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.

Kids at poetry readings

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Last night, I took an enormous leap of faith and took my first grader to her first poetry reading. This particular reading – part of the Iota Reading Series curated by Miles David Moore and hosted by Iota Club & Cafe in Arlington, Virginia – seemed a good fit. I promised her a brownie sundae, and packed a bag of books, paper/crayons, and other items to keep her entertained while I listened. 

Poetry readings can be a wild card: profanity happens, and just about any subject can come up in a poem. When that happened last night (and it was possible to see it coming) I whispered in her ear about what she was writing/drawing/reading to distract her. I suppose at those times we could have taken a bathroom break as well. We hear “adult content” in public places anyway (just take a ride on the Metro to hear plenty of choice words, not redeemed by any possible artistic value). Explanations must be given at some point; she knows that adults sometimes drink different drinks than kids (alcohol, soda with caffeine), and make different choices (in behavior, language), so I felt I could handle whatever questions might emerge.

She loved it, and amazingly, asked when we could go to another one. Part of it was probably the brownie sundae and being out after her usual bedtime, but she also seemed to view other poets as exotic creatures (“Is she a poet? Is he a poet?”) and liked the lit-up stage and the bar stools. She paid more attention to the poetry than I’d anticipated, quoting lines back to me later, and citing particular poems (“I loved the pirate poem where they walked the plank.”). I did miss the usual moments of reflection afterwards; when my mind would normally be buzzing with the energy of the evening, I was bombarded with questions on the way home: “How did they get those lights to work? Can I get some for my room? Can I read up on the stage next time?”

She came out of the reading with a book she had written and illustrated, “Humphrey Saves the Cow,” about a heroic hamster who has to use advanced engineering skills (and tissues, string and rubber bands) to create a parachute for a cow falling from an airplane during a tornado. (Now, there’s a poem.) :)

One of my favorite poems by Sylvia Plath is “Child,” which illustrates the perfect vision that we all begin with:

Your clear eye is the one absolutely beautiful thing.
I want to fill it with color and ducks,
The zoo of the new

Whose name you meditate –
April snowdrop, Indian pipe,
Little

Stalk without wrinkle,
Pool in which images
Should be grand and classical

Not this troublous
Wringing of hands, this dark
Ceiling without a star.

Spring Break: heading for the sea

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With my older daughter home from school for the week, my mom and stepdad braved the long car drive down to the Outer Banks with me and the girls, for a few days in a hotel by the beach. Though the girls wanted to spend most of our visit at the indoor pool (and I in the adjoining hot tub), we visited our usual summer haunts: Kelly’s for seafood and warm sweet potato biscuits, Duck’s Cottage for books and coffee, and The Kids’ Store for toys.

I have a love-hate relationship with the beach. When I was growing up, we went to Virginia Beach every summer, and by my teens, I often preferred to read in the hotel room rather than face sunburn and sand-induced itchiness. The idea of the beach was often better than the thing itself. But I always liked the salty smell as our car neared the ocean, and the rush- then-fade of the waves crashing.

This excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s poem “Oysters” captures the tang and textures of the shore:

Our shells clacked on the plates.
My tongue was a filling estuary,
My palate hung with starlight:
As I tasted the salty Pleiades
Orion dipped his foot into the water.
______________________________
…I ate the day
Deliberately, that its tang
Might quicken me all into verb, pure verb.

Asking for what you want: submissions and gender

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My two daughters – let’s call them OD and YD – resemble me in many predictable ways. Seven-year-old OD has hair that relentlessly tangles in the same spot as mine, loves writing and rhyme, and is a tomboy in the best sense of the word. Three-year-old YD has my oversized cheeks, laid-back manner, and love of animals.

But even at their young ages, they exceed me in confidence and general courageous action. OD is a skilled negotiator; when she encounters a “no,” she rephrases the question again and again, looking for any cracks in my argument, and steadily moves toward a settlement. Younger YD hasn’t this skill yet, and relies on the simple “broken record” method of toddlers, which she knows can’t be ignored.

This week, you may have read this article on the male/female ratios of publication for more influential magazines, inspired by the annual VIDA count.  Rob Spillman, the editor of Tin House – one of the few publications that improved its ratio – had this to say about the process of encouraging submissions by women:

“After VIDA’s initial count three years ago,” Spillman said, “you would think others would move toward gender equality, or at least make a gesture toward it. It really isn’t rocket science. For us, the VIDA count was a spur, a call to action. Our staff is 50/50 male-female, and we thought we were gender blind. However, the numbers didn’t bear this out.” So why not?

“We did a thorough analysis of our internal submission numbers and found that the unsolicited numbers are evenly split, while the solicited (agented, previous contributors, etc.) were 67/33 male to female. We found that women contributors and women we rejected with solicitations to resubmit were five times less likely to submit than their male counterparts. So we basically stopped asking men, because we knew they were going to submit anyway, and at the same time made a concerted effort to re-ask women to contribute. We also adjusted our Lost & Found section, which featured short pieces on under-appreciated writers or books. We had been asking 50/50 writers, but the subjects were coming back 80/20 male to female, meaning that both men and women were writing about men versus women writers. We then started asking both male and female writers if there are any women writers they would like to champion. It has been a total editorial team effort, and each editorial meeting we take a look at our upcoming issues to see where we are for balance. Again, these are all simple solutions. What I found interesting was that we had all assumed that we were gender balanced, when in fact we weren’t. Now, with a concerted effort, we know that we are.”

Spillman’s comments were eye-opening to me; I hadn’t thought much about how “submission behaviors” might be different for women and men. But I do fit into the more submissive group that he describes: when rejected once or twice by a publication, I tend to scratch it off my list and move on – something that the men, at least the ones submitting to prestigious Tin House, tend not to do. Even though I know the primary rule of getting published is “Submit, Submit, Submit,” there is still something in me that has trouble trying again after that initial rejection.

It appears I need to take a page from my daughters’ playbooks: ask, and ask, and ask again. The fourth section of Denise Levertov’s “Matins” reminds us of the importance of “following through:”

iv.

A shadow painted where
yes, a shadow must fall.
The cow’s breath
not forgotten in the mist, in the
words. Yes,
verisimilitude draws up
heat in us, zest
to follow through,
follow through,
follow
transformations of day
in its turning, in its becoming.

My Favorite Irish Poets

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I won’t be one of the many imbibing on St. Patrick’s Day this Sunday. But as a fan of Irish poetry – at least that written in English – I wanted to share a few of my favorite moments.

Contemporary Irish poet Eavan Boland beautifully extracts a place from its political past in “How We Made a New Art on Old Ground.” Here’s an excerpt (full text is here):

A famous battle happened in this valley.
You never understood the nature poem.
Till now. Till this moment—if these statements
seem separate, unrelated, follow this

silence to its edge and you will hear
the history of air: the crispness of a fern
or the upward cut and turn around of
a fieldfare or thrush written on it.

The other history is silent: The estuary
is over there. The issue was decided here:
Two kings prepared to give no quarter.
Then one king and one dead tradition.

________________________________________

I try the word distance and it fills with
sycamores, a summer’s worth of pollen
And as I write valley straw, metal
blood, oaths, armour are unwritten.

…what we see
is what the poem says:
evening coming—cattle, cattle-shadows—

and whin bushes and a change of weather
about to change them all: what we see is how
the place and the torment of the place are
for this moment free of one another.

 

In “The Cave Painters,” contemporary poet Eamon Grennan describes the light we find in an art composed in darkness. The full text is here, but here’s an excerpt:

They’ve left the world of weather and panic
behind them and gone on in, drawing the dark
in their wake, pushing as one pulse
to the core of stone. The pigments mixed in big shells
are crushed ore, petals and pollens, berries
and the binding juices oozed
out of chosen barks.

___________________________________________

We’ll never know if they worked in silence
like people praying—the way our monks
illuminated their own dark ages
in cross-hatched rocky cloisters,
where they contrived a binding
labyrinth of lit affinities
to spell out in nature’s lace and fable
their mindful, blinding sixth sense
of a god of shadows—or whether (like birds
tracing their great bloodlines over the globe)
they kept a constant gossip up
of praise, encouragement, complaint.

It doesn’t matter: we know
they went with guttering rushlight
into the dark; came to terms
with the given world; must have had
—as their hands moved steadily
by spiderlight—one desire
we’d recognise: they would—before going on
beyond this border zone, this nowhere
that is now here—leave something
upright and bright behind them in the dark.

 

The last two stanzas of Yeats’ “Among School Children” remind us that our labors – how we “blossom” and “dance” – are gifts we bring to the world, imbued with their own mystery. (The full text is here.)

VII

Both nuns and mothers worship images,
But those the candles light are not as those
That animate a mother’s reveries,
But keep a marble or a bronze repose.
And yet they too break hearts — O presences
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolise —
O self-born mockers of man’s enterprise;

VIII
Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,
Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.
O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

 

And finally, Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney finds his path in “Digging:”

The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

 

Update, 3/15/2013: After I posted the above, many of my well-read Facebook friends chimed in with additional recommendations of Irish poets. Just click on these links for beautiful work by Paul Durcan, Dennis O’Driscoll, Ciaran Carson, and Richard Murphy. Plus, a great selection from the Poetry Foundation. Happy St. Patrick’s Day!