February 14, 2016

Rattle is proud to announce the winner of the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize Readers’ Choice Award:

Valentina Gnup

Valentina Gnup
Oakland, California
“Morning at the Welfare Office”

The 2015 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize Finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #50 were eligible. Gnup’s poem earned 19% of the votes. The award is $2,000. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:

I haven’t stopped thinking about this poem since the issue arrived. There are several things I loved about it, not the least of which is the topic—a necessary insight given our current political state and the constant outcry for welfare reform. It made me think of a conversation I had with a friend recently who made stereotypical remarks about those on welfare; I read this poem and wanted to send it to her, to help her see more clearly these lives she’s so ready to dismiss as useless and worthless. I also like the way the poem is organized, the hour-by-hour account that forces the reader to wait, along with the others in the lobby, along with the speaker of the poem who is also counting the minutes, to experience and take account of these concrete lives.
—Elizabeth Johnston

It throbs, amuses, amazes, perplexes, irritates, outrages, mystifies, startles, unnerves, stuns, and dazzles. It is cinematic, telegenic, brilliant, heartbreaking, heartwarming, powerful. You know it’s great when you think to yourself ‘If only I had written this … if only …’
—Vernon Waring

Valentina has done a superb job of creating and capturing the internal and external atmospherics of the welfare office. She has succeeded in capturing the bleakness and the beauty, the madness and the marvel, the honor in the horror, the extraordinary in the ordinary of these difficult lives. I love how she leads us through these struggles of human existence (which I imagine many of us only know about without really knowing), doling out the day hour by hour, culminating in that wonderful double entendre as she stands on the street corner waiting for the actual and metaphorical light. A masterpiece of observational poetry with a delicious surprise ending. I loved it. Well done!
—Mark Yeoell

I loved the way Valentina’s choice of words illustrated so poignantly the varying shades and tones of being human. That our lives as we know it are far different from many less fortunate, yet despite this, there is a common thread that ties us all together when we choose to look at the world beyond our own ego—compassion, our greatest gifts as human beings.
— Kirsten Leggett

Love to get inside a world I don’t really know, see the conflict between the speaker and the poor souls trying to survive or pull off a deal.
—Ann Curran

To read the poem, pick up a copy of Rattle #50, or wait until the end of March, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.

Gnup’s poem was the winner, but all ten of the finalist poems received a significant number of votes, and each had their own enthusiastic fans. It’s always interesting and informative experience reading all the commentary, and to provide a taste of that here is a small sample of what our subscribers said about the other finalists:

On Christopher Citro’s “Our Beautiful Life When It’s Full of Shrieks”:

Many of the poems in the top ten were deeply concerned with the chaos and pain and trouble of the world, but Citro’s poem managed to not only reveal this pain and struggle, but it also looked beyond that. It admitted that the world is full of ‘shrieks,’ but still left me feeling like life was worth living after the pain. Even if ‘it’s so complicated staying alive sometimes.’ Even the moments when Citro’s world is covered in sores, it is still vibrant and full of vital life.
—Johnathan Harper

On Rhina P. Espaillat’s “Work in Progress”:

Her rhyme and form make it a tingle-inducing crystallization far beyond the rest. About something seemingly ordinary, but in it is the tragedy of mankind—when a self-styled ‘poet’ is closed, and doesn’t ‘know it,’ there’s no more ‘progress’ in any ‘work in progress.’ And the choice of using that poet’s article—removing device in the final two lines of her sonnet—a sharp, brilliant blade where the choice itself replaces a thousand words of discussion.
—James B. Nicola

On Jennifer Givhan’s “The Glance”:

The poem sang with an intensity and tenseness of image, line and repetition building and building image on image of desperation, anger and despair. The very personal made universal and political.
—Garrett Phelan

On Red Hawk’s “Old Age Requires the Greatest Courage”:

This poem struck me for its economy—the ability to say what it needed to say and then stop—and its skill at becoming stronger by pushing against the limits the sonnet creates as a fixed form. Though our young selves refuse to believe that each of us is headed to this same difficult place (‘all are chosen’), the closing lines offer resolution that, while not conveying any false hope, suggest that there is a way to meet the ultimate of what it means to be human, and mortal.
—Steve Abbott

On David Kirby’s “More Than This”:

“More Than This” was completely unpredictable/surprising, and my emotional response to it became stronger with each reading … a neat trick, because with subsequent readings the complexities of allegory, metaphor, parable (and their subtle distinctions) were also revealed. Usually when I get caught up in craft, emotional resonance takes a back seat, but not with this poem. Plus, I just flat-out love the idea of the false heaven ‘screen(ing) out the folks who’d desert their friends’ and the notion of grief being a shared thing, whether we want it to be or not.
—Pit Pinegar

On Travis Mossotti’s “Yesterday”:

Travis took the daily happenings and welded them into meaning: little ‘things,’ big ‘things,’ his ‘things,’ his wife’s ‘things,’ other people’s ‘things.’ His poem was an index card about the ‘trappings’ of everything and how interwoven time, incidents, and everyone’s lives truly are if you allow yourself to reveal the chain. Lovely and a little slam on the head at the same time.
—Michelle Mabry

On Melissa King Rogers’ “Deus ex Machina”:

Tension is essential to all art, wrote Stanley Kunitz; ‘Deus Ex Machina’ exemplifies this aspect of writing as well as I’ve ever seen in a poem. On the one hand there is the structure of the poem—the meter—which in this case acts as an organizing element for the writer’s thinking, which becomes a step by step accounting that leads to an understanding of the events in the poem. It brings things under control. On the other end of this tension equation is, of course, the totally charged subject, high drama, hope and fear, and moments of utter chaos—the emotional rollercoaster that ensues from watching this scene unfold. In the middle of this linguistic rubber band are the wonderful more-earthy phrasings—the overall tension in miniature—they maintain the meter but burst out with emotion (and act as an emotional release for the writer). A very nice touch is the way the last stanza picks up end rhymes in addition to the meter, signaling, by its more playful nature, a coming-to-resolution for the writer and thus an easing of the tension. Altogether an impressive balancing act. Definitely a winner!
—D.M. Dutcher

On Cherise Pollard’s “Sugar Babe”:

What can I say about something as beautiful and powerful as this well written piece. It has form, history, female strength, heartache and love. The repetitive lines only emphasize the meaning, and emotion behind these carefully selected words. This poem will stay with me a long time.
—Susan LaFortune

On Patricia Smith’s “Elegy”:

I confess that I skimmed much of it the first time; its length daunted me. But this time I just let myself be swept into it, and I think it’s an amazing piece—it covers so much territory, historical, cultural, and, most movingly, emotional. I think it’s an unusually strong example of the particular becoming universal. No such thing happened to me, but I felt drained by the time I’d finished it—as if those words, Somebody shot your daddy, he dead, had actually been said to me, as if my given name weren’t my real name. I can’t pay Patricia Smith and her poem any higher tribute than that—the power of her words lifted me out of a completely other life into her own. And then I thought of ‘Equilibrium,’ of the irony that confronts us, no matter who we are—we know we need to understand the other, yet at the same time we know we need to find who we really are at the core. These two poems—to me equal in their power, in starkly different ways, one by its economy and the other by its profusion of detail—seem to me the heart of a conversation we all need to be having. But even beyond that, Patricia Smith’s poem made me understand something I once heard Jack Gilbert say: We’re all searching for the lost father. Patricia Smith found hers. The power of the poem, the energy and pain so palpable in it, remind me of birth. I can’t imagine asking more, or receiving more, from an elegy.
—Lynne Knight

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May 1, 2015

Colin Ward


The Only Things Worse Than Generals Are Generalities.

In serving the online literary community as critic, columnist, moderator, administrator, contest facilitator, technician, consultant, designer, and programmer for the last quarter century, I’ve been struck by the differences between its communities and products and those of the offline or “real” world.

When internauts speak of “online” poetry they really mean “online workshoppers’” poetry, not what is found on blogs, vanity sites and personal webzines. For example, the loveable, irrepressible Bill Knott may be the Walt Whitman of our time, promoting, selling and giving away his work. Because he does much of this on the internet, offliners might consider him an online poet. No one who has been plugged in for more than a decade would agree. Similarly, every word that Shakespeare ever wrote can be found on various sites but he’s hardly an “internet poet.” Magazines archiving older issues online don’t make for “online poetry” in any but the most literal sense. Conversely, if Usenet star poet Robert J. Maughan scratched some verse onto birch bark 200 miles from the nearest computer and published it in The New Yorker it would still be an online poem. What distinguishes pixel from page poetry isn’t where it is written, revised, reviewed or published, but whether or not the poet’s technical and critical skills reflect time spent in an online workshop.

At the risk of oversimplification, page poetry is about poets, pixel poetry is about poems. To an offliner, a poem may be a poet’s greeting or business card, a piece in a self-portrait jigsaw puzzle or an invitation to psychoanalysis. “Pragmatic” and “professional” describe what we find in poetry books and magazines. The careerist track of aspiring academics is the most salient example. In this publish-or-perish environment, people more interested in and better suited to teaching poetry than writing it are driven to use up print publishing resources. This impetus, along with other commercial motivations, is unique to the print world. One obvious ramification is that the once common practice of publishing poems anonymously or pseudonymously is unthinkable to today’s print poets.

In contrast, the pixel poet is both a “purist” and an “amateur” who, for better or worse, views each poem as a isolated specimen. Unless part of a series, each poem will serve as its own context. As for the author’s role in this exploratory surgery, well, the biologist rarely speculates about the Creator. Think New Criticism, minus the crazy parts.

When offliners think of workshops they imagine face-to-face (F2F) settings, either writers groups or MFA-style peer gatherings. Academic workshoppers tend to share similarities including occupation (student?), esthetic, education, locale and age. In either model the circumstances can make objectivity and candor difficult. Critics need distance, including physical space. The same verse submitted to an online critical forum may be examined by readers from all continents, ages, occupations, styles and knowledge levels. If posted to an expert venue, a poem might attract the attention of some of the greatest critiquers alive: Peter John Ross, James Wilks, Rachel Lindley, Stephen Bunch, the Roberts (Schechter, Mackenzie and Evans), Richard Epstein, Hannah Craig or John Boddie, to name only a few. There is, quite literally, a world of difference between F2F and online workshops. This diversity and sophistication avoids the homogeneity that F2F workshops can spawn. It also explains why the word “peer” is less frequently used to describe online workshops.

What traits do online workshoppers have in common? The pixel poet must have an abiding interest in improving, obviously, but also in the elements, rather than just the products, of the craft. This is not the place for those who neither know nor care to know that “Prufrock” is metrical. This is not the place for “substance over form” advocates blurbing profound prose with linebreaks. This is not the place for, as Leonard Cohen would say, “other forms of boredom advertised as poetry.” This is a meritocracy of poems, and no one is better than their current effort. If Shakespeare himself posted a clunker to one of the expert-only venues he might be confronted with comments like:

“You use words like a magpie uses wedding rings.”
—Gerard Ian Lewis

“Please tell me there were no dice involved in choosing your words.”
—Manny Delsanto

As you can imagine, the online workshop breeds humility and respect for the art form.

The rules are simple: Critique as much and as thoroughly as you can and thank those who grace you with their thoughts. Newcomers to internet workshopping are urged to start on one of the “friendlies.” Of these, let me recommend:

The Waters

The Critical Poet

Desert Moon Review

In general, the poetry and critique on these venues is about what you’d expect from novice forums but one can, at the very least, use this introductory period to read guidelines and develop the mechanics of threading, posting and creating links and attributes. Through many of these sites aspiring acolytes can participate in the InterBoard Poetry Contest (IPBC).

Serious students are encouraged to lurk and learn on the expert venues for a few months until they are ready to participate:



Poetry Free-For-All

Both of the latter accept novice members but PFFA’s idea of a “novice” translates to what offliners would consider “experienced.” PFFA and Poets.org also host two of the three best online learning resources:

PFFA’s Blurbs of Wisdom


Glossary of Poetic Terms from Bob’s Byway

A Brief History of Time Online

Thus, the pixel poetry milieu is, in fact, two supercommunities: serious and friendly. These can usually be differentiated by the presence or absence of active technical and theoretical fora. Both metagroups produce their share of prominent figures and lasting relationships. Both site types welcome “board-hoppers”; many people are members of all four serious venues.

The first difference that might strike newcomers to e-poetry is the gender balance. From workshoppers to webzine editors and contributors, women are better represented in cyberspace than in print. Online, males significantly outnumber females only in the blogosphere, a milieu that most webziners and pixel poets assiduously avoid.

Content Is Cargo, Verse Is Vessel.

Pixel and page criticism and poetry occupy opposite ends of the form-versus-substance teeter-totter. No matter how profound the prose, onliners are far less likely to accept it as poetry. Interpretation, which is central to academic criticism, is the least significant aspect of serious online workshop critique.

Almost nothing is known about the author of our first example. D.P. Kristalo posted primarily to Poets.org and Gazebo in 2007. Even DPK’s gender is unknown, but in discussing the poet most use feminine pronouns. Because the internet serves as an outlet for those in need of anonymity, onliners consider it bad form to speculate about identities. As we’ll see, many of the best internet poets are frustratingly shy about their work. To my knowledge, not one of the poems reprinted here was ever submitted over the transom.

Good Actors Pause for Breath. Great Actors Pause for Thought.

e10Kristalo“Beans” (Fig. 1, click to enlarge) is the archetypical online poem: superbly crafted, original and fascinating from a technical, intellectual and emotional perspective. The fact that it is a curgina (i.e. verse with free verse linebreaks, like the bacchic monometer of “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks) reflects the higher mix of metered work found online. Its tautness reflects the online workshop’s discipline. The unusual subject matter and treatment reflects the pixel poet’s reader-orientation. A teacher could spend days describing the merits of this acrostic: the terminal diaresis in stanza 1, the “aw” and “l” sounds slowing down the read for the denouement, the triple entendre of “coppers,” the dramatic ambivalence and ambiguity of “Valparaiso” (birthplace of both the coup and its principle victim), the cautious euphemisms that begin most of the lines (and explain the erratic linebreaks), etc.

Ask who the best contemporary print poet is and you’re bound to get a wide variety of responses: Walcott, Heaney, Laux, Hill, Cohen, etc. Ask about the best online poet and you’ll get one answer: the late Margaret A. Griffiths, aka “Maz” or “Grasshopper.” In a 2005 poll, members of the expert community declared Maz the poet they’d most want to see in an anthology. This was five months before her signature masterpiece (Fig. 2) was written and five years before it was published (posthumously).

e10GriffithsWhen Margaret died suddenly in 2008, a throng of admirers worldwide began scouring archives and hard drives, collecting hundreds of her poems. These were recently released by Arrowhead Press in a volume called Grasshopper: The Poetry of M A Griffiths. This book is a must-own for any serious student of the craft.

Of course, most pixel poets aren’t as introverted as Maz and DPK. Nevertheless, the point is made that as a group, unlike Bill Knott, pixel poets are not great self-promoters.

Online poetry has a longer history than many imagine. For fifteen years before the web arrived in the mid-1990s the only game in town was the rec.arts.poems newsgroup on Usenet (and its echo chamber, alt.arts.poetry.comments). This was the greatest single meeting of poetry authorities in history. Nevertheless, it was a relatively unknown contributor, Marco Morales, who wrote this classic “killer and filler” poem:


Missing you again,
I embrace shallow graves.
Pale faces, doughlike breasts
help me forget.

The poem is about “me missing you” and, sure enough, those are the only words that have vowel sounds absent from that killer second line. Don’t let the L1 acephaly or L4 trochaic inversion fool you; “Hookers” is blank verse: iambic trimeter, ending in a dimeter. The “three tris per dime” ratio gives the form its name: a carnivalia.

Usenet was the source not only of the online workshop ethos but of many invaluable truisms as well, including:

Tigger’s Tip #14:
“Every modern poem must contain at least one em dash abuse.”

McNeilley’s 4th Dictum:
“Cut off the last line! This will make your poem better! (If this doesn’t work, keep cutting off the last line.)”

The 1st Law:
“Never say anything in a poem that you wouldn’t say in a bar.”

The 2nd Law:
“If you can’t be profound be vague.”

The 10th Law:
“Don’t emote. Evoke.”

The 12th Law:
“Try to be understood too quickly.”

Egoless Maxim:
“If you don’t think your poetry is competing against the works of others you’re probably right.”

Is pixel poetry superior to what is produced elsewhere? Consider what these poems go through. First, they are written with a critical audience in mind. As we saw with “Savonarola,” a first draft posted to a serious online forum may well be as good as anything found in print. Second, they run a guantlet of some of the planet’s best critics. Knee-jerk revisions are discouraged. Lastly, they are produced by people who have spent more time learning the difference between diaresis and diahrrea than fretting about how many times certain poets cheated on their spouses. Given all of this, shouldn’t we expect them to be better? Not surprisingly, pixel poets have won just about every contest and prize that has blind judging. The Nemerov is practically owned by Eratosphereans. Editors recognize pixel poets’ names and report that their acceptance rates are much higher than those of others.

Where do pixel poets publish? Almost anywhere, but favorite haunts include Rattle, Raintown Review, Measure, The Pedestal, The Dark Horse, The Hudson Review, Lucid Rhythms, thehypertexts.com, 14 by 14, Shit Creek Review, The Flea, and Autumn Sky Poetry. In short, pixel poets tend to seek editors whose understanding of the craft and technology matches their own.

There is a subtle difference between many webzine editors and their print counterparts: The latter want first; the former want best. To wit, if we look at the major literary print concerns, every single one demands first publication rights. As you may know, Poetry magazine was neither the first nor the second to publish “Prufrock.” Thus, T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece couldn’t be submitted to a print venue today. Needless to say, most webziners would do cartwheels before republishing it.

The lack of financial motivation creates an interesting paradox: With no sellers or market it becomes a sellers’ market. Let’s look at this from an editor-in-chief’s point of view. Remember that cartoon where one vulture turns to another and says: “To hell with this waiting. I’m gonna go kill something!” Many proactive editors are establishing a personal presence in online critical fora. Want to publish a book that may cover your costs in pre-orders? Consider one of the higher profile pixel poets. Seeking a stunning poem to headline your ‘zine? Ask one of the regular online workshop critics for a recommendation.

e10HopsonNow let’s view the poems-not-poets, best-not-first emphasis from a pixel poet’s perspective. In 2006 a young, unknown writer, Erin Hopson, posted a poem to Gazebo. Normally reserved critics raved about it, one gushing: “This is award-winning writing. Change nothing.” Four years later, during which time the author completed a college degree, the poem still languished in the author’s drawer. Critics have long memories, though. And hard drives. In 2010, during a conversation with thehypertext.com editor Mike Burch, that critic presented a copy of that poem for consideration. Not surprisingly, Mr. Burch freaked. One womanhunt later, the poet, who thought it a prank at first, was contacted. In short order this sensuous ekphrasic brilliancy, based on the Max Färberböck 1999 film, Aimee and Jaguar, was published. (Fig. 3)

Candid, informed criticism isn’t for everyone. The vast majority of poets are unfamiliar with Scavella’s mantra (i.e. “I’m not as good as I think I am.”) and have no interest in improving their work through such scrutiny. That, then, is the conundrum:

Critique can boast
when pride has ceased:
who needs it most
will seek it least.

from Rattle e.10, Spring 2011


Colin Ward was born in 1954 in Brampton, Ontario and, after much wandering, has resided in Winnipeg, Manitoba, for the last thirty years. His work has appeared online in venues ranging from Beside the White Chickens to Autumn Sky Poetry and has been anthologized in David W. Mitchell’s Talus and Scree. Colin says, “If you’ve heard of me you’re reading too much poetry.”

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April 28, 2014

Marcela Sulak


An Essay

One day I bring my daughter from our home in Washington, D.C., to New York to visit her father and his family. My daughter’s aunt Anna introduced the family to the strangers hovering at our table at the kosher restaurant on the Upper West Side: “This is Nagy, my mother, and Jacob, my brother; this is my brother’s baby daughter, Amalia, and this,” she hesitates, then nods toward me, “this is the mother.” It feels exactly like a slap. And just as unexpected.

Earlier that day, Anna had cornered me in her kitchen and quietly and efficiently informed me that if I did not marry her brother, she’d not open her “pocketbook, [her] heart, or the hearts of [her] children” to me. I had just assured her that my daughter would be as much a part of their lives as they wanted her to be, and that I’d do all I could to facilitate her relationship with them: “See, I’m here now, as you’d asked me to be.”

To Anna, I was an agent of chaos: a woman procreating without a socially formalized and acknowledged male sponsor.

Single mothers are not agents of chaos. Rather they—we—are merely witnesses to chaos. We don’t even try to order it. Epics, fairy tales, folk stories are all ways of ordering the eternal chaos, the inhuman forces that surround and create the necessity for civilization. But what Muriel Rukeyser (and Mina Loy before her) does is to witness and note the chaos which is made by humans. Muriel Rukeyser has always been my hero, though, until last year, I’d not even realized she was a single mother.

* * *

Because of my upbringing in a religious and socially conservative family, I had to at least consider marriage. But to my relief everyone I respected advised me against it. Here was my orthodox rabbi saying, “I never thought I’d ever give this advice to anyone in your position, but just tell everyone it was a sperm bank.”

I announced the pregnancy to my family through the postal service with ultrasound images pasted on homemade cards. My parents called, but to inquire, “Are you going to marry?” I said, “Why don’t I bring him to meet you, then I will do as you say.” My parents said, “I never thought I’d ever tell a child of mine this, but …” and I felt relieved.

My brother and his wife said, “It’s good you’re having the baby and not getting an abortion. But if you don’t marry the father, then you should put the baby up for adoption. It’s immoral for you to raise the baby alone, out of wedlock.”

* * *

I’d always found that word sinister, wedlock. It reminded me of the phrase “kept under lock and key,” and I invariably thought of rifles and hard liquor. But when I looked it up, I found that lac is an Old English noun-suffix meaning “actions” or “practices” or “proceedings.” There were about a dozen compounds formed from the suffix lac originally, such as feohtlac or warfare. But wedlac, meaning “pledge-giving,” is the only word that survived with its suffix.

I was not concerned with maintaining anyone’s patriarchal lineage when I gave birth to my daughter. But with a couple of MA degrees, an MFA, and a PhD, I was professionally committed to institutional power structures and linear logic. I’d also considered the convent seriously, even doing a year of pre-candidacy with the Holy Cross Sisters, before converting to Orthodox Judaism. Thus, even my religious affiliation lay with established order.
When I think about it now, I might conclude that my brand of feminism was misogynistic. I simply hadn’t wanted to inhabit the cultural or economic roles traditionally assigned to women. I could see that these roles of supporting others, giving birth, caring for the physical needs of others, were necessary, thankless, unpaid, boring, and that I benefited from the fact that others had to do it. Just don’t let it be me.

For the first two years after I gave birth, I could not write as I used to—I felt a veil or screen between the world and me. There were certain emotions I did not have the luxury of allowing myself to experience. I couldn’t access my lyric I. Now I don’t even try to access my lyric I. The idea of the lyric I comes from a very privileged place to begin with. I don’t want it any more.

I’d discovered I was pregnant the day I’d come to New York to end the brief relationship with Jacob, and I’d found myself sitting, numb, next to a little stick ringed with pink. I felt with utter conviction that I could not not have the child. I was 37. Having been anorexic for most of my adolescence, I hadn’t even been sure I was fertile. But it’s one thing to understand that you will have the baby. It’s another to understand how on earth you’re going to stand doing it, and how you could possibly make it work.

Growing up in rural Texas, I had known about single mothers the same way I knew about snow and maple leaves, skyscrapers and subways—I’d read about them in books. Later I knew about them because I volunteered to teach GED preparatory classes to single mothers who had dropped out of high school. They passed their GEDs—all my students did. It did not help any of them get jobs. But they said they wanted the diploma to set an example for their children.

* * *

I’d had such lovely partners before Jacob, who had wanted to take care of me, had entertained me, challenged me. I’d let them go because I just wasn’t in love—and I’d been promised by my copious reading of Victorian literature all through adolescence that someone would sweep me off my feet.

To be swept off one’s feet—this metaphor does not come from the motion of a broom. Nor does it come, lamentably, from a long practice of gallant young knights lifting brooms from their girls’ hands and saying, “From now on, I’ll do the sweeping. My love, go braid yourself some flower wreaths.”

I offered Jacob the choice of not claiming paternity, and I promised him he’d never hear from me or my baby again.

Jacob is an immigrant to America and the only son of two Holocaust survivors. His own father was the only survivor out of seven siblings, and he survived five camps. Another brother died next to him, in the fifth camp, at liberation. We were on a train through Hungary when he told me. I was five months pregnant. I’d accompanied him to see his one uncle remaining there, his mother’s brother. His mother and her two brothers survived in orphanages run by Catholic nuns. After being sure that he understood I was not going to marry him, I was willing to establish a relationship with his family, for my daughter’s sake.

I wondered how much of his decision to get to know the baby was really his sister’s and mother’s decision.

* * *

My daughter sweeps me off my feet in the way things are swept up or away by the wind, or by a wave of the sea. Sometimes she knocks the air from my lungs and the floor from under me. Even from the minute she was born I lost autonomy.

It had been a difficult birth. Ten hours of a single constant contraction. I was yelling in pain.

“Quit being dramatic,” my mother commanded.

“You—outta here!” I dramatically countered. She left. Good mother.

I’d wanted a homebirth or a natural birth with a midwife, but what I thought was water breaking was blood from my tearing uterus.

“Okay, five more minutes and your baby’s dead. Can we operate now?”

These days my daughter and I take turns being the drama queen. She gets Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

* * *

When visiting my parents with my newborn, I sometimes lied when neighbors said, “Oh, you have a baby! I hadn’t even known you were married!” I didn’t exactly lie lie. I simply smiled and pointed out how much I loved motherhood. Quite frankly, I chafed at lying. But I didn’t want to hurt my parents, and didn’t know what they were up for yet. I guess I didn’t count on their unconditional love. Muriel Rukeyser’s son told me his mother had made up several stories about his parentage, as well. But that was 1947. This was sixty years later.

* * *

My essays and poems since motherhood have become filled with branching etymological roots, a concern for the dictionary meaning of words, and how words came to have their dictionary meanings. Because, I realize, being a single mother has made me question and rethink every single prejudice and preconception I had about the world and my place in it.

But if I had a vexed relationship with my parents, I have felt what I call a blood bond with my grandparents. Not its institutional expression, its conservatism, but its love. And love is a radical element that legislatures and conventions cannot control. The bloodline that holds us together is also the invisible line that the soul navigates, freed from time and space.

One night my grandfather found me in Germany and came to me in a dream, in his blue striped bathrobe and his tan house shoes. “I’m coming to tell you I am dead,” he said. I felt him everywhere when I woke up; I still do.

My father phoned from Texas a few hours later. “I know,” I said before he uttered a word.

* * *

When my daughter was two, I finally filed for custody and child support because I wanted to move to Israel. Before, my child’s father had put up such a fuss about getting a legal agreement and child support that I’d just let it go. He’d been helping, a little—what he thought I ought to need: “If you took a yoga class you’d be a lot less stressed. I’ll pay for it,” he declared.

“If I had some babysitting, so I could work, or at least brush my teeth, I’d also be a lot less stressed!” I’d reply.
He’d respond with organic Omega 3 supplements or a water filter.

Only after he began paying a regular percentage of the court-mandated child support did he start to have regular contact. These days, we Skype once a week.

* * *

Today, in Tel Aviv, my five-year-old daughter is drawing. Suddenly she circles furiously, in black, all over the page. She is drawing a picture of a God box.

“A God box,” she explains, “is this thing here. And whatever you put inside of it becomes part of God.”

This will possibly be the first thing and the last thing I ever write about my daughter. She has told me not to write about her again.

My daughter is named for my great grandmother. I am named for my grandmother. We are all eldest daughters. In Hebrew my daughter’s name means “a work of God.”

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


Marcela Sulak is the author of two collections of poetry: Immigrant (Black Lawrence Press) and a chapbook, Of All the Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best. She has translated three book-length collections of poetry: Karel Hynek Macha’s May and Karel Jaromir Erben’s Bouquet, from the Czech, and Mutombo Nkulu-N’Sengha’s Bela-Wenda, from the French. She directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University, where she is a senior lecturer. (www.marcelasulak.com)

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April 17, 2014

April Salzano


An Essay

Only a few years ago, I would have said parenting affects my poetry by preventing it. Then, one day, inspiration almost literally struck me.

I never fully understood the term “become the pain” until it was too late for an epidural, just minutes before my second son, Thomas, burst into the world. I knew that if I focused every fiber of my being on that pain, that very specific hurt, isolated and at the same time spreading, I could contain it. I could process it only for what it was, simply a feeling, neurotransmitters sending a message, synapses firing, causing a physical response, a signal, nothing more.

When Thomas was two, he was diagnosed with autism. My older son, Nate, was only four and my marriage had been ending for the past two years. Our home became headquarters for agency people who crawled all over like FBI agents examining a crime scene. Early Intervention, Vocational Psychological Services, you name it, everyone but my husband was trying to help. He was … elsewhere. It seemed everything that meant anything was replaced with the task of parenting Thomas, going to evaluations and meetings, implementing services to help him communicate and function. I felt I had nothing left to put on the page. I know that only in retrospect because at the time, I didn’t even try.

Though I didn’t acknowledge it until years later, I had made an unconscious decision to stop writing. Up until “D” day, I had always thought that when my boys were old enough, I would again find time to resume my writing, which had always been my passion. Poetry had been my way of at once distancing a feeling and simultaneously bringing it to the foreground for examination. Why was I not applying this act of healing to the most difficult and painful time of my life? I blamed lack of time and inspiration, fatigue, depression, but in truth, I was afraid. Afraid to attempt to convey what I was feeling about autism, its finality, its power to teach, to awaken, but also its power to hurt and to disappoint. I know now that the negative aspects of parenting a child with autism are what make the positive aspects even more powerful. And vice versa. Extremes of emotion are not reserved only for the child who is on the autism spectrum. They come for his family as well.

“It never stops being humiliating,” I think to myself as Thomas slams me into the side of my Jeep with a force well beyond what it seems a six-year-old should be capable of.

We are in front of a crowd of onlookers at the park where Nate has soccer practice twice a week. It is the last day of school, a day I had been praying for since September. Today Thomas finished kindergarten with his non-autistic peers. And though his report card has more minus than plus signs, he has one. He did it. We had spent the afternoon playing in the yard and drawing with sidewalk chalk. Most of the day was giggles and smiles.

Until now.

It started raining, and though the soccer team kept practicing to display some semblance of dedication, most of the parents and siblings fled for their vehicles to wait it out. Thomas didn’t seem to notice the rain at all. He just kept running back and forth in the path he had worn in the dirt. He talked and laughed at whatever thought was occupying his mind. I had attempted to coax him to the car. Five minute warning, then two, then one. “Okay, let’s go sit in the car until the rain stops. Then we’ll come right back.” He had come willingly, holding my hand. And now this.

I hit the side of the jeep with my back. I bounce off the driver’s side door and right back against Thomas’ outstretched hands. He grabs a handful of my face and tries to rip it off. I slap his hand. Mistake #1. He is stunned, but only momentarily. He rubs his hand. And then he’s twice as mad.

I regain my composure, dismiss my regret and guilt. I hear a voice coming from my mouth that I don’t recognize. “Thomas, no. Nice hands. Do you need a time out? No hitting.” Somehow I am blocking what feels like three sets of hands, all reaching for my face my hair my throat. I can’t see. I block, I turn, I dodge, all on pure instinct, all while still trying to talk him down. He slams into me again, emitting a growling chhhhhhhh sound that means he has left his body, been mentally hijacked, checked out. He is not in there anymore. This is not Thomas, not my baby boy who had just today brought me to tears with pride when he handed me that report card, that token of joy, a testament that everyone had been wrong. This is someone else. Pure amygdale, acting on primal fight or flight. And he is fighting like his life depends on ending mine.

I manage a joke to the soccer dad unloading his five kids from the minivan, something stock like, “If he gets much bigger, he’ll be able to take me.” It’s a stupid thing to say because Thomas is already winning. The guy’s kids are staring in pure disbelief. The older kids respectfully avert their gaze. The younger kids just gawk unabashedly, taking mental notes for later.

Most times I am able to stay on my feet, even when Thomas is hanging from my hair and his own feet are off the ground, even when he succeeds in grabbing hold and pulling me downward. Duck and weave only works to an extent as does the “extended arm block” I learned in restraint training. “Do you need a time out?” Yes. “Ok. Sit in the car until you are calm. Are you calm?” Yes. “Ok.” Then it starts all over. Back in the car. Back out. Back in. I take off my hoodie and tie it around my waist. Mistake #2. He lunges from the car and grabs hold of the sleeves and whips me around like a rag doll. I almost lose footing. I grasp his shoulders firmly. “Nice hands. No hitting.” Back in the car.

I stand against the open door, attempting to catch my breath. All I have to do is tell him he can go play in the rain (I’m soaked now anyway) and this is all over. All I have to do is give in and he will come right back from the place he’s in. He will laugh and run and play. But somehow the judging stares of the woman in the car next to mine fuel my determination. All done soccer. All done soccer. “No, we’re not all done soccer. Calm down and you can play.” Chhhhhhhhhh! Attack. My whole body aches.

“First calm. Nice hands and nice feet and then you can play,” I hear myself say.

The woman in the car next to us is pretending to read a book, sneaking glances when she thinks I won’t notice. I can hear her thinking What the fuck? just as loud as if she’s spoken it. And I wish she would. It would be easier. And it might give me a place to deposit all this adrenaline that I am forced to do nothing with. I have always maintained that if you are not going to offer help, or at least ask if I am ok, you should mind your own business and stop fucking staring. I see you. It doesn’t help matters. I give her a look that says I know what you are thinking, and wish for a lull in this battle long enough to pull my pants up a little higher. I feel like I am standing here bare naked anyway; my entire soul is as exposed. But dignity has no place here so I leave my crack hanging out and untangle Thomas’ hands from my hair. Yeah, why don’t I cut it? my eyes say to the woman. My hair is a mane of thick curly tresses down to my waist, truthfully an unnecessary amount of hair, but to me it is also a symbol of my resilience. My will. It is also one of the few things that age is allowing me to retain, and I am rather proud of it in moments other than these when I feel admittedly, well, impractical. I can tell Thomas loves my hair. He’s never said so, but I know by the way he brushes it off my face when I “eat his tummy,” and when he hides under it and giggles. Just like I know he likes the loose skin on my stomach—though he has never articulated that either—that it reminds him of Play-Doh. It’s what makes me me to him, trademarks of Mommy.

Thomas sits perfectly still in his car seat. “Good job calming down, Thomas. Look, the rain stopped. Now you can go play. See? We were just waiting for the rain to stop.” Have I accomplished anything? Probably not. I am sure that my Behavioral Specialist Consultant would say that I somehow reinforced a negative behavior. I did at one point bargain with him I think, offering his hoodie as a stipulation to playing. I was ready to give in there for a second, wasn’t I? I can’t remember what I said. I hold his hand as he jumps out of the car. He lets go and runs toward the swings. He is talking about something that is probably relevant somehow, but I can’t translate what he’s saying, lines from a movie preview mixed in with what sounds like, “Now you can play.”

I would like to say that there isn’t a moment when I don’t love this kid, but that would be a lie. I am frustrated and I am tired and I am in pain every day. Even during days with no aggression, I am hurting inside from the rollercoaster of emotions that is autism. Somehow that cliché fits better than any other, fresher language. The beautiful moments have an intensity unmatched by any I have ever shared with not only my non-autistic son, but also with any other human being. The extra special sense of pride and love for the simplest of gestures: eye contact held for an extra fraction of a second, an unrequested hug, an implication of a joke, an acknowledgement of my presence while I sit in the periphery, always waiting, always longing to be in his world. It feels like homesickness, or like missing someone you never knew. The reciprocal conversation you wish you could have on a verbal level, the unactualized potential of everything that he is, it’s all there, but can’t seem to find its way out. And I know it will in time, so gradually I won’t notice much of it until retrospect allows. Each day he moves closer to mastering some concept as yet undefined, unlike the ABA programs or the rote memorization that has its good and its bad sessions, but more like a step closer to some other, bigger goal, something that vaguely resembles normalcy. It is a place he will never fully inhabit, but I hope will visit for moments at a time. Realistically, I shouldn’t hope for more, but I often find that I do. Against every other realization to the contrary, it could just happen that way, couldn’t it?

Sometimes I think I could be so far gone myself that I may not be there waiting for him when he arrives, yet other times I feel like that place is going to be something akin to the common conception of Heaven: we will know it when we get there and not a second before. An awakening. An epiphany. A realization that we were never as far from home as we thought, and always headed in the right direction. Nothing marks the end of a struggle. It just is. And then it isn’t.

In the introduction of her memoir, My Father’s Love, Sharon Doubiago quotes Carolyn Forche as saying, “Surely all art begins in a wound.” Furthering that notion, Doubiago writes, “The artist is our modern day shaman. In ancient worlds the shaman was the one who, torn apart, put herself back together again for the community in order to tell the community how.” Though Doubiago writes of sexual abuse, the notion of translating pain into poetry to tell a community “how” really hit home for me in the last couple of years when I finally started writing about my son’s autism. What returned me to writing was ultimately the attempt, finally, to join the voices of other parents with children on the spectrum. Through our stories, poetry, essays, we hope to enlighten each other on the heartbreaks and joys of this distinct type of parenting. When we are torn apart at the park in front of a crowd of judgmental strangers, we put ourselves back together, and at best, tell the world how to do it. At the very least, we tell them how it felt.

Once I gained the courage to write about autism, with it came the courage to write about parenting in general. I figured out, finally, that the two are inseparable. Along with it came the strength to examine my feelings on the end of my twelve year marriage. Writing on all other subjects began reappearing, falling into place. I returned to writing wholeheartedly, not just about autism, not just about parenting, or my broken heart, my anger at my ex-husband and autism, but also nature pieces, humor poems, short stories, essays, started coming. Finally, I began what will hopefully become a full memoir on raising a son with autism.

My biggest epiphany was that if I continued waiting for peace, quiet, and inspiration, the Pegasus of creativity, to appear and carry me into the perfect world of perfect poetry, I would never write a word. Now I make notes in my phone, often writing entire poems while my boys play in the yard or while I wait for the potatoes to boil. I am even guilty of writing poetry while my students take a quiz. Moments to write will never be given. They must be stolen. Guilt is no longer an option. The “room of my own” is a tiny corner in my head reserved for art. It is not a place where my children are not allowed, but a place from which their commotion and chaos is observed and recorded, stored for later if necessary, to be transformed into poetry, more valuable than any snapshot. My children are my metaphors, fixed to paper, broken into lines, made into art.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


April Salzano teaches college writing in Pennsylvania. She spent two years of her life as a single parent, before marrying the one person she felt worthy of her two sons. She recently finished her first collection of poetry, for which she is seeking a publisher. This essay was taken from the memoir she is (slowly) writing on raising a child with autism. Salzano also serves as co-editor at Kind of a Hurricane Press.

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April 14, 2014

Khadijah Queen


An Essay

Mothering is the ultimate convergence of public and private. From the moment your belly swells, the fact that you are/have been sexually active becomes publicly displayed. The implicit questions: Who has impregnated you? Does he have cultural/institutional permission? Do you, expectant mother, have permission? Where is the piece of paper/(in)expensive ornament on your hand that says so?

Then, assumptions begin—your body changes, and strangers act as witness. Sometimes, they want to touch you. You are full of life; you are sensitive, physically and emotionally. You are urgent in every way, and strangers, smiling, touch you, often without permission, ask you personal questions. You might feel okay about that, or you might be offended. The point is—vision. Outside, inside. How you see yourself in relation to others, how they see themselves in relation to you. We are all of us mirrors. We see what we want, we look for what we want or look for what we fear.

* * *

Is there some kind of human aversion to our own bodies that makes life-growing a shame to so many? That is what I would ask those who treat single mothers differently, consciously or unconsciously, no matter their age or economic status. Something deep is at work in the human psyche. I am hinting at the ugliest and most fundamental of truths, and single motherhood, I promise, is merely tangential.

* * *

Women who give birth out of wedlock or who have somehow separated from their partners have traditionally been shamed—for their aloneness, their state of supposed non-support, as if their vulnerability makes them difficult to look at, or worse, unworthy of being truly seen, because the damage—think of it! a child as damage, a child as shame—has been done. It’s not often talked about in these PC days, but the shadow lingers—an Eliot-esque smoke along the windowpanes as we peer at one another in social situations. Soccer games, bake sales, PTA meetings, clothes shopping, dinner at Outback. The automatic glance at the ring finger. This is worth saying aloud: Our worth, our children’s worth, is not tied to a masculine presence at the dinner table.

* * *

Not that I don’t feel the absence of a partner to help shoulder day-to-day responsibilities, especially the things I least enjoy doing, like bringing groceries in or maintaining the car. Some days I work so much and for so long that by the time the day ends, unsurprisingly, I feel numb from exhaustion. And I still have to make dinner, be patient, be loving, iron clothes, give instructions, wash dishes, host sleepovers, encourage—without germophobia—scientific experiments that take over the bathtub. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I am miraculously successful; sometimes I am resentful, sometimes I feel so lucky. Sometimes all of the above and more happen in the same day and I want to burst. But that’s life. Would it be nice to have some help? Sure. Would I trade it to have a husband, for the sake of having a husband, and the financial and physical labor-easing such a union supposedly implies? Absolutely not. I’m not judging any married person or anyone else’s choices, but I personally value my independence more than any supposed convenience.

* * *

Which brings me to writing. We—mothers who write, solo mothers who write and create—often, if not most of the time or all of the time, write for our lives. Being a mother often makes the act of writing even more urgent, more sanity-saving, more necessary. We can get lost in routine and duty, obviously, but getting lost in the love part—love of our children, love of writing—might prevent that. Part of that is self-love. Part of that is creative output. All of it meant to keep us connected to who we are, as creative beings, when external forces might sever or corrupt such connection.

Parenting takes everything you have and more. Parenting solo—just like any kind of human activity—means nothing is perfect: you make mistakes, you run out of energy, you ultimately have only yourself to depend on. Sometimes things get done halfway. None of that fits into the obsessive perfectionism that strongly underlies current parenting norms. Thankfully, though, it fits with our basic human-ness, which means we can forgive ourselves, and accept ourselves (and our children) as we are.

* * *

The stigma attached to single mothers, frankly, baffles me. The most prevalent question I’ve gotten as a single mother: How do you do it? My answer: One thing (or two or seven) at a time, minute by minute, shoelace by shoelace, tantrum by tantrum, laugh by laugh, story by story. I order out; I cook a bunch on weekends; I pass out with my clothes on; I let some things slide, or stay up late to finish. We, as parents, repeat ourselves. And it’s a good thing: we’re teaching our children how to live. Thank goodness each day we get another chance at almost everything.

* * *

This essay is clearly not an explanation of my situation, why I am single, or whether or not I chose to be. None of that matters. It matters that my son is alive with humor, that he is as fragile a human being as all of us, and that he has the strongest heart I know. It matters that he is brilliant and curious and incredibly kind. But, having tired of that kindness thrown back in his face, he will fight if he must. And as much as it hurts, I know he’ll have to. His dark brown skin is the hunted kind; his thick hair and wide shoulders will only grow in perceived threat to some.

* * *

The most important thing I have learned as a parent is to trust my child.

In trusting him, I learned, slowly, to trust myself. It spilled into my work. I wrote the way I wanted to, because it was fun, because it felt good, because it mattered, and it didn’t have to make sense, because it only had to matter to me, at first. I could figure out the rest once the writing part was done.

* * *

Mothering and working means that some things fall down the scale of importance; some fall off. Some return, some do not—they might flicker in the distance or disappear, even from memory. I don’t even miss some of those things, and the others I’ve developed a resigned and optimistic appreciation of later.

When parsing time and energy, the now becomes everything: shelter, hunger, sleep, warmth. I pay attention; the consequence otherwise may cost unbearably more than if I don’t. Because my son and I both have physical challenges, comfort for us becomes the scaffolding upon which the rest of our lives takes shape, even our emotional well-being.

Of hyper-importance: what we eat, where we go, how much rest I get. We’ve become connoisseurs of one another’s moods, and our closeness tied to our health. My writing is tied to my health. I must write. I taught my son to respect and support that. He is older now, and able to understand. He knows I feel better (and that I am a better mother) when and because I nurture my creative work, and he loves that about me. And I support his obsession with incredibly complex strategy-oriented Japanese card games. I take him to tournaments and even play, sometimes, though poorly, when he really wants me to. We allow one another to be who we are. I am lucky. We enjoy our lives. We are a family.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


Khadijah Queen is the author of Conduit, and Black Peculiar, which won the 2010 Noemi Press book award for poetry and was a finalist for the Gatewood Prize at Switchback Books. Individual poems have been four times nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and appear in the anthologies Best American Nonrequired Reading, Powder: Writing by Women in the Ranks from Vietnam to Iraq, and Women Write Resistance. She holds an MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles, and works as an editor for a finance company. (www.khadijahqueen.com)

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March 13, 2014

Carol Denson


An Essay

A few days ago, Ethan, who calls poems plums, walked over to me with a baseball picture book written in Spanish and asked, “Mom, will you transfertle this into English for me?” I love his re-naming of things. “Transfertle,” as if words in different languages were fruits we could hybridize. Good poems are like good plums—juicy and sweet after the bite through slightly tough skin to the soft, wet, deep purple inside blending to yellow orange at the pit, the kind of plum that doesn’t make you think, “Damn, it would’ve been better tomorrow,” or “Shit, I should’ve eaten it yesterday,” but instead the kind that bypasses all words, pure pleasure in the eating.

Ethan loved plums as a baby. As now, at five years old, he treasures and laughs and reaches for rhymes. He would twist on my hip, reaching for the countertop where the plums glowed their deep muted purple. “There are the plums,” I would say, “do you want a plum?” He loved them so much I sometimes wondered if it were a mistake for me to name them. He was having an experience not encumbered by words and I was giving him the words. As Joseph Campbell puts it:

Poetry involves a precise choice of words that will have implications and suggestions that go past the words themselves. Then you experience the radiance, the epiphany. The epiphany is the shining through of the essence.

Watching Ethan eat a plum was to see that epiphany, and I worried about teaching him a word to circumscribe that experience. Would giving a name to the object of such intense pleasure lessen that pleasure as it circumscribed it? Though I worried, my words, at least, had little effect on him eating them. He ate as many as I would let him have each day the whole summer he turned one, when we lived with my brother’s family in the Missouri hills, his cousins like siblings, an uncle he would reach for while saying “Da,” and my brother would scoop him up saying, “That’s right, Scott, Uncle Scott.”

Now we live in the city where I was born, and yesterday I looked down at his sleeping face cradled on my upper arm and I could suddenly see his baby face—the curve of shut eyelids, the shape of his forehead and cheekbones, the position of his nose—in his five-year-old face. Then this morning, I laid my cheek against his head nestled into my shoulder and inhaled. In trying to put into words the exactness of that smell, I thought of hay and cookie dough, but then it came to me that it was bread—a white bread with texture, a cracked-open baguette or a country loaf. Once his Missouri cousin Kevin said his head smelled like a mushroom. I’m not overly insistent about hair washing.

Now that I consider it, how natural that flesh would smell like bread. The transubstantiation of turning bread into flesh, the smell lingering on the living body. “Whatever Miss T eats turns into Miss T,” whispers a childhood poem. Every day we turn bread into flesh in our own bodies, and the poets among us hope to turn plums into poems. William Carlos Williams ate the plums in the icebox and transfertled them into his famous poetic and slightly unrepentant apology. Here’s Joseph Campbell again: “It’s been said that poetry consists of letting the word be heard beyond words.” Beyond “so sweet/ and so cold,” we hear his savoring.

I love my son’s invention of “transfertle” because it seems more accurate than “translate.” Poets often feel that something is lost in the naming of things, in trying to put something into words, or in bringing something from one language into another. And if that is true, perhaps translate is the more appropriate word: tran-slate, a flat, heavy gray; or trans-late, a mistake, something done at the wrong time. Whereas transfertle is alive, sparking sparkling life. Isn’t it possible that this crossing over—of a thing into language or of a poem from one language to another—might enrich or add to the thing or poem? I see Mendel in his garden creating hybrids, not the genetically modified Frankensteins that Monsanto is spewing onto the planet (how terrible to feel uneasy when eating an ear of corn), but offspring the plants themselves might have requested: “Dear Mr. Mendel, gentle man, might you help us achieve a plumper pea?” Similarly, I imagine that the things of this world appreciate being noticed and transfertled into a poem and that a poem enjoys twining its way through the slightly transfertled images and different rhythms of its new language.

My son and I have a small flowerbed in front of the porch. This late spring we added a pumpkin vine and some Swiss chard to the bougainvillea we planted last fall. The bougainvillea was on sale for six bucks. It survived the winter and is growing, but it hasn’t bloomed this summer, though the neighbor’s across the street has blossomed a gorgeous magenta. Perhaps he’s added fertilizer. A year ago, we planted an orange tree in the front yard near the street. I’d like to plant another tree today, but I’m unsure where. We could put it right along the side fence line, where eventually it could shade some baseball games, though not ours. Well, maybe Ethan’s in 50 years. I’m very likely not to be here then: 88 years old, my parents gone, my child a father or perhaps a grandfather. Then I remember my grandmother and know that not being here is all the more reason to plant a tree.

I grew up on this city block, and I’m aware it’s not beautiful compared to other places. I’ve been stunned by mesa moonrises and awed by ocean sunsets. I’ve felt the magic of encountering a tiny waterfall in the woods. So why did I move back? Like all parents, I wanted a place that would foster my son’s growth. Being a single mother, perhaps I had an even more intense longing to give him the fertile ground of a home. And this place where the roots of his family run four generations deep called me. Four generations would seem laughable to indigenous Americans or Europeans or even Bostonians, but they’re the deepest roots I have. Perhaps this is why planting a tree here on this city block seems vitally important, though the chances of my child playing ball here with his grandchild are unlikely in this country where corporations (not being people) have no sense of home and nonetheless often dictate where we live. Yet I’m here, two houses away from my parents. My son plays ball with his grandmother in her yard. I’m six houses away from what was my grandmother’s house. Anna, my grandmother, dead since I was six months old (I’m told I loved to watch her braid her gray hair), planted four live oaks around the front and side yard of that house. They shaded my play as a child, and now, though they mostly shade the neighbor’s children as they play, sometimes they shade my child when he joins in. They shade our walks down the sidewalk buckled by their roots. Our walks took place daily when he was one-and-a-half and two, but now he’s civilized, wants to be indoors or playing baseball. Back then he was an explorer of the block we call home.

We often met Milo on our expeditions up the block. She’s a cat after my own heart. After her human family moved two blocks away, she came back here again and again, until a neighbor adopted her. She’s big, has lots of presence, pale orange, and is very sociable. After a while, if you’re barefoot, she begins licking, then biting your toes, not too hard, but hard enough. Perhaps she likes to see humans dance or just can’t resist the salty morsels. She’s annoying and wonderful and I completely agree with her. This is the block to live on. This is “the best block in the Heights”—not an uncommon phrase in this gentrifying, almost completely gentrified, neighborhood—but I have my own, different, reasons for saying so. My love of this neighborhood is informed by a lived knowledge of its history. In my childhood, people thought it was dangerous, but my family’s been here since long before that phase, almost since it was a new neighborhood. My mother grew up here, within six blocks. My father was around the corner by the time he was twelve. It was a 20- or 30-year-old neighborhood then—cows grazed in the alleys; you could hear roosters at dawn. There were little grocery stores every couple of blocks. There was a streetcar. They roller-skated, went to church, to war. Met and married. Then the ’50s and ’60s and then, about the time I was born, the neighborhood began to ebb. But I liked it, because it was mine, though our neighbors were mostly old people, or people who rented here to be close to the bus line. In the ’70s there was a serial killer, teenage boys buried in the backyard. There were murders in the car washes. And then young people started moving in, urban pioneers, yuppies. Some had little kids. I attended a private high school in the old rich part of town and was thought of as poor and strange for being from The Heights. Now those ex-classmates of mine live here.

Campbell quotes Goethe as saying, “All things are metaphors,” and then goes on to say, “Everything that’s transitory is but a metaphorical reference. That’s what we all are.” The cat Milo, the roller-skates, the car wash murders, my ex-classmates, they are all metaphors for divinity, a way to glimpse the world beyond the world as the words in poems, we hope, give way to a glimpse of the word made flesh, the thing itself, itself a metaphor for the formless form, the pure eternal pleasure of eating a very real plum.

Watching over all the changes of the last 50 years, the live oaks sway in the breeze, provide shade, and make me want to stay even longer. Make this block home even as the bungalows are torn down and huge new “Victorian-style” homes are built. It feels right that my son has to slow down on his roller skates at the same patch of root-buckled sidewalk where I had to slow down. The mourning doves still call all day. The train whistle still runs through my sleep. I’m glad the place I feel is home feels that way to Ethan too. Maybe we have to find our stability inside ourselves, but I’m glad that some things on the outside remain constant as they move or call in the breeze. As long as they can grow and sing, I can love and hope. “Just sit still,” Campbell says, “and see it and experience it and know it. That’s a peak experience.”

When I was looking up “transubstantiation,” not being too sure of the meaning (not being Catholic) or the spelling (that ability having been ruined by learning Spanish or by parenthood or both), I happened to see “translate” and thought I might as well check that word out too, since it is important to this essay. (I also looked up Mendel, having almost called him Mendelssohn, but that’s changing the subject.) I discovered that “translate” is from the Middle English translaten (from L. translatus, transferred, used as pp. of transferre; trans, across, and ferre, to bear). Transferre—to bear across, taking the plums across the great divide into words. I see a swinging rope bridge high above the chasm, and a patient toiler, a humble human, slowly carrying across whatever truth can be held in the heart. I think of lightning too, the flash and brilliance of ideas overhead, but then, out the window, just now, I see a firefly. (Ethan thinks fireflies are the fairies we read about in stories.) Perhaps the ideas we want are not the bright and scary ones, but the flickering subtle ones we almost miss if we’re not up late at night or before dawn, wide awake in the dark, listening.

Over the years, the Latin transferre has become our English translate, and thus when Ethan said “transfertle,” he was just going back to the roots of the word, adding his own little nudge to the present tense of the original Latin learned, I imagine, in a previous life. He was transfertling the present with the past, as he daily transfertles my life with his creative, inventive, remembering self. He is my lovely boy, my plum, my poem.


All of Joseph Campbell’s quotes are from his interview with Bill Moyers, called “Masks of Eternity,” as transcribed in The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers, Betty Sue Flowers, editor.

from Rattle #41, Fall 2013
Tribute to Single Parent Poets


Carol Denson Carol Denson wrote this essay while living in Houston. She now lives in Austin, Texas. Her poems have appeared in The Adirondack Review, disClosure, Earth’s Daughters and Gulf Coast among others. Her work has been supported by the Houston and Harris County Cultural Arts Council and the Jentel Foundation. A chapbook Across the Antique Surface was published in 2013. It can be found here.

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January 5, 2014

Clint Margrave


When people ask me how (or why) I became a poet, I always blame music. At 14, I was skinny, unpopular, and shy. My daily life at school was a terror—constant bullying, threats to kick my ass, I’d walk around the campus avoiding eye contact with anyone. My home life wasn’t much better. My mother berated me for being different. The few friends I had were outcasts, and I was lucky to find them. Already an atheist, I had no god to explain the world to me or make me feel at ease. All I had were the lyrics of my favorite singers, and from one band in particular, called The Smiths.

Did I seek The Smiths or did The Smiths seek me? In all truth, the first time I heard them, I can’t say I was impressed. They bored me. Was it an accident that I even became a fan of theirs? Was I just trying to fit in with the few friends that I had? And if so, isn’t it ironic that my willingness to conform is what ultimately led to the discovery of who I am?

Clint Margrave with Morrissey in front of his hotel (Le Parc in Hollywood) circa 1990.I know a lot of people hated them. Or him, I should say—not so much the band, as that whimsical, eccentric, lead singer, Morrissey, who allowed his fans to rip off his shirt and would stroll around on stage with half the local nursery in his back pocket. The same vegetarian freak who would wear a hearing aid though he wasn’t hard of hearing—maybe just a little tone deaf. And, of course, there were the thousands of annoying fans who idolized him.

I was one of them.

But whether you hated him or loved him, who could deny he had something to say—even when it was complaining about the fact that nobody else did. Consider these lyrics to the hit single, “Panic”:

Because the music that they constantly play
It says nothing to me about my life

Was this just vanity? Did he literally mean the particular circumstances of his own life? Of course he did and of course he didn’t. He meant nothing less than the shared suffering, love, alienation, drama, and spirit of all our lives. He was trying to say something honest in a decade saturated with the worst of fabrications (hair bands, the lip-syncing Milli Vanilli, the virgin-by-simile, Madonna), which made him a true outcast and a true poet. He was awkward, bookish, shy, and celibate. Morrissey wasn’t just like a virgin, he was one. And the Smiths were a welcome reprise in a decade of sell-outs. They refused to make videos (though they eventually reneged on this promise), refused to ever sell their songs to television, and to this day remain one of the few bands that refuse to get back together for a paycheck (despite the rumors). Not to mention becoming the progeny for so many musical acts that followed, from Radiohead to Jeff Buckley, who came with the talent, if not the literary bravado. But who can fault them for it? Only a handful of lyricists ever really had literary talent and Morrissey is (or was depending what you think of his solo efforts) one of them. Consider this line from another hit “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”:

And the pain was enough
to make a shy bald Buddhist
reflect and plan a mass murder

Not only is there humor and wit, but you get that it’s a shitload of pain. It’s also not so obscure that you don’t understand it, and he doesn’t dumb it down but assumes you’re smart enough to understand the irony. It’s also not sentimental and cheesy. The thing about Morrissey is that he doesn’t seem to be singing about his pain, he seems to be singing about yours. What he taps into is the secret of all good writing—honesty. Something that so many aspiring and accomplished writers seem to fail at, and, as a result, fail to connect to their potential reader. Unlike for the singer, there isn’t a melody to pick up the slack when the words ring false. In music, the emotional connection may not always depend on the words, but in writing it always does. The work must be done on the page. And if the work is done right, it shouldn’t matter. But how does one do it? Well, this is, perhaps, the mystery of it all. But part of what needs to be there is the desire to connect to others. Despite what people think, Morrissey isn’t actually narcissistic, not when he creates his art anyway, or we’d never be talking about him today (okay, maybe some of us would). He understands that it’s the reader (or listener) who’s ultimately more self-absorbed than he is. After all, they’re the ones looking for a message. Morrissey may ham it up onstage, but when he sits down to write, he transcends all this by allowing a vulnerability to emerge, which, in turn, establishes a deep intimacy with whoever’s listening.

You see a similar honesty, vulnerability, and intimate connection to the audience in a poet like Charles Bukowski. And it’s no mystery why both writers have such a dedicated fan base. Though these two names are rarely mentioned in the same space, both have more in common than we might initially think, not only in their honesty and ability to connect intimately with their readers/listeners, but in their status as outsiders. It’s not always clear with Morrissey (as with Bukowski) how much is persona and how much is person (strangely, Morrissey’s personal life is very secret). But whatever facts may be skewed, the emotional and psychological truths of rejection, loveless-ness, loneliness, alienation prevail in both of their works.

Consider the lyrics to a song like “Hand in Glove.” There have been different interpretations of this song, from a depiction of closeted homosexuality to two adolescents who want to believe their love is unique in the history of the world, to an autobiographical account of the relationship between Morrissey and Smiths’s guitarist Johnny Marr. Whatever interpretation, the song is a depiction of two outcasts who have found each other, who have “something they’ll never have.” In other words, the “they” who feel comfortable in their own skin, who are content with their lives or loves, who fit in. Two outcasts finding each other is a momentary and hopeful reprieve in a world of isolation, before it all breaks down again—or at least the narrator projects this, recognizing outcasts generally stay outcasts, that loneliness and rejection persist, that all human connection, outside of art, is only temporary:

But I know my luck too well
yes, I know my luck too well
and I’ll probably never see you again
I’ll probably never see you again

A different kind of alienation is depicted in a song like “Barbarism Begins at Home” which demonstrates society’s attempt to force conformity on the outsider beginning, as the title suggests, at home:

A crack on the head
is what you get for not asking
and a crack on the head
is what you get for asking

But with Morrissey’s honesty also comes great humor. Laughter, of course, is another way to connect to others. This is something few seem to understand about his lyrics—they’re also, at times, very funny. Take for instance, these well-known lines from “Heaven Knows I’m Miserable Now”:

I was looking for a job and then I found a job
And Heaven knows I’m miserable now

Or these from “Sweet and Tender Hooligan:”

Poor old man
he had an “accident” with a three bar fire
but that’s OK
because he wasn’t very happy anyway
Poor old woman
strangled in her very own bed as she read
but that’s OK
because she was old and she would have died anyway

This shouldn’t be funny, but it is. At the same time, in a song that is purported to be about someone in love with a murderer and how love can blind us, Morrissey manages to humorously and seriously convey the sad lonely desperation of both lover and victim and murderer. Only to top it off with a cheeky (in this context) quote from the Book of Common Prayer:

In the midst of life we are in death, Etc.

No writer I know of has ever made such a profound and hilarious use of “Etc.” Yet, again, when he sings it, it’s like he’s sending a message directly to you: death is a part of life, he says, but stops short of becoming too polemical or preachy, when he adds that last apathetic touch of Etc., or yeah, yeah, yeah, but you’ve heard it all before. And just to make sure, he takes it one more step by punning the line at the end of the song, by changing “death” to “debt.”

The point is not that you should run out and buy (or rather, download) every Smiths album or even like the band. Many don’t and never will and need not. Many also have no use for music or lyrics or poetry at all. We don’t need to worry about them. They’re hopeless and more than likely, richer than us. But many people, whether we admit it or not, turn to art for guidance just like some of us might turn to, ahem, religion. It’s a lie that we find who we are by simply looking “inside” ourselves. This sort of navel-gazing, for the most part, only produces bad poets and psychopaths. Good art serves a different role, like all great mythology, which is to tell us something about our lives. This is the function of all the greatest myths, all the greatest stories, all the greatest song lyrics, and all the greatest poetry.

Flash forward almost a quarter century:

Clint Margrave in high school. I’m 39, not-so skinny, still unpopular, and still shy. My daily life at school is still a terror, but now I’m the teacher. The constant bullying hasn’t stopped, but rather than it be by football players, it’s by administrators and politicians. The threats, however, to kick my ass have died down. That being said, I still walk around the campus avoiding eye contact with anyone. At home, it’s a little better. My mom has been replaced by my wife, and she only occasionally berates me for being different. The few friends I have are still all outcasts, and I still feel lucky to have them. I’m still an atheist, still without a god to explain the world to me (though I do have science), and for the most part my favorite singers have now been replaced by my favorite writers.

Just last month, I attended a number of poetry readings. One stands out more than the others, but not for the reasons you might think. It was at the university where I work. The poet gave some staggering statistics, claiming that in 1950, there were only 100 or so poets publishing in the English language, and today there are over 20,000. This left me wondering, with so many poets out there, why is it so hard to find one that tells me something about my life? Of course, it only took a few minutes to answer the question when this esteemed, award-winning poet delivered his poems. As one of my colleagues would later say, “It was like he ripped down the middle of the newspaper and just read it to us.” I suddenly felt excluded from an elite (or elitist) club. For the next twenty minutes I sat there listening to him wishing I had been closer to the exit. The poet made it a point to tell us one of the poems he read was part of a longer poem he’d been working on since 1975 or something like that. All those years and not one goddamned thing to tell me about my life. In his defense, he gave the disclaimer that only he could understand some of the references because they were personal. Which left me wondering, how much was the college paying this guy? And what were all these young people in the audience supposed to get out of this?

Did The Smiths lead me to become a poet or did the poet in me lead me to like The Smiths? None of my friends who introduced me to them ended up writing poetry. Thanks to Facebook, I now know that the guy who first introduced me to The Smiths is a lawyer (probably the wiser “career” choice.) Another big Smiths fan I know works in advertising. And still another I met much later in life, runs self-help seminars—go figure. Others expectedly became musicians as I did for a time in my life, before I concluded that it was a misguided venture for me—though I loved music, what I loved even more were words. I just hadn’t needed them yet.

What the lyrics of The Smiths did, more than anything else, was inspire me at a time when I needed it most, in ways that much of contemporary poetry is failing to do (or unwilling to do) for young people today. And it wasn’t just the lyrics, it was the word culture they introduced to me. For the first time in my life, I became interested in writers. After all, what other rock band mentioned Keats or Yeats or Oscar Wilde or all three in one stanza, as what happens in “Cemetery Gates:”

A dreaded sunny day
so I’ll meet you at the cemetery gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
while Wilde is on mine

What other band even thought of putting someone like Oscar Wilde on their t-shirt? Or as a backdrop to their stage show? Who else would title one of their songs “Shakespeare’s Sister”? What band in the history of rock and roll made young men and women excited to attend their English class? I remember going to the public library with my mom and picking out an 800-page biography of Wilde when I was fifteen years old solely because of The Smiths. And even if I couldn’t get through it all, I knew there was something magical and important about it. I knew or hoped, anyway, that within literature lay the answers to all my growing pains as I transitioned into the adult world. My sophomore book report was on The Picture of Dorian Gray, which I loved, and which was a book I’m almost certain my high school English teacher didn’t know (strangely, but that’s another subject.) I wouldn’t have known it either had it not been for The Smiths, and Morrissey in particular, who made it okay, even cool to be smart and read literature, in a way that no one else from my generation had.

There were, of course, all those poets and novelists that came later: Charles Baudelaire, Bukowski, Ernest Hemingway, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Carson McCullers, Fernando Pessoa, Herman Melville (see Morrissey’s solo song “Billy Budd”). But, to me, The Smiths were an unlikely entry-point into what would become the greatest passion of my life. Maybe it was because Morrissey was more poet than pop star. Or maybe it was generational. After all, there had been other poet/pop stars, of course—Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, Patti Smith. But Morrissey was more freakish than they were. You got the impression they would be the life of the party while he would be standing in the corner. By the time I was born, they already belonged to the club. And though they all had something to say, he was singing to a different crowd—those who were too shy to leave their bedrooms, those who were bullied, those who felt rejected, those who were outcasts. He was singing to me.


Clint Margrave is the author of The Early Death of Men, a collection of poems published by NYQ Books. His work has also appeared in The New York Quarterly, Rattle, Cimarron Review, Verse Daily, and Ambit (UK), among others. He lives in Long Beach, CA. (www.clintmargrave.com)

Photos (courtesy of author): Clint Margrave with Morrissey in front of his hotel (Le Parc in Hollywood) circa 1990; Clint Margrave in high school.

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