May 2, 2017

Constance Hanstedt

I SPEED TOWARD THE MOON

On a deserted Oakland freeway
after a leisurely June evening
of free writes and rough drafts
I speed toward the moon.

Kmart’s red neon flashes off Fruitvale,
an exit I avoid like a freshly tarred road
blistering in the grasp of noonlight.

I watch the moon slide smoothly into
a pearl pocket of clouds as if a love letter
slipping into a fine linen envelope.

KFOG calls me back, as does a jet
black Harley darting from center to left,
its single lamp now a piercing spotlight.
Too close, I gasp, too close.

We part as the freeway splits, where
three white crosses tower over curving
concrete and rise to the brilliant round
burst of the moon.

from Rattle #19, Summer 2003
Tribute to the Twenty-Minute Poem

__________

Constance Hanstedt: “After six or eight hours of payroll and personnel, I drive what others refer to as ‘the long way’ home. Unlike the roaring freeway, the snappy boulevards trimmed with small pines and pink myrtles soothe me. Later, alone in my bedroom, I shape the earth’s hues and tones into phrases and lines. The form suits me. Writing poetry ensures a wonderful day.”

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January 10, 2016

Pepper Trail

THIS REFUGE, FROM ITS VERY INCEPTION, HAS BEEN A TOOL OF TYRANNY

—Ammon Bundy, leader of the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters

The tyranny of cranes, stalking the marsh edge, their rust-red colts gangling behind

The tyranny of warblers, feathers flashing through the leaves in early spring

The tyranny of pronghorn, trying their speed across the unfenced plain

The tyranny of sage grouse, their ancient dance of boom and strut

The tyranny of winter geese, their numbers doubling the blizzard

The tyranny of solitude, the playa echoing the silent moon

The tyranny of butterflies, gliding above the rabbitbrush

The tyranny of desert trout, sheltering in willow shade

The tyranny of water, free of pump and ditch

The tyranny of land, free of sheep and cow

The tyranny of refuge

Poets Respond
January 10, 2016

[download audio]

__________

Pepper Trail: “The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt over a hundred years ago to protect an extraordinary landscape of marshes and sagebrush steppe in the high desert of eastern Oregon. The refuge is a paradise for birds and other wildlife, and naturalists travel to Malheur from around the country to experience its abundance. I have spent many unforgettable days there. This week, the refuge headquarters was occupied by armed anti-government extremists, who declared their intention to remain ‘for years.’ Their demands remain unclear, but their attitude toward the preservation of America’s public lands for the benefit of wildlife is well-summarized in the quote from their leader that is the title of this poem.” (website)

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January 8, 2016

Christopher Buckley

THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING—SCIENCE, RELIGION, GRAMMAR SCHOOL, SURFING, & THE 99¢ STORE

Einstein didn’t worry about his socks, attending temple, or his soul;
he played violin in the kitchen and worked out the math in his head,
trying to put gravity, electro-magnetism, the weak and strong
nuclear forces back together again.
In 1929, fishing for scientific
A-List back up, counting on the famous statement about Physics—
God does not play dice with the universe, a rabbi telegraphed Einstein
asking if he believed in God. Einstein replied, “I believe in Spinoza’s God
who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God
who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”
Game over.
Mid-’50s, Catholic grammar school, and no one interested
in explaining just what invisible force held our atoms together;
rather, we were daily indoctrinated with the likelihood that most of us
would be roasting for All Eternity on a fiery spit. The nuns and priests
were sure they knew what was what, sure that you needed to give up
everything on earth to wear a starry crown and walk the streets of Paradise
with the saints.
But even before I cracked my General Science text,
I had my doubts … walking on water, rising from the dead …
A snowball’s chance in hell I thought—it was all a spiritual shakedown,
a boondoggle, a Madison Ave. marketing campaign for Faith.
Everyone was just making things up—no one could diagram
the unseen syntax of the stars—the implied subject, the indirect
objects—any more than they could fly to the moon.

* * *

But by then it was too late to cross our fingers and call “King’s X”
or “Time out,” as we did when the light spun slowly out of the tops
of eucalyptus in the west and we were called in from play,
each of our particles vibrating in its own atomic membrane,
though we were sure it was our own hand in front of our face
and not a slate of molecules taken on contingency. Nonetheless,
we hoped there might be something inside every buzzing electron
smashing away inside the cyclotron of our blood—light zooming
out our skin and eyes for at least as long as we were young …
and all the while every last illuminated, dark, or blazing bit of matter
was speeding away from us through space, red-shifted toward a blind,
unknowable edge regardless of what was proclaimed joyfully
in choirs beneath an indeterminate sky, where we knew
there had to be a catch, something scribbled on the undersides
of passing clouds, something vague and weary as the waves
sliding into shore, their equivocal code unread inside the surf …

Beneath it all, I borrowed a body from time, traveled curl and froth,
living on gravity, sea-winds, and tides, which came to little
more finally than what St. Theresa the Little Flower had,
who ate nothing but light, who rose into the ecstasies of air—
which, had I thought it over, might have half-way made sense
as I rode the nose of my board, screaming down a thin section
above the rocks at Miramar Point, hands thrown up in hosannas
to a secular sky, kinetic in my bones and skin, never taking a second
to bless the electrons that sparked and networked invisibly
from my tendons to the lip of the wave, everything shot through
with salt and un-seeable space—as were my briny synapses,
the cartload of electricity within the flex coils and strings
of my corpuscles, in the apparently inexhaustible fabric of my breath.

Every 50 years the smart guys think they’ve made the final calculations,
have a system to count the cosmic cards before the lights go out.
Even as a child the stars represented everything, or at least a good
portion of it in the schematics of hope as each day we let it all ride,
double or nothing, minute to minute on life everlasting.

* * *

And yesterday, checking out at the 99¢ Store where I go to save
on vegetables, yogurt, paper towels, crunchies for my cat,
everything under the sun, I’m pushing my cart along the aisle
of school supplies and pick up a copy of the TIME/LIFE
publication 100 Ideas That Changed the World on top of
the remaindered books—a magazine-size paperback
with photos of Einstein, a computer keyboard, an artist’s
depiction of the Big Bang, and a Greek Orthodox mosaic of Jesus
blessing us all from its glossy cover. The clerk, who I know
from my weekly visits, is a Mexican woman, older even than me,
white hair, soft grey eyes, someone who shouldn’t be working
any more. As she scans my items, she stops and looks at the book,
points to the photo of Einstein, and asks me if he isn’t that old guy
from Chico and the Man? You remember that TV series,
don’t you? Freddie Prinze? And I say, Yes, Yes, mid-’70s,
I saw some episodes long ago … but this photo’s of a scientist,
Albert Einstein, not Jack Albert who played the owner of the garage
in that East L.A. neighborhood. Einstein draws a blank with her.
Sure looks like that viejo on TV, she says … then looks at me,
shakes her head a little and sighs, “Where does the Time Go?”

from Rattle #50, Winter 2015

__________

Christopher Buckley: “Since the early ’80s, I’ve been interested in cosmology, astrophysics, theoretical physics, et al. I have watched countless episodes of NOVA on PBS and read articles and books written to explain the concepts and discoveries (which seem to change/develop every few years) to non-professionals like myself with at best a 9th grade education in science. Atomic theory goes back to the pre-Socratics, and, to communicate the ideas, the writers have to simplify the language, often rendering it in metaphors. This has all contributed to my concerns as a poet, pitting metaphysics against a logical doubt and the facts of science. All that has to be balanced with everyday experience. That is where the irony usually enters, for me at least. I try not to sound like a science student repeating his class notes, to keep the phrasing balanced and come up with some meaning, some ideas at least—something that will keep me interested and striving.”

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November 27, 2013

Jessica Jacobs

THE DOUBLE IMAGE

“I, who was never quite sure/ about being a girl, needed another/ life, another image to remind me.”
—Anne Sexton, “The Double Image”

I was invited to Hannah’s party by one of her friends, a woman I thought I wanted until I saw Hannah. Her summer house was a stunner, all wood and glass, prowing its very own Hudson Valley hill. “Her other place is a condo in L.A.,” the friend said proudly, as though knowing Hannah granted her equity. “Mary’s heading back there next week.”

“I’m shooting a documentary,” Mary added, leading us into the house.

Mary was Hannah’s girlfriend, yes, but that didn’t stop me from looking at the woman leaning against the knife-scarred kitchen island: Hannah was my height, blonde hair only glancingly tamed—the word leonine came embarrassingly to mind. Her skin glowed against the white of her men’s dress shirt, sleeves cuffed to reveal toned forearms and hands so large they seemed to belong to a woman a foot taller. She looked not only like someone I wanted to know, but someone I already knew.

As Van Morrison’s “Moondance” blared from a room off the kitchen, she handed me a beer and half a pot brownie from a neat stack of them on the counter, and walked me into a room flanked with floor to ceiling windows, dominated by an antique postal desk. In its center was a manuscript. I was about to ask what she wrote but, then, there was Mary, squeezing the back of Hannah’s neck as though corralling an errant pup, leaving with the presumption she’d be followed.

On our way out, Hannah behind me, I reached up as though to stretch and did a quick pull-up on the doorframe, my arms strong from a season of climbing. Even then, I knew that move was more fourteen-year-old boy than what I was, a nineteen-year-old woman, a girl really, awkward and more serious than my years. I wanted so badly to impress her.

* * *

Jessica Jacobs Rock ClimbingSix years earlier, at a summer camp ropes course with a pine tree laddered to the top by small boards, I was introduced to climbing. I made my way up, crying as I death-gripped the brusque bark, crying with every scuffling movement toward the top, until my tears were snuffed by an adolescent epiphany: I’d been terrified and embarrassed the whole way, but I’d made it. The next time I did something that frightened me—and the adrenaline thrumming my body insisted there’d be a next time—I’d keep that fear to myself, find a way to use it like fuel.

Obsessed, I returned home to the flats of central Florida, pored over climbing magazines, and began to swim and lift weights. Two years later, Orlando’s first indoor rock gym opened and I talked my way into a job, cadging climbing road trips from patrons and staff whenever possible. It was the only sport I’d done that pushed my body to failure, where I’d commanded my hand to grip something only to watch it spasm open instead; felt my leg pump wildly of its own accord, Elvising my foot off a ledge. In a life privileged with safety nets—supportive parents, top-shelf education—with climbing, my safety and survival were assured only by what I brought to it. It left me bloody-kneed and bruise-dappled, exhausted as I was exhilarated. But, from it, an image took shape: a self-reliant woman who not only didn’t avoid the things she feared, but sought them out.

That was what I was doing the summer I met Hannah: living in New Paltz after my first year of college, working in a gear shop, trying to stretch myself to fit the outlines of that ideal.

* * *

In the living room, Hannah bent over a small stereo and, from the speakers, another voice joined the fray.

Music pours over the sense, it graveled beneath the din, I mean it remembers better

“Anne Sexton,” she said, a beat before I could.

I nodded and breathed, “I know,” too softly for her to hear, took a long sip of beer that made my head eddy and purl. Anne Sexton: beloved poet of my angsty childhood, the first to make me feel there might be a place for the kind of life I wanted, one driven by passion and poetry … The night I came I danced a circle and was not afraid … I was handed darts and threw them in quick succession, each striking like magic. “Brava!” Hannah cried from astride Mary’s thighs … So it has come to this … Mary stood, spilling her to the floor … The business of words keeps me awake … the friend’s lips were suddenly on mine, my back to the wall, enveloped in her pressing weight, insistent bass, and the words, Hannah and Sexton chanting together, I am drinking cocoa, that warm brown mama.

I pushed my way outside, breath coming in shallow pulls. The heat had finally broken, the air laced with the summer scent of apples and sour of spilled beer, with strains of music from inside. Drunk and high, what could I do with this world I’d stumbled into, one of assured older women who were everything I wanted—to be and to be with. And Hannah. I’d known I wanted to write as long as I’d known I preferred women. She seemed to have already lived out the life I’d imagined.

“Where are you, kid?”

She appeared in the doorway, clutching an armful of long-sleeved shirts, the others behind her. Garlands of lights came alive in the branches. “There you are.”

I reached for a shirt from the pile, but she handed me the one she’d been wearing earlier. We all sprawled in a circle on the lawn, twinkling trees hemming in the night’s prevailing surrealism.

I took the moment to finally ask what she wrote. “She’s our famous neighborhood screenwriter,” the friend answered. While she named the films, Hannah crooked an arm over her eyes and said, “You haven’t seen them. They’re kind of obscure.”

* * *

My boyfriend in high school was a sweet, gangly boy. This was the dial-up era of the internet, before instant access to online queer communities, before Madonna kissed Britney to sell albums, before straight women gloried in saying they’d be gay for Ellen. The one out guy at my school had his ass kicked often enough he transferred. There were no out lesbians, and I wasn’t willing to wait for intimacy until one made herself known. So came a string of disposable boys. So came the boyfriend, the last and best of them. We spent our days biking and wakeboarding, easy access to water one of the few perks of living in Florida; our nights watching movies and having sex—if and when I felt so inclined. Three months into our relationship, the night he told me he loved me, I told him I was gay.

“But what does that mean for me?” he asked, face buried in his hands. “For us?”

“Well, I mean, I care about you and think you’re attractive.”

I paused, not really knowing how to finish a sentence that lamely inadequate.

“So I guess it means we can stay together until I leave for college.” And can date women, I added silently.

How I had the nerve to say this to the face of a poor boy who had just confessed his love is beyond me, so I’ll blame it on the lingering effects of too much Ayn Rand. But, as I was his first, in love and sex, he accepted this meager offering. Together for my last two years of high school, in contrast to the cynicism I’d bricked up to guard my differences—liking girls, liking sports, reading the OED for kicks—he was so kind, so ready to be surprised by what the world and I might offer him. I had moments of wondering if I were making a mistake, if being with a man might be easier, might, eventually, be something even approaching enough.

Then a TV movie kept me up until the small hours. A woman who did everything expected of her—married a man, had kids, held down a household but no job—suffered a breakdown and “went away” for a while. Upon her return, she fell in love with her children’s nanny, her feelings culminating in a rain-drenched kiss that made my stomach ache and hollow. By the end, she found herself but destroyed her family. Watching her movie-husband weep as he repeated over and over, “But I love you so much,” I cried with him. I saw the hopeful look on my boyfriend’s face each time I moved against him, the resigned, downward-eyed acceptance when I more often moved away, and vowed to myself I would never do that to anyone.

That was Hannah’s first film.

* * *

On the way out, I remembered I was wearing her shirt. I began to unbutton it, but Hannah reached out and stilled my hand. “You have an honest face. I’m sure it will find its way back to me somehow.”

The next morning, I drove to the mountains.

Climbing is, by necessity, a clarifying act. Think about anything other than the task at hand and there is the very real chance you will fall, be injured, possibly die. Yet with each move up the rock, with the burr of sediment and slick of quartz, I was distracted by how her broad palms might fit to my back, how her hair might trail my skin as she kissed her way down my stomach.

That day, self-reliance was a piss poor bet.

* * *

Two weeks later, Mary was gone and Hannah invited me over for dinner. Afterward, in the study, as I reclined in a white wicker divan, she drew her chair against it, brought her knees to her chest and tucked her toes beneath my thigh. I tried not to startle at her touch, tried to seem more experienced, more sophisticated than I was.

She asked about my family, what I wanted to do after school. Traced for me the outline of her life: farmed out to boarding schools at twelve; drove to L.A. at the bequest of a girlfriend (who promptly dumped her the day she arrived); worked in restaurants and slept on couches until a friend suggested she turn a short story into a screenplay. I watched as much as I listened. Her strong jaw and cheekbones as she leaned in an out of the light, eye color alternating between the shadows that haunted the corners of the room and that narrow stretch where ocean meets shore, sunlight refracting through the blue.

Pressing her shins more firmly against my leg, she told me she’d finished a novella the day we’d met. Its protagonist was a girl just out of high school—an idealized version of herself at that age. “That’s why I was so startled when I saw you, like I’d written a character so real she’d come to find me. The whole night, I watched you and, each time you talked, a part of me protested, ‘But I didn’t write that.’”

Then she took my hand and pressed it to her lips, her breath pooling in the hollows of my palm. I brought my other hand to her cheek and that was all it took. In a swift movement, she knelt above me, mouth sealing mine. Nearly twice my age, she knew exactly what she wanted, while I simply knew I’d never desired anyone or anything so badly. With boys, I’d kept myself at a remove, in a place of cool observation. With her lips to my neck, I was completely present, open. If she wanted to think she created me, fine, I could go with that. I traced her back, her face. Her skin, lacking the factory-sealed smoothness of girls my age, was instead weathered and pulled taut by years and experiences I wanted to understand. Eyes closed, I ran my hands along her body with the same concentration I brought to the rockface, awareness in my fingertips, feeling my way toward the next best hold. Could she feel that? I held her as though letting go would be the same thing as falling.

* * *

My real climbing education had begun only months earlier, when I met Carl, a man with big-wall, Yosemite experience. He practiced the old-school method of placing and removing anchors in the rock as he went, climbing with only what he carried. I apprenticed myself, belayed as Carl led, dutifully followed him up each route and retrieved the gear he’d left behind. On our last climbing day of that season, we stood midway up the route High Exposure, far above the treetops. Autumn blazed at our feet. Beginning up the second pitch, Carl fumbled at what local climbers had dubbed “The Move”: with left hand clinging to the underside of a massive stone shelf, feel blindly behind with your right to grip a ledge, then let your feet cut away into space, all your weight suspended for a moment from that single right hand.

After ten minutes, I began teasing him. After ten more, in a moment of teenage bravado, I said, “Come on, Carl. I could lead this one.”

He looked at me, face sheened with flop sweat, and said simply, “Fine.”

Retreating to where I stood, he lifted the gear sling from around his shoulder and hung it over mine. It was heavier than I’d expected. But that old epiphany was an exhortation to finish what my words had begun. I scrambled up the short slab and thrust my hand beneath the shelf, knowing if I paused too long, fear would have a chance to effect its heavy paralysis—the promises we make to ourselves often the easiest ones to break. With my other hand, I groped back and around until I had a lip of rock flush against my palm, a rough edge firm beneath my tensed fingers. Closed eyes. Deep breath. Letting go. Then out into the air, one move closer to the person I wanted to become.

* * *

I spent nearly every night at Hannah’s place, parking my car out of sight to avoid word getting back to Mary. It was an arrangement I didn’t question—I wanted to be with her; she wanted to be with me; we were together. Perhaps I thought that was what it meant to be an adult: to take from life what I wanted, when I wanted it.

She bought a small television and VCR. When rainy days kept me from the mountains, I lay in her arms and watched films like Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence and My Life as a Dog. Her commentary through each was equal parts fangirl, technical observation, and masterclass.

Nights, I’d perch on the stool she’d bought for the kitchen so I could sit with her while she cooked, breathing in the heady scent of slow-roasted garlic and red wine whisked into simmering sauce. Cooking was something I’d previously disparaged as “girl stuff,” a fact she found unacceptable. “Anyone who’s smart and creative can cook,” she said, sliding a pan of pine nuts into the broiler. “There’s power in being able to invite people into your home and create an experience—for them, and for you.”

By the end of July, when daylight hours had begun to recede and breezes now and then pierced the summer heat, I led her along the gravel carriage road, where cliffs towered above the trees. She threw her head back in childlike wonder to take them in, just as I’d done to look at skyscrapers my first time in New York. Watching her made my chest hurt.

I spotted the split pine that marked the turn-off to Easy Overhang. At its base, I helped her into the harness and shoes I’d borrowed from my shop, went over the climbing rudiments I’d demonstrated earlier with a rope slung over a branch in her yard. Then I pulled off my shirt and finished my preparations in shorts and a sports bra. I was proud of the body I’d built that summer—the new definition in my arms and back, the deep brown of my tan. I thought then that I took her climbing because, after all she’d shared with me, I wanted to share something, too. But I see now I also did it to show off, to let her know there were areas in which I was the one who had knowledge and power.

Halfway up, she kissed me nervously, but said she was happy she’d come.

Jessica Jacobs #2Yet sixty feet up the next pitch, just as I lost sight of her beneath an overhang, I heard a garbled string of words lost to the distance and wind. I called down, leaning out to hear. All I could make out was, “Can’t.”

A climber appeared on a nearby route. “Your mom—” He saw my eyes narrow and started again, “Your friend’s kind of freaking out. I don’t think she’s going to make it up.”

I down-climbed as quickly as I could, an act far more difficult and dangerous than ascending, especially because, in my cocky self-assurance, I’d worn sneakers instead of climbing shoes. I found her wedged against the cliff, as far as possible from the edge.

On the drive home, Hannah said she figured the scare was caused by the vertigo she sometimes experienced. She said this in an attempt to make me feel better, but it just made me apologize more—even though she hadn’t mentioned a word of vertigo before I’d led her, and myself, away from the safety of the ground.

* * *

Mid-August, we walked from room to room, closing the storm windows. Having grown up in Florida, I’d never done this before and marveled at the weight of the extra pane, at the way the shuttered rooms—defined for me by their airiness and light—felt immediately stifled.

The next day, we stood outside in the cool morning air and kissed goodbye, Hannah on her way to L.A., I with a long drive to campus. I watched her in the rearview and remembered a few things I’d forgotten at her house. But I didn’t bother turning back, knowing I’d see her in Boston that October and spend the upcoming millennial New Year’s Eve with her—in New York or L.A., we hadn’t decided.

* * *

I started classes; she broke up with Mary. There were nightly phone calls, an exchange of letters. Then it was October. My fall break. I picked her up at Logan and we spent a night in Boston before heading to Cape Cod. Pulling up to the massive, marbled entrance of the Four Seasons, I tried not to gawk. She guided me through the steps of turning my keys over to the valet, even handed me a buck to tip him. The next day, she settled the bill: one night and room service, $500. I thanked her politely, as I’d been taught to do as a child when a friend’s parents took me to dinner, but sensed she wanted me to make a bigger deal. I’d been raised that it was rude to talk about how much you’d paid for something, but the deeper truth was I had no idea how expensive that was. It was the first time I’d been to a hotel with anyone other than my parents.

From the city, we made a quick pilgrimage to Anne Sexton’s house. We sat idling on her street, staring at the garage in which Sexton killed herself. “That crazy old kook drove these roads,” Hannah said, more to herself than to me. A strange diversion to begin a romantic getaway, but one that felt writerly and important. As with most things she suggested, I went with it.

Driving the meandering arc of Highway 6, she told me about college summers spent in Provincetown shucking oysters, working on a whale watching ship where the announcer had a pronounced lisp (“Look starboard and you can see what was once called a wight whale!” “Why did they call it that when it’s black?” “Because it’s the wight whale to kill!”), and dating like a fiend.

We parked and walked Provincetown’s main drag, which was thronged with middle-aged women in loose jeans and cableknit sweaters, with men whose ensembles ranged from burly lumberjack to spangled Speedo. A hot girl seemed to be on every corner. It was the gayest place I’d ever been. Weaving our way through, she continued telling stories. Half-listening, mesmerized by the crowds, it occurred to me that if we stayed together, I’d never have the types of summers she described.

This thinking only deepened during our week there. Removed from the protective bubble of her house, precocious as I might have been, I was still nineteen. Countless cultural references flew swiftly over my head. I was moody. She was tentative. I sensed I was entering a time in which I would be free to make bad, fun, wonderful choices; in which I would be too naïve to do anything other than expect the world to give me what I wanted—and so sometimes it would. But no matter how troubled I was by how staying with her might change and restrict me, the thought of losing her was still far worse.

Listening to a band our last night there, one of Hannah’s friends mentioned she liked the drummer’s shirt. Hannah, being Hannah, walked onstage in between sets and asked the woman for the shirt off her back, waving a twenty. The woman agreed. Show over, the drummer ignored the friend who’d been flirting with her all night and walked to where Hannah sat on a bar stool. She peeled off her shirt, revealing a filmy tank top beneath. She stood so close she was nearly between Hannah’s legs, and asked how long she’d be in town, if she wanted to get a drink sometime. All this despite the fact I was sitting there holding Hannah’s hand. It was as though I were too young to even be seen, let alone accounted for.

Back in our room, I fumed over the way I’d been treated, about how things couldn’t go on that way, until she pulled me into bed and surprised me by agreeing. Stunned, I lay beside her while she ended us, saying things like, “You’re nineteen. You need to be with someone your own age, and I should probably be with someone closer to mine. You’ll miss so many things if you’re with me.”

I curled into a ball, sobbing and not letting her touch me, though her touch was all I wanted. Despite my own doubts, I met that moment with complete disbelief. It had somehow never truly occurred to me that the future I had imagined for us might not play out.

“But I love you so much,” I said, ashamed to hear the movie-husband’s words leave my mouth. Yet I couldn’t help but add, “And you said you loved me, too.”

She took a long breath, her hand hovering above my shoulder before saying the words that marked the end of both my long-held romanticism and dreamy adolescence, “I know. That’s true. But sometimes that’s not enough.”

I drove her back to Logan the next day, dropping her off a full four hours before her flight. She kissed me and I tried to be stoic, forcing myself into the car, pulling away without looking back. A mile down the road, I caved: took the next off-ramp and sped back to the airport. Sprinting to the information desk, I asked after the flight to L.A. My doubts were gone. I was going to find her, along with the words I would say to change her mind.

In those pre-9/11 days, an unticketed passenger could go right to the gate. Suspecting she’d found an earlier flight, I ran for it, getting there just as the final passenger was boarding. I stood, hands curled into useless fists as the jetbridge door closed. I knew Hannah was on that plane, unquestionably, but I still went and looked in every wing of the terminal. I was right, though. She was on it. I never saw her again.

It’s the kind of thing you can’t put in a story because no one would believe it.

* * *

What I did not know as I drove back to school, weeping as though a family member had just died, was that upon graduating I’d write a letter that began, “I’m not even sure if you’ll remember me at this point …” and she’d write back a letter rife with questions and exclamation points and then never write again. I did not know that, for years, having learned just her outline, she would be for me Proust’s transparent envelope to the nth degree, a vessel into which I could imagine whatever was lacking in my partner of the moment. Or that I’d one day look out at a classroom of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, unable to see them as anything more than smart kids just past childhood, that I’d struggle not to question her too much on that score, attributing what happened between us to a beautiful fluke, a midsummer’s night kind of a thing.

I know now, through friends, that she’s married, that her wife is beautiful. But, still, I wonder if Hannah ever thinks of me.

I do, of her. Not as a long lost love—not anymore, but because during that summer she helped me find a way into my life, to not just imagine and plan, but to act. Images from that time stay with me, indelible. Like the night the summer’s final full moon rose above the cliffs and I returned to High Exposure. Full-moon climbing was a local tradition and, in full observation of that tradition, I climbed wearing nothing but shoes, a harness, and a headlamp. For the first fifty feet, my visibility was limited to the headlamp’s thin beam of light, making the surrounding trees and sky seem vast in comparison. The rope trailed down to a ground I could soon no longer see. Topping the treeline, the moon finally found me and I snapped off the light. The rock glowed gray-green, flashing with traces of quartz. Each hold was still warm from the day, redolent with the rich smells of earth and pine. I could hear only my breathing and the faint music from a hillside home. It seemed just minutes before I reached the first ledge.

Pausing to re-secure my harness, its heavy waistband dug into my bare hips, my thighs, making me aware of all that was left uncovered. But unlike my first time on that route, as I climbed toward The Move, I felt confident and strong. I reached back and caught the wide lip of rock, released my left hand, and swung into darkness. Bringing my left hand up to partner my right, I hung there for a moment and looked around. The moon was so big it looked like it could swallow the sky. I heard Sexton’s voice, that moon too bright forking through the bars to stick me with a singing in the head, and felt the air sheathe my skin. I thought of her then, of how being with Hannah allowed me to glimpse a future in which words mattered, in which a life with a woman was possible.

Then I pulled in my feet and began to climb, wishing every moment could be half as real as that one.

__________

Jessica Jacobs teaches literature and writing at Hendrix College and University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She received her MFA in Poetry from Purdue University, where she served as the Editor-in-Chief of Sycamore Review. Her poems and essays have most recently appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, CALYX, Rattle, and The Los Angeles Review. (jessicalgjacobs.com)

Photos of Jessica Jacobs courtesy of author.

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September 25, 2010

Review by John FreemanVeins by Larry Johnson

VEINS
by Larry Johnson

David Robert Books
P.O. Box 541106
Cincinnati, OH 45254-1106
ISBN 978-1934999691
2009, 108 pp., $18.95
www.davidrobertbooks.com

As a long-time fan of his poetry, it was with a great sense of delight that I read and re-read Larry Johnson’s long-awaited first book, Veins. The reviews I’ve seen so far have dealt primarily with the recurring themes in these poems, and the book is heavily thematic. However, I want to focus on the remarkable poetic craft Johnson exhibits in this book.

When I read a Larry Johnson poem, the first thing that leaps out at me is the brilliance of individual lines and passages. I know of very few other contemporary poets who can create such elegance of words and rhythms as Johnson does in nearly every poem. Consider, in “Moorish Idol,” his description of the titular fish’s environment:

          …fanned in sunlight’s saffron brood
Of motes, starred fragments, phototropic veils
Where plankton navigate the warping sails
Of current….

his depiction of a drowning boy’s experience in “Near Eastabuchie, Mississippi”:

          …he looked up, certainly,
and saw his cries become silver globes
as the sky was whirled and sucked
into flawed milkglass—a dense
congealment of light, water, breath.

his image of modern angst in “Mal de Siècle (III)”:

          …our dreams try vainly to soak
Purulent dunes silting the rivers of sleep

And in my favorite poem in the book, “Frozen Danube,” his portrayal of a worshipper suddenly in the presence of the Goddess:

Cybele’s face hid too close—in terror I felt
fine languorous hairs quiver at edges of lips
and a fluence of mouth opening to exhale
excrescence of living clove, salivary nuance of heat
reaching, encroaching, ghostly cerements of touch
in the veined, resinous night….

Not many poets today could get away with using polysyllabic, Greco-Latinate words such as “phototropic,” “purulent,” “excrescence,” etc. But with his exquisitely skillful sense of rhythms and sound repetitions, Johnson unlocks the latent sonorities of these words. They swell with sound like symphonic instruments.

Of the fifty-six poems in Veins, eleven are sonnets. By today’s standards, the word “sonnet” can mean almost anything. A poem does not even have to have fourteen lines to be labeled a sonnet. But Johnson is, for the most part, a classical poet, and the classical sonnet is a specific structure that posits an idea and then funnels it forward to a conclusion that provides satisfactory closure. It is the epitome of rational argument and linear thinking, both of which seem to be anathema to postmodernists.

In fact, most, though not all, of Johnson’s sonnets in the book end with a closing couplet, a rhetorical device that “clenches” the argument and leaves the reader with a strong impression of closure. There is always a danger involved in using a closing couplet, in that it can have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. The trick is to choose the rhyming words with extra care so that, when the moment of truth arrives, they surprise rather than cloy the reader. In “Jean Sibelius Bags a Soviet Plane, 1948,” the Finnish composer vows to destroy the music he is working on if he can bring down a Soviet fighter plane with his rifle. When he succeeds:

          ….Fate’s joke,
He thinks, watching the smeared speck as it burns,
Roils brumy below horizon, its soundless crash
Too soon avenged by his music’s snowclean ash.

In “Last Days of Juvenal,” Rome’s most biting satirist is retiring from the fray, seeking peace and comfort in his old age:

          …he will no longer rage
At Rome as on some cracked column a crow
Might squawk hoarsely at depilated whores
Drifting, like him, toward Caesar’s gilded doors.

And in “Gottschalk in Peru,” the famous pianist is caught in a gun battle between revolutionaries and the army in Lima. When it is over and he comes out of hiding, he is ordered to help gather the bodies as though he were a common peasant:

But now, hands Liszt has envied ripple, splash
Through fountains, glissand a corpse’s limp mustache.

Though many of these poems are free-verse, Johnson is basically a formal poet (one of the old, rather than new, formalists), and in addition to sonnets there are many other rhymed poems, including one in heroic couplets, “Moorish Idol.” Heroic couplets—iambic pentameter lines rhymed aa bb cc, etc.—are especially difficult to pull off in contemporary poetry because the rhymes are so close together and predictable that they can easily overwhelm the content. But Johnson proves his skill with rhyme after rhyme in this poem, never allowing the sound to deafen the sense. The opening couplet immediately establishes the exotic nature of the subject:

Like fleshtrailed moon, the idol of the Moor,
Yellow-phosphored as the Kohinoor

He continues to offer deft rhymes throughout the poem, such as:

          …it dies
At the first touch of tainted water, plies
Belly upwards…

all the way to the closing couplet:

They reject both parching fluxes of emotion
Which lack the rationality of ocean.

“Organic” rhymes of this sort (in which there is a syntactical and/or rhetorical connection between the words) reinforces the relationship between sound and sense.

There are also numerous poems in blank verse. In these, Johnson reveals his virtuosity with rhythms and word sounds, mostly by counterpointing the expected rhythmical patterns. Here are some excellent examples:

as the fuzzy star foretold the lingering deaths
of Art Nouveau, icebergs of privilege—
and the music of an undead century
shrieked as it was heated to plasma and streamed.

(“Under Halley”)

Note the way “lingering” slows down the line, and how the anapests at the end, along with the long e assonance, speeds it back up, almost like water coming to a boil.

Near Carrhae in the desert he stopped for relief
where palms slanted athwart a scythe of moon

(“Death of Caracalla”)

Because the trochee “slanted” replaces the normal iamb, the entire line seems to slant like the trees.

…as the gasses seething our lungs to crackling husks
and the boiling sludge enveloped us with the sound
of vast black mothwings beating on the sun.

(“Red Skeletons of Herculaneum”)

The repetition of gutturals in the first line and plosives in the last two create astonishing effects of sound reinforcing sense.

Even his free-verse poems are musical, imbued with what Eliot referred to as “the ghost of a rhythm.”:

Darkness coming again here in Paris,
weary, like me, of the world’s cigarettes and absinthe:
thin trees begin to pencil the fog
as streetlights weave their web of graygreen light.
“Morte d’Oscar”

I loved you, Nephthys, beside the slain Nile.
Your body then was soft papyrus
and your breath sweet oil.

(“Egyptian Love Poem”)

In addition to his technical prowess, Johnson has composed a formidable array of effective metaphors. In “Hangover in Memory of James Wright,” the speaker describes the aftereffects of a night of heavy drinking:

Arid, spumy spit clouds from my mouth
like spider sacs.

In “Gottschalk in Peru,” as the composer dives into a cellar to escape a raging gun battle:

          …curled up, he dreams
The ricochets above are indiscreet
Piano notes spalling a savage salon.

In “Trajan at the Persian Gulf,” the emperor complains:

But there is no water for my legions here
in the River Tigris’ crotch, where her freshness becomes
a saline marsh….

In “Egyptian Love Poem,” the speaker describes the plague that killed so many:

Then fever came and passed like many leopards.
Egypt’s green entrail was gnawed out.

And in “Frozen Danube,” the Roman poet Claudian sees a dire omen:

A comet, one of those glazy flaring thorns
that stab the night increasingly…

We live, unfortunately, in an age in which true craft has largely been ignored or forgotten. I know, I know, the word “craft” is bandied about everywhere, but it has a false ring to it, like an out-of-tune piano or a drummer who can’t get the beat right (which is how too much contemporary poetry sounds). On the other hand, in these poems Larry Johnson has proven himself a master of traditional craft. For those who still have an ear for superb music in poetry, I highly recommend Veins.

____________

John Freeman is a retired teacher living in Harvey, Louisiana. His poetry has appeared in numerous magazines, including Rattle. He is the author of three books of poetry. He can be contacted at: thisisjohnf@juno.com.

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June 4, 2010

T. S. Davis

THE RECRUDESCENCE OF THE MUSE: ONE POET’S JOURNEY

Freedom is only truly freedom when it appears against
the background of an artificial limitation.
          —T. S. Eliot

Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and
muthafucking rhyme.
          —George Clinton

I went through graduate school in poetry under the workshop paradigm that came to dominance in the 1960s as a result of professors who had rejected formal verse for free verse in their own writing. The thinking was that there was no need to teach the outdated metrical rules, forms, and techniques of traditional poetry because rhyme and meter had been replaced universally by free verse. In many cases, this resulted in an abdication of teaching altogether and the professor became simply a workshop facilitator for the many student voices who critiqued each other’s work. This was a qualitative change in the study of prosody which is the study of rhythm, rhyme, meter, stress, and language in poetry. For the first time, poets were being trained to be poets without being taught the traditional techniques of writing poetry. I could understand the teaching of the techniques of free verse in place of rhyme and meter, but free verse prosody itself seemed to be in its exuberant infancy, and still not well defined, despite 100 years of Whitman’s progeny. So no system of versification, whether traditional or modern, was taught. The only prosody I learned was that of my fellow graduate students as we sat around and talked about our poems and how to write them. For two decades afterwards, by default, I wrote free verse poetry pretty much exclusively.

Except that I also wrote songs and was the singer for several rock bands. As I brought my poetry skills to bear on my lyrics, the use of meter and rhyme in my songs began to influence my poetry. Soon, even without music, I found myself counting measures and stresses and enjoying a newfound strength in the implosive power of a more formal prosodic structure. The line between my poems and songs began to blur as more frequently I took poems and adapted them to rhyming lyrics.

I remember looking at one of my older poems one day. It had been written back in the graduate school workshop almost twenty years before. Out of habit, I scanned the unrhymed lines to determine the rhythm pattern. To my surprise and revelation, I had written a perfect iambic pentameter blank verse poem at a time when I prided myself as a rebel against convention. Iambic pentameter is a line of ten syllables with the rhythmic stress on every other syllable, for a total of five stresses or beats per line.

Although there are many other rhythm patterns, iambic pentameter poetry constitutes the overwhelming majority of all English poetry written prior to the twentieth century. The fact that I could unconsciously but flawlessly write an entire poem using that rhythm made me think that somehow it was not just an artificial construction but one of the natural and fundamental rhythms of the English language, maybe even its heartbeat. Yet as a poet, I was ignorant of how to consciously manipulate it, or any of the other accoutrements of traditional prosody, to my own ends. At that moment, I knew this had to change if I were to grow as a poet. I could not afford to ignore what had been so painstakingly learned and perfected by generations of poets before me. To figure out where poetry was going, I felt I had to know where it was coming from. Or as Eliot put it, “There is no escape from metre; there is only mastery.”

That was the day I started teaching myself the prosody that had its antecedents in old Anglo-Saxon—the language modern English grew out of—the prosody that was born in Chaucer, and then refined through Shakespeare, Pope, Keats, and countless others. I realized I had accepted the benefits of the new without bothering to learn the lessons of the old.

At the same time, in the late 1980s, I was also beginning to listen to hip hop under the influence of my young nephew, who was still in high school, and had made it his goal to open his old rocker uncle’s ears to the new sound by sending tape after tape of his favorite groups. I was often amazed. Present were many of the elements of free verse prosody wedded to heavily cadenced rhyme: vocal presence or persona, wordplay, the specificity of vocabulary first engineered by Whitman, speed and breath control, the most personal of details jumbled with broad political swipes, braggadocio and humor, repetition and litany, all tied together with heavy meter and rhyme.

I started scanning the lyric sheets from Public Enemy and other groups. There were lots of metrically irregular lines, but iambic pentameter and tetrameter (four beats per line) tended to predominate. The traditional metrical “rules” were broken wide open, such as the prohibition against rhyming unstressed or weak syllables. In fact, what was considered frivolous and even clownish in traditional rhyming was the mark of highest skill in hip hop—the rhyming of words with multiple syllables or all the syllables of a multi-syllabic word being rhymed with a run of shorter words. Several slant or off rhymes could be used to “evolve” a rhyme into a completely different rhyming sound in the course of several lines. Enunciation could be exaggerated to make assonant and consonant rhymes prominent. These last two skills are what make Eminem such an amazing rapper, for instance. Traditional prosody tries to hide end rhyme with enjambment, making sure the sentence does not end with a rhyming word at the end of a line, but instead wraps into the next line. This hides the sound of the end rhyme in the middle of the sentence. But in hip hop prosody, the rhyme is proudly emphasized. In fact, overwhelming the listener with a plethora of rhyming sounds is much of the point in hip hop.

How ironic that as free verse prevailed from mid-century onward, it took a group of artists from outside the academy, way outside, from America’s black ghettoes, to revolutionize poetic prosody irrevocably, despite their lack of acknowledgement from the academy even today. I think the academy preferred to set up the more pedantic of the New Formalists as a less dangerous paper tiger to argue against. At least the New Formalists flattered the academy by desiring recognition from it. But doctrinaire fascination with traditional technique, combined with contempt for Modernism, made the New Formalists an easier target to be labeled reactionary, thus discrediting their return to form.

So the true innovators in the resurgence of formalism were the rappers who embraced the power of rhythm and rhyme but radically transformed both to meet the needs of their content, breaking and making rules as they went. Being outside the academy, the full impact of their influence has yet to be felt. But it eventually will be, in the same way, for instance, that Bob Dylan and John Lennon tangentially influenced an earlier generation of poets. The impact has already been fully felt among younger poets, slam poets, and performance poets in general who eagerly use the full toolbox of techniques available to them including meter and rhyme. One prominent example of this new type of poet who commands respect in hip hop and academic circles is Saul Williams.

Ironically, some in the academy complain that this formalism among rappers and young performance poets has occurred without conscious awareness or appreciation of traditional English prosody. They may have a point. But they can’t have it both ways. As guardians of the canon, they hid the keys to the toolbox and then complained that the keys were stolen.

T. S. Eliot himself had predicted that the free verse experiments of Modernism would eventually lead poets back to formalism. He saw the deviation from traditional prosody as a necessary corrective, as a “contrast between fixity and flux, this unperceived evasion of monotony, which is the very life of verse.” Presumably, the same fate of monotony would eventually befall free verse itself without an infusion of formalism for contrast. Eliot explains himself best in his essay “Reflections on Vers Libre” from which the quotes above are taken. But he demonstrates his concept of contrasting fixity with flux most demonstrably in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”

A couple of years ago, I was asked back to my undergraduate alma mater for a poetry reading and to sit in on a class taught by my old mentor, the poet Ron Bayes. Ron is an excellent teacher. He is a Modernist, an Imagist, a Pound scholar, and completely eclectic in his aesthetic tastes. What little I knew about formalism before graduate school I had learned from him as an undergraduate when he had made me write in all the major forms, much to my grumbling and dislike at the time.

The class was discussing “Prufrock” that day and I was expected to provide them with some insight into the master. I had dusted off my slim volume of Eliot in preparation and reread the poem for the hundredth time. But since the last time I had read it, I had written about 75 Shakespearian sonnets. A sonnet is typically a fourteen line poem of iambic pentameter meter with a strict end rhyming pattern. The type of sonnet written by Shakespeare always ends with a rhyming couplet. So my eye was trained to take in fourteen lines at a gulp. My mouth dropped open as I read the first stanza, composed of twelve lines, followed by a space, and then the famous rhyming couplet, “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo,” for a total of fourteen lines.

This was something I had read many times, but never really recognized for what it is. Eliot opened “Prufrock” with an embedded sonnet! Can this really be, I thought? I scanned ahead. The next time the famous couplet appears in the poem, it’s also preceded by a discrete stanza of twelve lines. Quickly I looked back to the beginning sequence to scan the meter. Four beats, five beats, six beats, three beats per line, and so on, irregular regularity, the way some heartbeats are classified. Taking into account slant rhyme and off rhyme, I scanned the sonnets this way. The first I artificially broke into lines of three, tercets, to make the rhyme structure more obvious: AAB CCB BDD EFF GG. For the second I used the traditional quatrain, lines of four, to the same purpose: ABCA BDCD EFFE GG. From these scansions, it was clear to me that Eliot fully knew what he was doing. Continuing to read through, I found other remnants of form, pieces of potential sonnets, but never again complete fourteen line poems.

I pointed all this out to the class, using a chalk board to demonstrate, letting them sound out the beats and rhymes. It seemed to be a revelation to them as well. I suggested that this poem was the object lesson of the place Eliot occupied in poetry. He relied heavily on forms, but shattered them for contrast, for fluidity, for the sake of the poem rising out of the ruins of what had gone before. I suggested the class look at the poem structurally as a tightly controlled explosion of form to counter the prevailing view that Eliot wrote outside of form, or formlessly. I suggested his work echoed the cubism of Picasso, built upon and growing out of the representation that preceded it, but deconstructing it, taking it apart and exposing its architecture to suggest that what we take for granted as natural is really just the bias of familiarity. The poem demonstrated Eliot’s point in its transmogrification of the old into the new. Eliot knew the old rules. But he had the street cred and the balls to break them.

Eliot’s concept is not that far from Robert Frost’s notion: “Work easy in harness.”

When I started my self-study of traditional English prosody, I set myself the task of learning the old rules, the old forms, with the clear intention of using what I learned to push my own poetry into the future, to build on the prosody of the canon, including the prosody of free verse incidentally, but to “Make it new,” in the words of Ezra Pound. What I did not anticipate, but probably should have, was that the form would also make me new.

In my own writing, primarily Shakespearian sonnets now, I often deviate from the traditional metrical rules of accentual syllabic poetry by using a looser and freer scansion that conforms to my own idiosyncratic modern ear. Instead of parsing each arcane type of metrical unit (and practically every rhythmic deviation from iambic pentameter has a name), I count the overall beats in the line in much the same way it was done in Old English or Anglo-Saxon, the predecessor to Modern English. In my prosody, any number of unstressed syllables can be glossed over because what really matters is that strong thumping beat, similar to the sprung rhythm of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And like Geoffrey Chaucer, who basically “invented” iambic pentameter by combining the heavily stressed beats of Anglo Saxon with the syllabic poetry of his day, I have no prohibition on using a four beat or six beat line as needed. In fact, I often use the hexameter or Alexandrine couplet (six beats per line) for the final rhyming couplet of a sonnet. If the Alexandrine line divides naturally into two tercets, I find that the rhythm signals a distinctive counterpoint to the preceding pentameter. It slows down the reading and creates a visceral change in emotional content.

My cobbled aesthetic creates its own acceptance problems when I submit my poems for publication. On the one hand, I’ve received letters from editors who heartily objected to my formalism. On the other hand, I’ve received letters from editors who heartily objected to my cavalier notions of scansion when all my lines were not perfect iambic pentameter. I’ve found my work is often considered too formal for the free verse mags, too ragged for the formal mags. But what I find particularly comical are some of the descriptions of what an editor is looking for in Poet’s Market. Often an editor will say that if a submission is rhymed, it must be of the “highest quality,” whereas no such demand is enjoined on free verse. Apparently mediocre free verse submissions are less suspect and welcomed. Editors also ask that no “greeting card verse” be submitted, but apparently no restrictions apply to unrhymed free verse doggerel.

When I was a young man, I was much more confident about my ideas of the world and the impact I intended to have on the world. I had no doubt that my art, obscure as it was at the time, would one day take its place in the great canon of literature. I had all the time in the world to make it so. But now, at the age of sixty, I no longer have that time, and I certainly haven’t received the level of accolade that as a young man I had anticipated would automatically follow the recognition of what I naively thought was my undeniable talent. It has not helped me, of course, to buck the dominant academic paradigm of free verse with my turn to an invented formalism in late career. I look back wistfully, not so much with regrets, as with the desire to be able to talk to that young man, to tell him some things I have learned about the nature of life, and of poetry.

But looking back, I also realize I didn’t have much to say then in my poetry that wasn’t just an extension of my fairly rigid ideology. The older I got the less confident I was and the more I understood how little I knew about the world and how little my work is likely to influence the world. Paradoxically, now I seem to have more to say and I’m a better writer than I’ve ever been, though less well known than I once was. Somehow one needs to know less to know more.

I often think about the story of Antonin Artaud. He sent some poems to an editor who basically told him they sucked. Artaud struck up a correspondence with him, vehemently defending and explaining in prose pieces his rejected poems. The editor replied that the poems still sucked but that his defense of them—full of angst and passion and paradox—was brilliant, and he wanted permission to publish it. Those pieces became the prose poetry for which Artaud is most revered today. And his rejected poems still suck!

What this says to me is that beneath the assertion, is the real question.

I toyed with rhyme and meter for years, working it into my poems, creating new forms of my own fancy. And then one day in 2002, under the influence of a cobalt blue Arizona sky, alcohol, and John Keats, I took a leap and started writing Shakespearian sonnets, one after the other, exclusively. The first ones were like a child’s finger-painting, full of spirit, but naïve, as I was somewhat ignorant of what I had undertaken. But the sonnets came one after another, usually one a week, for months, and I was exhilarated. After a couple dozen, I thought if Shakespeare could write 154 of these suckers, then I can write 155! And so I set myself the juvenile task of doing just that. As stupid as that may sound, it has often been a motivator for me when nothing else was. I just recently broke through 100 sonnets, some good, some bad, but I continue to write them. But the better I get at writing sonnets, which is another way of saying the better I become at understanding the form of the sonnet, the harder they become to write, and the longer they take.

From the beginning what really surprised me was this: I didn’t know where they were coming from.

When I started writing poetry over 40 years ago, I wrote all free verse. I was making up all the rules then under the influence of the Modernists, deciding the shape or shapelessness of each poem according to what I needed to express myself, yet much of what I wrote then tended to sound the same. My content determined my form. And there is a point of view that says that is as it should be, that form should serve content.

But now, 40 years later, I come to the same template for each poem—fourteen lines of iambic pentameter with a rigid rhyme scheme—yet I am continually amazed at how different each sonnet can end up sounding, at how this form can put the poetry under such intense pressure and yield such different results.

I’m also amazed at what I end up saying because usually I’m six to eight lines into the sonnet before I know what the poem is actually about, such are the hidden alleyways that rhyme and form lead you through. Toi Derricotte, in an interview in Rattle, once said, “I think a lot of times poems know things that we’re not ready to know yet, and we write the poem and then we figure it out.”

And even when I do know, I never know how it will end until it just does, because the rhyme controls where it goes. And that’s really odd because there is no stronger nor assertive couplet in English prosody than lines thirteen and fourteen of a Shakespearian sonnet. How could one start a sonnet not knowing where it’s going but knowing that twelve lines later a lyrical certainty, an epigram of unimpeachable elegance, would be required?

What this says to me is that beneath the question, is the real assertion.

It also says that my form determines my content.

Or maybe something else does, masquerading as form.

At the risk of waxing mystical, I must admit that writing sonnets has rejuvenated my belief in what the ancients called the Muse. Sonnets can be incredibly labor intensive and agonizing to write. So “finding” my way through the maze that the form creates, eliminating one rhyming dead end after another yet eventually coming out the other end, all gives me the strong intuitive feeling that I have been guided, led, coaxed into places I would not normally go by the “form” and made to discover what seems to have already and always existed. The more well wrought the sonnet, the more organic it feels, the harder it is to imagine a time when it did not exist.

This is a shock for a long time materialist such as myself. I do not pretend to understand it. I often feel like a translator of an ancient language no one else speaks with an incumbency to ensure the received wisdom is meticulously transcribed and correct. I never really felt that way writing free verse. Writing free verse, I often felt the exhilaration of what Kerouac called “spontaneous composition” when a free verse piece seemed to burst forth from nowhere completed on first writing with little or no editing needed. But I never felt the deep laborious ache that resolves so beautifully at the end of writing a good sonnet.

I have learned a few things about Shakespearian sonnets, commensurate with my modest chops. I usually start with a line I really like. Since I usually don’t know what I’m doing, I might as well start with something I like. There is absolute freedom in that first line, in fact, in the first two lines. But after that, the direction is dictated by the rhyme. If you’re used to writing free verse, this will come as a shock to you. You will need to learn to follow, not lead, or you will quickly find yourself down a rhymeless dead end, a babbling cul de sac, and have to hit the backspace key over and over until you’ve eaten that first line or two you loved and you’re staring at blank paper again. That’s when what you thought this sonnet was about crumbles and you realize George Clinton nailed it: “Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and rhyme. Rhythm and muthafucking rhyme.” At that point you have a choice to make: quit, or trust the form to show you where to go.

Years ago, when I told a poet friend I was writing sonnets, he said that he assumed I was writing a free verse poem first and then manipulating it to make the shoe fit. I just laughed at the fanciful notion that I could impose the sonnet onto a poem. No, instead, the sonnet allows entrance—what you do inside determines whether you’re worthy of the form. It doesn’t conform to you; you conform to it.

But even with the form pulling you in the direction of a particular rhyming sound, the choices of where you can go in the labyrinth of the sonnet are still pretty much inexhaustible. Yet like the I Ching, the wisdom a sonnet can reveal as you write it is often serendipitous.

You may choose to bleed a sentence from the first quatrain into the second quatrain at line five in a Shakespearian sonnet, and that’s okay, but unless you wish to drive yourself crazy, truly crazy, trust me, put a period at the end of line eight. The first eight lines set up the problem. Line nine is “the turn,” and like “the river” in poker, fortunes should change, possibilities appear, or more in keeping with the extended metaphor, you should feel the centrifugal force of going too fast around a hairpin curve. So like Shakespeare himself, start line nine with a nice qualifier, such as but, or yet, or at least start a new sentence to signal your reader that change is coming.

You’ve now only got four lines to solve your dilemma. By now, the sonnet should have revealed to you what it’s about, what problem you are trying to resolve. Only four lines are left to basically end the poem, the first time, that is. Most sonnets have an organicity, a degree of resolution, by the end of line twelve. But it ain’t over yet: the biggest challenge of any Shakespearian sonnet is the final rhyming couplet.

The word sonnet in Italian means “little song.” And it is that, but “little” is also deceptive. A sonnet is little in the way a firecracker is little or in the way a toddler squalling his heart out on the floor is little. I think of the sonnet as a pattern of energy tightly pressurized and shaped by the tight constraints of the form. Eliot’s injunction of an “artificial limitation” is relevant again. At the risk of sounding ludicrous, I compare a sonnet to the internal combustion engine. Gasoline will always burn, but if you add a spark to a mixture of gasoline and air inside a cylinder, the resulting explosion is shaped by the cylinder and directed toward the end where a piston moves. It is the constraint of energy that creates the power. In a sonnet, that constrained energy is directed toward the final rhyming couplet, and the power, the tension, is released there. The couplet is no denouement. It is a full on climax, in every nuance of the word.

The final rhyming couplet is why I write Shakespearian sonnets instead of Petrarchan sonnets. Those two lines can be some of the most powerful and elegant lines in English poetry. They definitively end the sonnet on a much higher level of meaning than line twelve, while often standing alone at the same time as though a rarefied form of English haiku: “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.”

A sonnet needs its couplet, but a couplet can often lead its own life. Any of us would be proud to be included in the canon for a body of work, for a book, or for a single poem. I would settle for a single rhyming couplet, cut off from its sonnet and author, anonymous and unattributed, quoted by unknown speakers at funerals, weddings, toasts, in bars, or in moments of triumph or despair. Is there any higher calling than to put your words on the tongue of the world? That is what the couplet should strive for, that is what anyone as a writer of sonnets should live for.

Unless of course…the couplet is crap. My best critic is Sue, my partner of twenty-five years. I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve thought I was done with a new sonnet, exhilarated that I had stumbled through it gracefully somehow without it all falling apart, and allowing myself to rise after hours of rearranging approximately 125 odd words to read it aloud to her, only to have her say something like: “You know I really like it—up until the last two lines. Somehow they feel a little weak to me. You need to rework them.”

Dejected, intoxicated with rhyme, I’d return to my desk and try once more to fashion two elegant lines, for hours if need be. I try not to stop until I’m done—I don’t dare risk the loss of momentum because I already have too many twelve line sonnets in want of one good couplet sitting stranded and helpless in a digital doc. And if I feel the Muse is listening, real or imagined, you can bet I will continue to quietly sing my “little song,” to whisper my rhymes into the ear of the Muse. I also know that if it comes too easily, somehow it’s not earned. When a breakthrough finally arrives, from somewhere, nowhere, often simple, or obvious, or understated, no matter how tired I am, and sonnets are exceedingly laborious, I feel elated, relieved, awed, overwhelmed, and most interestingly, grateful, not for something I’ve done, but for something I’ve discovered. Any pride I may feel is on behalf of the beauty of the sonnet itself.

As a young man I tried to show the world something that I thought was coming from me. Now I try to show the world something I have found. It can be argued that literary vision is different for the young than for the old. The young choose their ideas and try to change the world with them. And that is good. The old allow the world to change their ideas. And that is good.

Yet I would argue that the path one takes is continuous. The choices you make today are the basis for whom you will become tomorrow. Just as the person you were as a child is still within you, so the person you have not yet become exists within you as well. Just as the person you are today has answers to the questions you asked when you were young, the person you have not yet become has answers to the questions you are asking today. So a conversation with your past and your future is entirely appropriate, necessary, and for poets, that conversation occurs in poetry.

But I do not mean to suggest the way to Nirvana is to ensconce yourself in traditional forms like the sonnet. After all, you are who you are, so “Come as you are,” in the words of Kurt Cobain. In fact, your view of the world and your character may lead you to destroy old forms and invent new ones in the same way Whitman used free verse as an axe to splinter nineteenth century prosody. If the Muse is poetry idealized, then as times change, so must the ideal—the Muse always demands the new. As poets we all need to be cognizant that the new tradition Whitman founded is still the dominant paradigm today and retains the faint aura of insurrection though it is now over 150 years old. No longer the revolution, free verse is now the status quo. And the Muse?—the Muse is bored, has been for a long time.

New art, whatever form it takes, can be brutal when it finally breaks free, suppressing what came before in order to gain dominance. But it also builds on top of what it obliterates. The Modernists ransacked the past for their influences, and they chose well: Greek literature, Japanese and Chinese poetry, the troubadours, Dante, the English Metaphysical poets, among others. What’s important now is not whom they chose, but that they chose. Because that is the task that faces us. All poets before us have stood precisely at the crossroads we now face. We would be stupid to ignore their counsel. Without their work, however antiquated by current popular tastes, our own prosody would not exist. Any true formal revolution in poetry will be a step into the future, not the past. But it is the fixity of the past that distinguishes the flux of the future.

What transcends time and form is the ancient heartbeat of our Mother Tongue, old Anglo Saxon. It beats now strong, now faint, now regular, now irregular, but it beats still today in line after line of your poetry and mine. We can choose to palpate it, or not. But as Chaucer put it, “The lyfe so short, the craft so long to lerne.”

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T. S. DAVIS is the author of two books of poetry, Sun + Moon Rendezvous and Criminal Thawts. He lives in Asheville, NC.

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June 3, 2009

Rod Miller

A BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO COWBOY POETRY, OR, WHO’S THE GUY IN THE BIG HAT AND WHAT IS HE TALKING ABOUT?

Long, long ago in a land called Texas, unemployed soldiers from the recent War Between the States rounded up herds of wild cattle and trailed them north to feed a hungry nation. Evenings along the way, as the sun set romantically in the west, the boys gathered and, accompanied by a crackling fire and the howl of coyotes, recited for one another rhymes composed during long hours in the saddle, set to the rhythms of creaking leather, rattling dewclaws, and drumming hoofbeats. Being illiterate, these poets of the prairies passed their recitations from mouth to ear, ear to mouth, mouth to ear, all down the generations in an unbroken oral chain. Still today, these roughshod rhymes are recited wherever folks in wide-brim hats and high-top boots gather.

And so goes the story called Cowboy Poetry.

It’s a touching story, the stuff of legends. Which it is, mostly. (more…)

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