February 4, 2023

Virgil Suárez

AXIOM OF THE OUTSIDER

Sometimes you surrender to your destiny,
a scratched-torn cardboard suitcase, black

as your shadow, places where travel seems
uncertain, these dead-hour porches, parasols

snapped shut like the lips of your dead lover.
What hardens in you keeps you hungry,

though your tongue can no longer taste
bitter coffee or recoil from a salted cracker.

These are, in fact, the last days of your spent
youth. Look at the tattered map, if you must—

those lines converging can only spell trouble.
The road ahead turns as dark as your days.

from Rattle #22, Winter 2004

_________

Virgil Suárez: “When I’m not writing, I’m restoring a ’55 Chevy with which I plan to visit my favorite poets across North America and make a film documentary.” (web)

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February 3, 2023

Martin Vest

NORMAL IN WYOMING

from a letter to Jay

My doctor says I’m doing fine. He tells me everything
is normal. Honestly, I no longer know how to rattle him,
and it scares me. I miss the days when my physical 
problems were unusual for my age. As you know, 
I walked with a cane by the time I was forty-five. 
Everyone knew it wasn’t normal. Everyone knew it 
was the result of an injury. Now people just expect it. 
Women look at me as if I’m a starter home they can’t 
believe they once lived in. I miss my wife. My ex-wife. 
My second ex-wife. But when I remember touching her
I imagine my now-hand on her then-body and I shudder. 
I mean, just wait until you see the thing. My hand. Good god 
and my nipples. Not that I’ll show you. But wow! 
And they droop and kind of reach out, somehow eager 
and worried at the same time. Like a tourist at Sea World 
puckering for a kiss from a dolphin. My breasts, in general. 
They’re breasts now. And I have throatum. A portmanteau 
I made of “throat” and “scrotum.” Because that’s exactly 
what it looks like. You know the thing. Like Ronald Reagan’s. 
All the irony is gone from my hat. The On Golden Pond hat 
I used to wear. I still wear it but now it’s just befitting. 
Sometimes I think I’ll buy another, a different style, 
but then I just think why bother. There’s no getting that back. 
The last time I saw my doctor I told him. He was politely 
trying to usher me out of his office. So I stopped 
in the doorway. I stood up, kind of sputtered up my cane 
like a spark up a damp fuse, and I lingered, and I decided 
to mention about the weird screaming and hissing 
in my legs where the liquor did the damage. 
I finally said, “My legs … I can’t quite reach them, somehow. 
They feel like radio stations in the middle of Wyoming.” 
He just kind of half-smiled and eased me into the hall.
That’s perfectly normal, he said.
 

from Rattle #78, Winter 2022

__________

Martin Vest: “Sometimes just the mention of ‘poem’ brings unwanted baggage, unwelcome pressure. I don’t feel that crap when I’m writing a letter to a friend.”

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February 2, 2023

CooXooEii Black

MY UNCLE TEACHES ME ABOUT PRAYER

the early blue-sky bird sings
and in my half-sleep i say
hohou!
my uncle taught me “thank you”
is prayer in and of itself.
 
the first sip of morning coffee,
a long day’s work, a rise-before-the-sun hunt,
old country, and pepsi cans.
hohou!
 
the russian olive tree
reveals yellow flowers
against red bark.
tribal workers leave early,
a slow evening.
hohou hohou!
in the distance a dog,
always a dog barking,
you come to hear one
even if there isn’t.
 
my uncle asks for help.
a tool, a truck,
some money, or laughter.
after hitting an animal
with his gold 1990s hyundai,
i give him gold duct tape.
 
the dragging part of his front bumper
taped up by a star.
hohou hohou!
us arapahos always use symmetry in our art, he says.
 
the sun sneaks behind the mountain
as someone tells a joke.
everyone erupts into laughter.
there’s water ambiance just beyond the road.
kids swim in a ditch
and it flows green and alive.
no, wait.
it’s a river.
hohou hohou!
 
my cousin is tired of the rust
eating his bike.
i offer him the gold duct tape to cover his frame.
hohou hohou!
he says, partly to me,
partly to God because he provided again.
it won’t stay golden forever i tell him
but right now it looks bright
in the moon’s budding grey.
 

from The Morning You Saw a Train of Stars Streaking Across the Sky

__________

CooXooEii Black: “I’ve always been interested in emotionally compelling stories, whether it was music, movies, or tv. I constantly got into trouble in elementary school for telling stories, singing songs, and acting. Then in high school, I watched a spoken word video, and for the first time, I found a medium that incorporated everything I love to do. So I put a few images down on a page, and I haven’t stopped since. Because it was God who gave me the ability to write, I daily return it to Him as a form of worship.” (web)

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February 1, 2023

John Richard Smith

REGRET TATTOOS

The tattoo artist said 
everyone with multiple tattoos 
has at least one regret tattoo, 
slip a thumb in a belt loop, 
yank down their jeans a bit, 
and voilà! an infinity sign 
their best friend inked in 
with a safety pin weeks before 
they stopped speaking 
or a murky scorpion 
submerged below the surface 
of their hip where the sleaziest 
tattoo parlor on the planet 
stumbled into the drunkest 
night of their life. 
If there isn’t a blurry rose 
behind an ear or a small, 
fuzzy heart on a tit 
that looks like a bloody tick, 
then a jagged butterfly 
or crooked spider 
made from someone’s initials 
stands corrected 
on a shoulder. 
Skin sags over time, 
the pirate skull’s jaw drops—
not so badass anymore—
and sooner or later, 
even the best quotes 
wear thin like tires, 
and translating 
the ones in Latin
becomes wearisome 
and anticlimactic.
Then the regrets 
wear out as well, 
until all tattoos 
are simply stops 
the person has made
along their way,
and their body 
no more than the package
handled, tracked, 
and postmarked
before being delivered to them 
where they are 
when they already own 
what’s inside.
 

from Rattle #78, Winter 2022

__________

John Richard Smith: “My daughter, Tara, was talking with her younger sister, Sam, one night about their tattoos, bad tattoos, tattoos friends wish they didn’t have—regret tattoos, Tara called them. Sam asked Tara if she had any regret tattoos. Tara shrieked, ‘All of them!’ Then laughed and said, ‘And none of them.’ The next morning, I wrote this poem.”

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January 31, 2023

Ron Riekki

I’M LYING IN BED NOW

after having taken an aspirin
and googling about my heart,
how it could be acid reflux or
a heart attack (big difference)
or a panic attack and it’s ice
in there, left side of my chest,
how ‘sinister’ etymologically
comes from “on the left side,”
the liberal side, my body un-
able to take all the politics of
this world, or not this world,
this country, how everything
here is split in half, and every
conversation binary, and it’s
as if everything is black and
white, or, no, it’s as if every-
thing’s vantablack vs barium
sulfate, the blackest black vs
the whitest white, no shades,
no greys, just these shadows
of manipulation, one of my
neuroscience profs who said
they did an experiment back
when they could still do all
the craziest shit on humans,
and the person was able to
give a jolt to certain parts
of their brain that triggers
different responses. And
they thought the subjects
would over and over keep
stimulating the area that
would give pleasure, but,
no, they discovered that
they loved it when they
would stimulate an area
 
that causes aggression,
the type of anger which
comes from a feeling of
self-righteousness, this
need, like a drug, to be
morally superior, this
craving that maybe we
all have. I say this to my
French girlfriend and she
says, no, it’s American
to feel and act that way,
that it’s part of our two-
party culture, that they
have more than forty
political parties, and
so they have complex
discussions, not us-vs-
them discussions, but
real debate, actual real
differences of opinion,
and she keeps on using
that word: ‘real,’ how
she is sick of ‘reality
TV,’ sick of the way
that the news here,
she says, repeats one
story a thousand times
so that they drill one
perspective into your
mind. And I’m quiet.
And she leaves. And
I’m alone. And my
heart is like kindling,
and in two days she’ll
leave me forever. And
I don’t know this. And
 
I don’t know anything.
 

from Poets Respond
January 31, 2023

__________

Ron Riekki: “I hate the news. I refuse to watch it, at least American news. I’ll watch the BBC, France 24 en direct, DW, CNA. CBC, yes, all of those and more, but American news, to me, honestly, feels like a person choosing which of the two types of brainwashing they want to voluntarily be exposed to. My father had one of the American news stations on and they had repeated their headline all day and then repeated the news story all day, with an incredible repetition. It wasn’t Fox News, but I do remember someone telling me that someone high up at Fox realized that all you have to do is repeat a story enough times and people will believe anything. It feels like all of the American news channels are utilizing those same elements of Fox News now, so none of it feels like actual news. When the main story is another solution-less focus on a high-profile mass shooting followed by a light ‘news’ story on a singer signed to the same company that owns that news show, it feels like, well, I’m over-explaining the poem. It was written after my father had an American news channel on and it felt like every second was spectacular manipulation. A friend of mine told me he used to work in ‘news,’ that they sent him to the house of a person where something horrific had just happened to them. I won’t say what, but they wanted an interview, even if they could just get the person slamming the door in my friend’s face. They could air that. My friend said he got sick to his stomach and couldn’t do it, went back and quit journalism forever, on the spot, even though he’d spent four years getting a degree in it. I wonder if we can’t expect more of the news than what we’re getting and if the whole American conversation could actually become complex, with different points of view allowed to be expressed, without pretending at all times like there are only two views.” (web)

Read by Betsy Baker

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January 30, 2023

Foster Schrader

96th STREET

she lives in a one-bedroom; her cat died last fall. she sat
next to him when they put him to sleep,
but she couldn’t watch the needle entering his front leg.
there’s still a layer of grey fur on the chaise
and she still sometimes finds cans of fancy feast in her supermarket basket,
absentmindedly thrown in by the past.
she lives in a one-bedroom; alone. she thought
about getting a kitten, or a roommate,
but she’s too much of a person to seriously consider
explaining all of her idiosyncrasies to someone new.
peeling back all of her onion layers so they could see
her wobbly bits. she doesn’t even take her cardigan off in public.
she lives in a one-bedroom. she used
to keep her toothbrush in a coffee mug until
a coworker she slept with told her it made her look childish, so
she bought a fancy toothbrush holder with six holes.
she asked the woman at walmart if they had any smaller ones, cheaper
but the look the woman gave her was so drenched in pity
at the idea of not having five people to share a toothbrush holder with
that she bought it to chase away the shame.
her toothbrush looks out of place, surrounded by empty holes.
on bad days, she thinks it’s fitting. 
 

from Rattle #78, Winter 2022

__________

Foster Schrader: “When I was younger, and I blew up balloons, my mom would tell me to take them away from my mouth before I inhaled, because the recycled air was stale. I write to get the words out, and so I can breathe again.”

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January 29, 2023

Kenneth Tanemura

LUNAR NEW YEAR IN HANOI: A HAIBUN

My wife and I are visiting her hometown, Hanoi, to celebrate the Lunar New Year with her parents, sisters, and extended family. The first day of the new year feels anticlimactic after last night’s fireworks, cigars, Italian wine, sweet rice. A few minutes after waking I hear the incessant subtle slow ticking of the clock that depresses me with the feeling of seconds as a unit of time, how limiting that is, cutting out the past, constricting the present, turning the future into oblivion. I saw thousands of peach blossoms being sold by vendors yesterday. They set up their trees and blossoms at West Lake and beyond, and throngs of cars and motorbikes crammed those narrow streets to get a glimpse, to bring something festive home, to brighten a house and the people who live there. People tied the little trees to their motorbikes and sped away, hoping the blossoms would bring them growth, prosperity, love. I think of a haiku with a peach blossom in it:
 
The peach blossoms know nothing
of the language barrier
between mother-and-son-in-law
 
Looking out the window I see that only the part of the building across the street that faces the street is painted. The sides of the building are shorn of façade, of all aspiration towards beauty.
 
First day of the year—
the neighbour’s blue house
has become royal blue
 
I go downstairs to ask my mother-in-law if she needs any help. She always says no, though this time her expression seems to say, “But why didn’t you come down earlier? Don’t lie in bed with your Kindle for heaven’s sake. Don’t you see your wife is tending to the baby on her own?” She doesn’t speak English, only Vietnamese. I accept the validity of her perceptions. Books, art, and music, yes, but what about helping people? I’ve always been better with things. Words on paper are things like the bronze bust of an ancestor with eyes that look past you or within. Not the eyes of a man. For my infant son, the notebook I write on is just another thing to grab, grip, lunge for, maybe eat. But books provide clarity, language for experiences we have no words for, and new experiences we could not have had in any other way. I go out to the garden to see what’s happening there.
 
First day of the year—
how the small grapefruit
bends the branch to water
 
First day of the year—
pond too murky
to see the carp
 
I whistle at the caged guard dog
to calm him, he sniffs the air
in a calming way
 
Used to be I went out with other poets to write haiku, a poetic genre I first learned about from my Japanese mother. Tea garden San Jose. Belonged to haiku clubs. Knew moments, not the bigger picture. Most moments are so-what moments, significant only to the perceiver, but irrelevant to the reader. There are a few that stand out, come rarely, like finding the snowy owl in the park in midwinter. My youth was still as rose bushes, I think. On the outside. Chaos inside, mood swings, dark days. Didn’t know what to do with a life. Am I still immobile, fixed? My mother-in-law is constantly in flux, at the kitchen sink, jumping on the motorbike to peruse flowers at the market, all the way out to West Lake and back. Frenetic pace. She does advanced yoga, and she’s agile as a 30-year-old in her 60s. Everything she does benefits others. The only indulgence she gives herself is an early Sunday morning bowl of pho at a restaurant overlooking Turtle Lake. Before the others wake up and their stomachs grumble for breakfast. Before she cooks, boils, chops, slices, fries, washes, all while catching up with her daughters.
 
Talking gossip. She’s so invested in life and what is life if not the lives of people? Makes me think I got it wrong. Too much literature on the mind. Her husband has wandered out to his writing room, detached from the house, to drink tea, smoke a cigarette, consider if he should write a New Year couplet. He contemplates here in the little snatches of time he can steal from the day’s busywork. He’s formally educated. She didn’t go to college, but she comes from a literary family, a long line of poets and writers in Hanoi. They aren’t opposites and they aren’t conjoined. They are cosmologically interconnected. I want to write a couplet too, but I’m not feeling it—lack of sleep, grey morning, the water run dry.
 
The hens
their necks straight
look in different directions
 
The path around the garden is blocked by low-hanging branches that bear no fruit or flowers. Is that it? Waste of time. Too sullen this morning for anything to open.
 
The flower buds
even on the first day of the year
remain buds
 
Big floppy leaves of a tree I don’t know the name of brushes my head as I walk back to the house. Starfruit dangle enticingly in the cool morning air. My mother-in-law and I are looking for different things: she wants the pure vibrancy of colour to colour over everything. I want the apricot tree that blooms only three weeks at a time, only three times a year, the ones that grace the house for Lunar New Year and are cast off into the corner of the garden later, as if they no longer symbolize gentlemanly purity and elegance unspoiled by greed or cruelty after the first week of the new year is gone. Pure vibrancy of colour. Maybe that’s the right way. To colour over everything. Past that is dissatisfaction. Past that is not life anymore.
 
The Phoenix flowers’
red petals upright on the first
day of a new year
 
Leaving the garden, I go to my father-in-law’s office. My wife encouraged me to visit him there to learn the meaning of the poem he has composed. He has written a one-line poem shorter than haiku, in calligraphy, using Chinese characters. The poem is written on parchment paper with a little string at the top to hang on a hook. The poem reads: “Spring knocks at the gate.” The double meaning is that both spring and family visitors knock at the gate since it’s customary for people to spend the first day of spring visiting relatives. Spring knocks at the gate of a new year and enters. I don’t think it’s right to say that spring is symbolic of family members; neither are the family members emblematic of spring. Spring is tangible and felt: flowers bloom, birds sing, the air grows balmy and a renewed hope, a fresh resolve to give it another go bolsters us in the company of family and friends. Spring is spring, and family visitors are family visitors, yet they are the same thing. The moment you try to turn them into symbols, you lose their meaning. My father-in-law tapes his poem to the front gate, a wide, tall block of metal strong enough to protect a fortress. Yet the public display of a poem calligraphed on fragile paper reflects the true spirit of the people who reside there. When the visitors come, will they see themselves as spring knocking at the gate, or the first day of spring as a version of themselves, waiting to be let in?
 
The first day of spring—
everyone in their best clothes,
their best faces
 
The first day of spring—
in-laws become father and son
writing at the same table
 
The first day of spring—
everyone granted a fresh start
looks beautiful
 
The first day of spring—
we hand our work stress
to the departed year of the tiger
 
We write at the same table, his writing table. He shares his New Year thoughts on social media, and I write haiku on my iPhone. This is the table where he wrote essays about his daughter, my wife. This is the table where he wrote when he was a formidable figure I never met, whose form was fleshed out by my not-yet-wife’s anecdotes, her eyes brightening less from the pleasure of telling a tale than for her love and admiration for her father. The anecdotes were about her father the kung fu teacher, doctor of Chinese medicine, author of bestselling books, poet, calligrapher, son of an important anti-colonialist revolutionary, manager of factories, a guy’s guy, the list went on. “Do you think you can handle the pressure?” she said.
 
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what I was able to handle.
 
Thanks to the miracle of taxidermy and a former student who hunted wolves, he sits on a chair directly in front of a wolf, its head hovering over my father-in-law, which makes him look like a wolf-man, spurred on by the spirit of freedom and instincts. This is his chair alone. “You have to sit facing the wolf if you want to write here,” he said.
 
I face the wolf: those fangs, those enraged eyes, the mouth gaping open as if to snap shut like a guillotine onto a poor elk’s throat, don’t necessarily inspire numinous moments. Still, I focus on the wolf as a symbol of intelligence, communication, and understanding. “We all share a life together,” my father-in-law says, gesturing with a broad sweep of his hand. He grounds my isolate, individualist bearing, and brings me back to the communal, the common ground we all have, and share even more with our families.
 
Going back to the kitchen, I ask my mother-in-law if she needs me to help her with anything. She is the heart and soul of the family. She placed the daffodils that bloom once a year on the table, because they are pretty and symbolize new beginnings. She flung open the big acacia double doors this morning and filled the entrance to the house with violets so they may bring a moment of peace and beauty to the visitors. She feeds the visitors, gives them tea, cleans up the mess they leave and sees them off with a vibrant smile and wishes for good health and success.
 
First day of the new year—
the faces of people
are the faces of peonies
 

from Poets Respond
January 29, 2023

__________

Kenneth Tanemura: “I’m in Hanoi, Vietnam, for the Tet holiday to celebrate with my in-laws. There has been a lot of news coverage about the Lunar New Year holiday celebrations around the world, but somehow I found a lack of coverage in the major American newspapers. Most Americans seem to have a shallow understanding of this very rich and complex experience, which is far more layered and significant than the way Americans celebrate Christmas, for example. I wanted to write something that would illuminate the meaning of this holiday in greater depth.”

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