drawers. I have a writing binder – containing failed poems, interesting lines I’ve written but never used and probably won’t, heartening letters from mentors – that although I rarely look at it, would never throw away. The kitchen cabinet with rarely-used appliances reminds me on the bleakest days that I can whip up a Margarita in just moments. These stashes are different from the photo boxes or love letter bundles that are irreplaceable; they contain objects of often irrational desire, rather than things we solidly love or need.  Similarly, I find I get antsy when I don’t have enough incoming randomness in my life, whether it is a new friend, book, or image that pops out from nowhere – a junk drawer of the mind, so to speak.

I love Radmilla Lazic’s poem “Anthropomorphic Wardrobe” (translated from the Serbian by Charles Simic) for its interesting take on the objects in our lives. Here’s an excerpt:

There’s no more room. We are full.
Everything we stored, layer by layer
Folded, packed in as if bandaging wounds…

Forgotten. Taken down in a hurry.
Thrown in the corner: Turned inside out.
What is indispensable and what is less so
Thrown on top of each other.
Once made to measure, then grown short,
Grown too tight, faded or shiny — it’s all here.

Adam’s little broken rib.
The plucked angel’s wing.
Venus’s fur and love-stain.
Rings. Combs. Ghosts. Moths.
No one can find anything here.
Where is it? Turn it upside down! Rummage!
Lost, then found again.
Rejected, then cherished again.
Cobwebs sway. The mouse gnaws.
The butterfly spreads its wings.

My Top Five Poems about Motherhood

With Mother’s Day coming up next Sunday, I’m adding to last year’s list of poems that I love about motherhood. Enjoy!

1) From “Thanking My Mother for Piano Lessons” by Diane Wakoski (full text here):

I want to thank my mother
for letting me wake her up sometimes at 6 in the morning
when I practiced my lessons
and for making sure I had a piano
to lay my school books down on, every afternoon.
I haven’t touched the piano in 10 years,
perhaps in fear that what little love I’ve been able to
pick, like lint, out of the corners of pockets,
will get lost,
slide away,
into the terribly empty cavern of me
if I ever open it all the way up again.
Love is a man
with a mustache
gently holding me every night,
always being there when I need to touch him;
he could not know the painfully loud
music from the past that
his loving stops from pounding, banging,
battering through my brain,
which does its best to destroy the precarious gray matter when I
am alone;
he does not hear Mrs. Hillhouse’s canary singing for me,
liking the sound of my lesson this week,
telling me,
confirming what my teacher says,
that I have a gift for the piano
few of her other pupils had.

When I touch the man
I love,
I want to thank my mother for giving me
piano lessons
all those years,
keeping the memory of Beethoven,
a deaf tortured man,
in mind;
of the beauty that can come
from even an ugly
past.

2) From “Waterwings” by Cathy Song (full text here):

I watch the circles
his small body makes
fan and ripple,
disperse like an echo
into the sum of water, light and air.
His imprint on the water
has but a brief lifespan,
the flicker of a dragonfly’s delicate wing.

This is sadness, I tell myself,
the morning he chooses to leave his wings behind,
because he will not remember
that he and beauty were aligned,
skimming across the water, nearly airborne,
on his first solo flight.
I’ll write “how he could not
contain his delight.”
At the other end,
in another time frame,
he waits for me—
having already outdistanced this body,
the one that slipped from me like a fish,
floating, free of itself.

3) From “The Puppet of the Wolf,” by Margaret Atwood (full text here):

This is a miracle, there is never
any death:
the wolf comes back whenever
he is called,
unwounded and intact;
piglets jump from my thumbs.

My dying right
hand, which knots and shrinks
drier and more cynical
each year, is immortal,
briefly, and innocent.

Together with my left hand, its
enemy and prey, it chases
my daughter through the warm air,
and muted with soapsuds, lifts her
into the water.

4) From “Taking Notice,” #13, by Marilyn Hacker:

…In
another room, my daughter, home from school,
audibly murmurs “spanking, stupid, angry
voice” — a closet drama where I am
played second-hand to unresisting doll
daughters. Mother and daughter both, I see
myself, the furious and unforgiven;
myself, the terrified and terrible;
the child pushed into autonomy;
the unhealed woman hearing her own voice damn
her to the nightmares of the brooding girl.

5) From “Wanting a Child” by Jorie Graham (full text here):

Sometimes I’ll come this far from home
merely to dip my fingers in this glittering, archaic
sea that renders everything
identical, flesh
where mind and body
blur. The seagulls squeak, ill-fitting
hinges, the beach is thick
with shells. The tide
is always pulsing upward, inland, into the river’s rapid
argument, pushing
with its insistent tragic waves — the living echo,
says my book, of some great storm far out at sea, too far
to be recalled by us
but transferred
whole onto this shore by waves, so that erosion
is its very face.