Jen Lambert: “My family just recently learned of my mother’s diagnosis of degenerative brain disease. It has been a difficult month as we learn how to adapt with patience and compassion to her diminishing ability. She is often not herself, and just this week I watched the new Aaron Hernandez documentary, Killer Inside, that highlights the NFL player’s erratic and dangerous behavior, suicide, and posthumous diagnosis of the worst case of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) ever seen in a person so young. While Hernandez’s brain disease was ultimately avoidable, it still broke my heart to see how he struggled with the effects: paranoia, anxiety, and impulse control—some of the same struggles my own mother is experiencing. I feel fortunate that we know what is happening with my mother’s brain disease (CTE can only be diagnosed after death), but it doesn’t make the slow loss of the person we knew her to be any easier. Watching the documentary pushed me to start writing through it now.”
“American Museum of Natural History (Love, Love, Love)” by Aryk GreenawaltPosted by Rattle
AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY (LOVE, LOVE, LOVE)
I. Lobby of the American Museum of Natural History, Manhattan, NYC
On the phone, my mother tells me it is normal to forget everyone I have ever loved. She tells me it is normal to forget I loved them. It is normal to be nine years old, surrounded by red-eyed girls at our very first sleepaway camp, staring into the night while they cried and imagining my mouth as a fist. My mother doesn’t know I keep my bully’s mother’s Facebook on my feed, doesn’t know that when I told my first boyfriend I missed him, I had my fingers crossed. My mother thinks there is a heart in me yet.
I was four when I decided to be a paleontologist, not yet in school, carcharodontosaurus easier on my teeth than my middle name. I sounded out the names. In dreams I was in Nevada or California, working sites in the desert, uncovering trilobites and teeth the size of my arm. My father took me into Manhattan every Christmas Eve, sat on the bench beneath the brachiosaurus while I traced its spine in the air, its smallest vertebra larger than my head. The holiday crowd parted around me. My father followed me from room to room and waited on benches designed for bored parents, but I knew them all—sauropods, theropods—and I could identify skeletons without reading the plaques.
II. Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor
I have forgotten everyone I’ve ever loved. Sediment on riverbeds. Stone and ash. Sweep the mud over my old middle school, the girls in my carpool, the freshman who texted i love u while I was on holiday. New York grinned with plesiosaur teeth. Here, in the American Museum of Natural History, when I look behind me at the teeth and thumbs of people whose numbers I deleted, who I watched walk away and who I walked away from, I see the space where a heart would go. What can I do with all these scattered parts? Drop them behind me like footprints. Make them fossils. Put something beautiful here, and I will piece it together. I will call them each by name. I will give them a name that isn’t theirs and call it into the night. No one remains to tell me I am wrong, to put salt in my eyes and call it love. If I am crying, you are walking away. If you are crying, I am walking away. But the bones stay. Give them distance. Make them fossils. I have never known a love I could hold while it was alive.
Here, on the archivists’ table, we have human beings reduced to their parts: vertebrae, mandibles, phalanges. Give me the names before I forget altogether; give me a placard, and I will classify them. This is not my history, but I am trying to piece it together: the people who touched me, who wrote their names in yearbooks, whose eyes and hair merge into high school crowds and cinema exoduses; the ribs like crooked evergreens, knees shifting in my hands, my hands in the heart cavity, feeling for something to hold onto.
What’s left of everyone I have ever known could fit in the palm of my hand. I could fill a museum with the people I have split clean through with my chisel and brush. I could fill the halls with textured sweaters, raincoats, the bridges of noses. I invent the details. I can only be trusted to love when no one needs me to love them.
Interlude: Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals
In a ditch in the woods behind my house, we found a skull: no blood, viscera shriveled on bone. The serrated hollow of its nose, its antlers detached cleanly on the ground. My brother cried the long hike home. I said, Its ribs, its ribs. Maybe I was the only one who saw them. The next time we went into the woods, it was gone. All the while I had been folding myself up to give it myself as a heart. I don’t remember a point in my history where I could say I believed in love, but, looking at the space where there had been a skeleton, I thought I knew.
My brother is the only person who stayed when he could have left, even when I held him down for seven years, thumb and forefinger griping muscle. How can I write this poem without making myself heartless? My bloods say, you are cruel. My bones say you have a claw like a velociraptor, always raised, and you drag it down the face of everyone bold enough to call you theirs. Say, you are bones in the ground. You are bones rising out of the ground.
You are bones, and I am walking away.
III. Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, Fourth Floor
In 2017, a study moves the T-Rex to a new branch of the dinosaur family tree: ornithoscelida, bird-limbed. I imagine paleontologists disassembling him, carrying him in carts to the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs, the glass case left empty behind him, footprints in the sand, claws scraping tile. If he was an ancestor of birds then he is still with us. Goodbye, Meryl Streep, your voice tracing genealogies in a room dark and ridged as the Great Blue above the Hall of Ocean Life. Goodbye Gavin on the bench beside me, our father in the back, his lips moving with the words, the light on our hands. I thought I knew everything. I thought when I moved to a place that did not know the bones and blood of me, I could excavate a new me, pull it from the earth and brush the dust away. I thought I could be someone who did not leave. Strip me of my half a century left; make me bones in the ground; trap my footprints in sediment and say you knew I would come back.
Aryk Greenawalt: “My surreal approach to poetry comes directly from my worldview as a nonbinary autistic person (I was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome but choose the label “autistic” to show solidarity with all my siblings on the autism spectrum, and to show that there is no hierarchy of value in autistic people, because we all have innate value). The world is indecipherable, so I make my own riddles and unravel them. People are indecipherable, so I create my own. The world slides around me like shower water, so I slide around it back. I write around it. I make crevasses and write in them. I write it into a world in which I have the control, in which I make the rules, where the world and I are perfectly understood by each other. I pursue amorphism: I eradicate the difference between the Thing and that which is outside the Thing. I tell the world: two can play this game, and I show it the playing field.”
James Davis May: “When I played hockey as a kid, my friends and I would sometimes announce that we were certain NHL greats before scrimmaging. ‘I’m Lemieux,’ someone would say, and someone would shout, ‘I call Robitaille,’ and another would shout, ‘Coffey!’ Of course, we knew we weren’t actually these players; the thinking was, I guess, that we were somehow calling on their spirits to help us. Then as we played, we would mimic those players, trying to shoot, stickhandle, and skate in their style. My theory is that poets do something similar, that almost every poem has a hero/heroine poet behind it, a Dante guiding us through the process. It’s pretty clear my hero for this poem is David Kirby, whose braided poems just stun me. Inevitably, when I finish a Kirby poem—a poem like, say, ‘More than This,’ which appeared in this magazine, I ask myself, ‘How does he do that?’ I explored that question by writing this poem, and it’s worth noting that after finishing the first draft I stood up and threw my back out.” (web)
Laurie Uttich: “At fifteen, I started what would be a ten-plus-year ‘career’ in the service industry. I’ve been a florist assistant, a server, a cocktail waitress, a bartender, a catering assistant, a donut shop worker, a ‘bar cart girl’ at a golf course, and other jobs. I typically worked one or two jobs regularly and then picked up a third when I needed more money. After getting my first ‘real’ job as a copywriter, I continued to work at various service jobs to pay off my student loans (and cover the rent). I don’t know who I’d be without spending so much time under the scrutiny of men (and sometimes women) who first tried to decide if I was attractive enough to hire … and then, later, by men who were customers and often intoxicated. I think about that girl back then and when I imagine my younger self behind a bar or squeezing between two tables balancing a tray, I see myself so clearly as prey, my face frozen into a smile. I suppose the easy response is that being a part of these environments made me a feminist poet, but that’s oversimplifying it. I was always an observer, but being in a situation where it feels as if anything could happen—and you’re supposed to be friendly right up until the second it turns into something else, and who knows when that will be?—shapes how I view situations and how I address them in my work. In prose, I’m always couching reflections—‘not all men’ and that sort of thing. In poems, I just swim in the emotion of the moment and I don’t worry about any global conclusions a reader might make.” (web)
The 2020 Readers’ Choice Award was selected from among the Rattle Poetry Prize finalists by subscriber vote. Only those with active subscriptions including issue #70 were eligible. “Farm Sonnet” earned 20.2% of the votes and the $5,000 award. Here is what some of those readers had to say about their choice:
Each of the nominated works gifted me poetic warmth. “Farm Sonnet,” though, took the lead for its last two lines which lit on a truth about love.
I like the simple straightforward language with its unforced rhymes and half-rhymes which support the gentle slide from memories of the mother’s strength and mastery sliding inevitably into the final years of her life when dementia led to a reversal in which she calls her daughter “mom.” The final couplet on the impossibility of love mastering the inevitable loss of death provides a fitting conclusion to the poem. It is an outstanding sonnet.
It is such a small, understated jewel of a piece, wrapped up perfectly by the form which is (as in the best sonnets) both intrinsic and invisible. It probably also for me benefited by being a quiet whisper in the midst of a large number of poems tackling BIG issues. But really, in this year of pandemic and lockdown, the basics of living and loving and losing feel like what we also need to be talking about, and aren’t.
Simple, beautiful images of the glorious past and the sad future. The story of human being life, parent’s strength, devotion to protect their children, pets and farm. Then comes fast, the aging process, weakness and dementia, vacant eyes that breaks our heart. Life passes fast don’t wait to tell the one you love that you love them.
While its conceit may feel less culturally grandiose (with other entries expounding on experiences born out of the pandemic, gender identity, or racism), the subject sings within its form and within its quietness. And even while reading other entries, I couldn’t stop thinking about the final couplet: “The time we have’s still too short to master / love, and then, the hollow that comes after.” Like … WHOA.
To read “Farm Sonnet” and all of the other finalist poems, pick up a copy of Rattle #70, or wait until the April, when those poems start appearing online at Rattle.com.
Kitty Carpenter was the winner, but this year’s voters were divided, as they always are—each of the remaining poems received between 5% and 16% of the vote, and all of the finalists had their own enthusiastic supporters. Every year, it’s an interesting and informative experience reading the commentary. To provide a taste of that, here is a small sample of what our subscribers said about the other finalists:
On Beck Anson’s “I Admit Myself to the Psych Ward in a Pandemic”:
I’m impressed by Anson’s honesty about his mental health struggles, and I like how he places his personal pain within the context of the pandemic. We are, indeed, “all being controlled by something / we can’t touch or see.”
This poem is unforgettable to me. The way Anson weaves in the descriptive landscape and surroundings and uses this experience to reflect on something larger than himself is spectacular. In this poem, one goes on a journey alongside the poet. I was left contemplating life in a rich, thoughtful way. Amazing!
On Chaun Ballard’s “Survival Is a Matter of Perspective When”:
It is a thriller of a poem, causing me to hold my breath for fear of what might come next—a short story of survival, so cleverly told. I found myself going back to it again and again. Congratulations to all the finalists, but Chaun Ballard captured my heart. It inspires me to take more chances with my own writing.
The way that the poem keeps a steady, slow pace, is self-reflective, self-referencing, and breaks and then returns to form combines to effect a masterful lingering of a moment—the mix of the beauty and pain, threat of violence, misunderstanding and recognition is incredibly strong and powerful. I am typically not a fan of longer poems, but in this one I love how much is gained in the long form, almost seeming to suspend time the meander of thoughts. It reminds me of the mastery of Woolf in capturing stream-of-consciousness, and he achieves this in a poem. I’ve admired Ballard’s work for some time, and feel each time that I read his work how thrilling it is to witness the emergence of a truly great and innovative poet.
On Shelly Stewart Cato’s “Mega-”:
After much consideration, I had it narrowed down to this poem and “Army Memorial Service:Tikrit.” It was a struggle to choose because I know the feeling of losing friends in war from Vietnam. I finally decided on “Mega-” because of the specific details that wowed me throughout the poem. Whenever I am writing a poem, I always think, “Details, details, details.” And I have the Ezra Pound quote on my desk: “Make it new.” This poem fit both of my rules perfectly.
The visual details drew me in, and the poet-as-tour-guide transports us straight inside the megachurch, but I’m voting for the poem’s sardonic humor. Too few poems provide the laugh at life these times deserve.
On Skye Jackson’s “Spoon-Rest Mammies”:
Skye Jackson’s effort was the best of the bunch
I read it thoroughly thrice during one protracted lunch
Spoon-Rest Mammies, a reflection of these times
Social conscience versus prevailing capitalistic grime
Society should know better, but the dollar still prevails
The jingle in the pocket quips the rest can go to hell
One has to make a living, but self sometimes disguised
As inner turmoil boils with principles compromised
But the ending was quite fitting to this cautionary tale
Now, if all offending shops would follow suit as well
It’s so strong how everyday racism bubbles up like lava through the simple storytelling. The world and the characters and the things people say: The use of what is said and what is left unsaid is so masterful. The poem says to us knowingly, “You know how it goes.” I love that she gets to throw them out in the end.
On Gordon Kippola’s “Army Service: Tikrit”:
This is a brilliant sonnet. The sparseness of the description matches the somberness of the event. The rhyming is so perfectly done, never feeling forced. “Our ghost today is Private First Class Jones” sets the tone immediately. There is real respect shown at the same time as irreverence (“which made his ass go AWOL.”) The last line (The lyrics promise, “God is nigh. They’re wrong.”) is a gut punch.
It stood out as the obvious choice for many reasons: the combination of gallows humor and respectful affection for the dead; the authenticity and maturity of the voice; the authoritative and light-handed use of accessible jargon; the deft execution of the sonnet form, which felt natural and unforced; the irreverent turn at the end. I also chose this poem for what it lacks: self-pity; solipsism; didacticism; melodrama; sentimentality; nationalism; overt, self-conscious patriotism; cliché. None of the deadly sins of light, inspirational, or populist verse are present. It’s masterful.
On Lance Larsen’s “And Also I Ran”:
My reason is simple: I can’t believe he did it. It’s a story almost impossible to tell—mechanically, emotionally, intellectually. Mr. Larsen’s poem leaves me feeling as if I’ve read a great novel. I am at once enervated and electrified, shattered and recovered and shattered again. And he accomplishes these things in a single type-written page, approximately. Magnificent. Lance Larsen’s “And Also I Ran” is why I am not normal. I refuse to miss this.
This poem feels to me, as Rilke said about a good poem, that it was “sprung from necessity.” In every line, I sense the urgency and the authentic rush to get it down. The poem beautifully balances thought, feeling, and imagery. There is also the balance of order and wildness in the language. Surprising turns all the way through. Sorrow and gratitude and a terrible wonder. Anger and relief at fate. This poem is accessible, but the psychological/emotional territory is complex. There is plenty of physical detail to ground the poem as it explores emotional, psychological, and spiritual matters of a tragic incident. There is love.
On Jessica Lee’s “Greener Pastures”:
Aside from my general personal preference for prose poems which tell a story, it was Ms. Lee’s brave and “no holds barred” effort in showing nature’s commonality and equality between the genders, which have been squeezed and pushed into religious and secular forms deemed “appropriate” by ignorance, which ultimately garnered my vote. Poetry, like life, isn’t always comfortable.
I am female and was born in 1938, well before women were anything else but nice partners for well-earning husbands who would be made happy if they received a washing machine for Christmas and opened their legs when required. I am so very much there with Jessica Lee and my whole being understands that poem.
On Austen Leah Rose’s “Dear Husband”:
From the center of a dark star to the spark between two mirrors, Austen Leah Rose’s poem left me wanting to read it again and again, and each time I discovered something I wanted to know or understand. That’s my favorite kind of poem … one that leaves me with questions, not answers.
As good as the other nine are, this poem is for me unquestionably the best. My response to it was immediate. While the other poems relate experiences, this poem is the experience. It defies paraphrase. It lives in a world created by language. When I turned to the contributors notes, I was pleased but not surprised to see a reference to Rilke. There are many rooms in the mansion that is poetry, and it appears that this poet and I like to hang out in the same room. This is a poem I will enjoy reading again, a poem which will perhaps have me rethinking my own response to Rilke. And it makes wonderful use of white space. White space, like silence, the frame in which a poem exists.
On Alexis Rotella’s “Empty Souls”:
This moving, prose poem, which is interspersed with Japanese or Buddhist inspired lines, beautifully conveys the traumatic overload that we are facing in the world with the pandemic, the climate crisis, racial injustices, and challenges to democracy. The poem conveys how as a society, we have very little room to empathize with others, due to sheer overwhelm. Practicing spirituality, such as Buddhist principles of emptiness, as well as conveying pain through poetic writing, are antidotes to staying connected and healing from trauma.
I think it is the best choice because its effective use of the unusual form, the haibun, made it stand out from the other finalists. For a haibun to be successful, the title, prose, and haiku must all work together to create a whole. The haiku must be of exceptional quality, that is, not rely on the prose for meaning, but instead evoke a deep emotional response in the reader. “Empty Souls” meets all my criteria for a quality haibun. I was there, at the airport, on the plane, at the dinner party, and even at the qi gong class. The final haiku is absolutely stunning and leaves the reader with a bittersweet longing for the world to be as it should be, rather than as it is.
Richard Prins: “In January 2017, two events radically changed my life: my daughter arrived in New York, and Donald Trump arrived in the White House. The spare time that I had previously devoted to poetry was now spent at playgrounds and protests. My solution was writing this poem about taking my baby to a protest. I considered it a remarkable feat of multitasking. I’ve been arrested several times since then at other Trump properties and the United States Senate. Civil disobedience is a bold, reckless, floppy, disruptive dance. Ideally, it’s also backed up by meticulous planning, theory, conviction, and community support. In other words, just about everything I could ask for in a poem.” (web)
Jim Gustafson: “In 1966, I heard John Logan’s ‘Three Moves’ recited in a college class. That moment changed my view of poetry, the world, and myself. Since then I have written in search of understanding and shared my words in search of understanders.” (web)