Is it Tuesday? Every Tuesday a new poem appears in the box and on the blog.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Poem 35 Katrina Vandenberg

Oarlock, Oar (Y, W, V, U, F)
by Katrina Vandenberg

still I hail from smokestacks girders closed

factories McClouth Steel’s poured slag turning the night

sky and black river orange the tight typeface of houses

in River Rouge Wyandotte the steel and auto tribes

tribe of the alphabet job shops the fathers who set

metal lathes on screw machines to make in multiples

in sixes packets of ear plugs the men made deaf shift

changes at three the line must never stop nothing could

not mothers who taught us the alphabet shapes

of oxen boats houses camels letters row on row

to prop us up row the ideas forward the spear

the snake the needle tooth Y W V U and F

all hailing from the same tribe the same hieroglyph father

oar or oarlock depending the alphabet not unlike

the world we lived in once we lived in there the letters

trundled forth on their tracks boxcars shaking full

of gleaming two-doors leather seats body by Fisher

and yes I hail from unbeautiful artifice things

that made us late (barred tracks flashed lights opened

bridges) a tribe of shipbuilders iron ore taconite men

whose hands would not wash clean the machinery

and the machinery of the river the made thing

more important than we were the things themselves

not the idea of them I thought the letters books

a different place the books were not the way

out but in the letters embodying mirroring making what is

the oarlock what the oar still I hail from the Grosse Ile crew

team pulling on the river before school matching letter

jackets forgotten on the dock the catch release of blades

From the very first lines of this incredible poem--the title poem--from Katrina Vandenberg's wonderful 2012 book The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, the life of the industrial workforce in mid-century Detroit crashes against the life of the mind, of words, of art. The speaker inhabits the second world--she speaks in a poem, after all--and yet the first words of the poem are "still I hail from" and that "still" starting things off, without capitalization, indicates that the past is in her, even if she is far from Grosse Ile, even if the world she describes no longer exists.

So "still" starts us off. What a risky way to start a poem, just dropping the reader right into the middle of things. The poem's energy pulls the reader along: 
"still I hail from smokestacks girders closed/factories McClouth Steel’s poured slag turning the night/sky and black river orange the tight typeface of houses"

Notice here the number of things in these first three lines. Smokestacks. Girders. Closed factories. Slag. The strong and hearty verb "hail." The gorgeous linebreak at "closed/factories." The nouns ground us in world where fathers "set/ metal lathes on screw machines" and "whose hands would not wash clean." Furthermore, the syntax and linebreaks of this poem mimic the relentless push of the assembly line and the brutally hard work of the (mostly) men who worked it. 

But this is also a world where "mothers...taught us the alphabet shapes/of oxen boats houses camels letters row on row/to prop us up row the ideas forward". Literacy is the "prop" that will "row" the next generation forward. The work of the mothers is to help their children have access to a different life.

What is so wonderful about this poem, though, is the speaker's refusal to choose a life enabled by education over the place she came from. Instead of seeing education, language, literacy--poetry--as an escape, she suggests that the poems come from the place of her origin. Remember, the poem begins with "still." All these "unbeautiful...things" make poems: 

the world we lived in once we lived in there the letters
trundled forth on their tracks boxcars shaking full
of gleaming two-doors leather seats 

The boxcars carrying the seats for automobiles are parts of a personal language, and from this language the speaker makes her poems.

This poem, like many in the book, is also an exploration of the origins of the alphabet. When the speaker writes "Y W V U and F/all hailing from the same tribe the same hieroglyph father" we know, in the second use of "hail" that she is writing about the origins of our language and the origins of her own. 

The poem ends with an image of the high school crew team on the water, leaving their letter jackets on the dock:

still I hail from the Grosse Ile crew
team pulling on the river before school matching letter
jackets forgotten on the dock the catch release of blades

This image works in so many ways. The school girls "row...forward" on the river in the way their mothers hoped they would on the alphabet. Their jackets are letter jackets. Their oars catch and release the water, echoing the ways the poem deftly catches the past, honors it, transforms it into art, and then moves on, leaving the reader balanced there on that "blade" between past and present, between the "unbeautiful" and the beautiful, between the work of the body and the work of the mind. A gorgeous poem. A gorgeous book. 

For more information about The Alphabet Not Unlike the World, please go to

Vandenberg's first book, Atlas, (also wonderful) is available:

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Poem 34 Laurel Smith

Afterlife by Laurel Smith

The Old Ones say herons are the spirits
of those condemned for the sins of their previous lives,
confined to learn in an inferior form
until they can be reborn as humans. 

But in this life, I have been human,
crouching in pools of evening,
by streams of night
denied of every delight,
bound to the mud by my toes,
trying to bathe the humanity from my lifelines
with raindrops of regret and longing—
with sky sorrow echoed by my own salty tears.

I have stretched out,
Reaching to melt back into the sky,
to let breezes stream through my fingers like water.
In this life, my body has cried out to be long and graceful,
aching for the power of wings through wind,
remembering in a scrap of myself
the strength of heron feathers,
the depth of heron eyes.

I have been a blue heron
Scissor-slicing precisely through tissue paper skies—
Elemental daughter, zephyr dancing between the stars:
A wise and psychic guardian of incarnation—
I want no Heaven or Hell,
need nothing but wings in the night.

If that was my penance,
May I pay for my sins for the rest of my lives. 

I just love this poem by my wonderful colleague--the whip-smart, ever-patient Laurel Smith, who is currently an MFA candidate at Hamline University. 

The poem begins with the "Old Ones" who believe the heron is the manifestation of human misdeeds. Smith doesn't linger here long, beginning her second stanza with "But" and making the surprising, beautiful turn toward the personal. She writes, "But in this life, I have been human" and the strangeness of the line pulls us farther to the next image, not human at all, "crouching in pools of evening/by streams of night" and we see that she is both heron and woman, human and bird. The speaker pushes the comparison even further, though, when she tries "to bathe the humanity from my lifelines." The human world is one of "regret and longing," and earth a place of sorrow and tears. 

In the second stanza, the speaker enumerates the heron's gifts--beauty, grace, power. Though her touch is light, the speaker's critique of society's pressures on women is clear. "My body has cried out to be long and graceful" she says. And it's not just pressure to be graceful and beautiful, she suggests. She must also be good. The good woman would not become a heron, of course, living as she would without sin. But the poem takes issues with all of these expectations in embracing the heron's life.

The next stanza soars as the speaker inhabits the heron's flight. The sounds in the line "Scissor-slicing precisely through tissue paper skies" is gorgeous, almost airborne with its S's and long I's. In this metamorphosis the speaker, as she takes wing, leaves the earth and the human behind, and in her flight she is free and "need[s] nothing but wings in the night." In this flight, she is beautiful, and the poem's sounds mimic the beauty and freedom of her flight.

Of course, earth awaits her. But when the poem ends, the speaker is defiant. She will take the heron's life anytime--it's worth whatever it costs. The old ones might not approve, but the speaker doesn't care. She is ready to leave the constraints of this world behind.

I can't wait to see Laurel's writing career blossom. This is a great poem, and it's just the start. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Poem 33

Nothing is so beautiful as spring—        
  When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush;        
  Thrush's eggs look little low heavens, and thrush        
Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring        
The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing;        
  The glassy peartree leaves and blooms, they brush        
  The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush        
With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.                 
What is all this juice and all this joy?        
  A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning        
In Eden garden.—Have, get, before it cloy,        
  Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning,        
Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy,        
  Most, O maid's child, thy choice and worthy the winning.

My neighbors must wonder a bit sometimes about my poem box, often making its empty promise: Free Poems, when in fact I am offering only an empty box. But my semester draws to an end, and instead of focusing on the thousand thousand words my students struggled over, I can turn my mind to poems. And I have filled it with this one by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Hopkins, who lived from 1844-1889, was a Jesuit who quietly wrote some of the most experimental poems of his time. 

I chose this poem because it is finally spring here in Minnesota and so the descriptions felt just right. When snows extend into May, truly nothing is as beautiful as the "long and lovely and lush" first green. But I also chose it for a stance I recognize too often in myself: the lover of the beautiful moment turns to the clouds that surely will darken the sky soon. 

The first eight lines of this Italian sonnet describe, in lush language full of alliteration and assonance, the gorgeous elements of springtime. Notice that they are not just visual, though the descriptions start there, "long and lovely and lush" (completely with lulling L sounds), and the thrush's eggs like "little low heavens." But, too, we have sounds that "rinse and wring/the ear" like the thrush's song. (Notice too how the syntax of that line makes us wait until the very end to find our subject, the song.) And we have action, with lambs "racing" through the scene. The octave ends with a question: "What is all this juice and all this joy?"

We expect a turn here at the ninth line, and we get it in the poem's move from vivid description of spring toward religious contemplation. In beginning to answer his own question, the speaker tells us, 
"A strain of the earth's sweet being in the beginning/in Eden garden." And knowing that man has already fallen, we know this spring cannot last. But Hopkins makes an unexpected move. He urges Christ to enter the minds of the innocent before they sin (instead of asking for forgiveness for sins committed), as if spring and innocence, "innocent mind and Mayday" could be extended through Christ. 

Hopkins struggled a lot--with loneliness, depression, his repressed homosexuality. What I find so striking in his poems is the way his words enact the emotional situation of the poem--the sound and rhythm and music of joy "racing lambs have fair their fling" and of despair "before it cloud...and sour with sinning." I don't know quite how to reconcile the impulses in this poem because summer must follow spring. Experience follows innocence. The speaker in this poem, though, seems to want another path, one without a fall. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Poem 32 Emily Dickinson, Again


 by Emily Dickinson

Come slowly—Eden
Lips unused to Thee—
Bashful—sip thy Jessamines
As the fainting Bee—

Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums—
Counts his nectars—
Enters—and is lost in Balms.

No matter what else might have been true about Emily Dickinson, she could write some hot poems. The virginal lady in white, maybe. But this poem is sexy, no doubt about it.  

The slow sounds of that first line "Come slowly--Eden" with those  "o" and "e" vowels, followed by the S's in the next lines, create a sensual delight in anticipation of lovemaking. We must move through the poem slowly, slipping from human desire ("lips") to the simile of the bee entering the jessamine blossom. The promise is Eden. The arrival will be slow. The result--to be "lost in balms." And there we are left at the beginning, really, of the lovemaking. 

I was looking for a poem about a cold spring, or about spring not coming, or any other sort of weather-related misery I could fall farther into. But then I found this poem and thought: what better cure for the weather than a sexy little poem from our greatest poet? This should keep us warm, then, for a few more weeks.

Here's what might be a new photo of Dickinson, by the way (on the left), with a friend. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Poem 31 Matt Rasmussen


The guy Dad sold your car to
comes back to get his money,

leaves the car. With filthy rags
we rub it down until it doesn’t shine

and wipe your blood into
the seams of the seat.

Each snowflake stirs before
lifting into the sky as I

learn you won’t be dead.
The unsuffering ends

when the mess of your head
pulls together around

a bullet in your mouth.
You spit it into Dad’s gun

before arriving in the driveway
while the evening brightens

and we pour bag after bag
of leaves on the lawn,

waiting for them to leap
onto the bare branches.
                                           originally appeared in Passages North

I asked the incredibly talented Matt Rasmussen for a poem about sibling loss because it is an experience we share. What Matt does so brilliantly in this poem is capture all the parts of such loss—the bewilderment, the anger, the utterly mundane scenes that preceed an event that changes everything for a family.

The poem starts with a title that is explanatory—it describes exactly the fantasy that will follow, the reverse of the series of actions that took place when the speaker’s brother shot himself.

The poem begins casually, as if the brothers were talking: “The guy Dad sold your car to/comes back to get his money” and this doesn’t become jarring for a few stanzas. And yet the nagging straightforwardness of the financial transaction catches us, just a bit.  The father and son, with the returned car, wipe it down “with filthy rags” because the car is getting dirtier as time moves backwards, until we come to the first really brutal stanza:

and wipe your blood into
the seams of the seat.

Of course, if events could move in reverse, the blood would have to go back into the car before it could go back into the not-dead body of the brother, and yet. The initial discomfort we feel at the financial transaction of selling the car is heightened here by a sense that no brother—or father—should be doing this job. Not ever.  Rasmussen’s monosyllables work well here to heighten the brute force of the action he describes.

The poem then shifts, turns toward beauty in the snow that is not falling now but lifting:

Each snowflake stirs before
lifting into the sky as I

learn you won’t be dead.

Anyone who has suffered an unexpected tragedy recognizes this moment, the moment when we learn of the loved one’s death and everything changes and we have to “learn” the world anew. But in reverse, the moment is still fraught. The speaker can’t quite unknow the loss; instead, he has to learn a different truth, his brother “won’t be dead.” Which is not the same as saying “you are alive.” We see this struggle to believe the fantasy the speaker is creating in the next lines, which are angry and direct:

The unsuffering ends

when the mess of your head
pulls together around

a bullet in your mouth.

Here the speaker acknowledges both his own anger “mess of your head” and the hopelessness of the fantasy. To wish his brother back means to wish him into suffering again.  So whose suffering will be relieved? Whose will carry on? 

The poem ends brilliantly, in the familiar, mundane world of family tasks: two brothers working in the yard together.  Those leaves could no more return to the trees than a brother return to life. And while the speaker realizes this, the image of the brothers in the yard increases the sense of loneliness and loss. What we lose when we lose a sibling is the person who helps us remember the moments, not only important ones, that construct our lives.  We lose the person who we assumed would be there through all the hard journeys. And in dying, the sibling has left the hard things—parental suffering, aging, grief, loneliness—to us. And of course, we lose the joys we would have shared, moving through this gorgeous world together. 

19 years ago today my sister Kate died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Thank you, Matt, for this beautiful poem. It helps make a sad day a little bit less so.

 Matt’s first book, Black Aperture, winner of the prestigious 2012 Walt Whitman Award from the American Academy of Poets, will be published in May by Louisiana State University Press. For more about Matt or his book, go to

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Poem 30 Patricia Kirkpatrick

WHITE TREES    by Patricia Kirkpatrick

“Hope is an ‘intuition of emptiness’ with which we make agreement…”
-Fanny Howe

She went out to see
white trees
that night as black
branches turned
and filled with snow
shrouds where
didn’t reach
where figures
she went out to stay
away from
how the night went on
without her
burrow into drifts
to stalk
the blizzard to its face
and deep crevasse
to fall
and falling
to touch
with her hands
to channel
vision against the coming
storm the sheen
of sodden places
as if to pick up
and steady lambs
to grass to
and shepherd
grief she walked
that night
to vacancies
white trees were filling with

Wow, this is a stunning poem.  In its very short lines and abrupt fragments, it represents the inner state of a woman walking bravely, if haltingly, into a “coming/storm.”

The first eight lines immediately introduce the poem’s beautiful, startling images and the fragmented nature of the woman’s experience:

She went out to see
white trees
that night as black
branches turned
and filled with snow
shrouds where
didn’t reach…

In the line breaks we get discombobulated: is the night black, or the branches? is it snow or a snow shroud? Without punctuation to guide us and with those line breaks that work both forward and backward, we are uncertain.

It continues:

she went out to stay
away from
how the night went on
without her

And again we have the surprise in realizing she did not “go out to stay” but rather to “stay away.”  To stay away from what? “How the night went on/without her.”  We begin to get, with the shrouds in the first few lines and the fear of being left behind (“without her”), a sense that this is a poem about fear of death or the unknown, of the ‘desert places’ Frost describes in his brutal poem about walking at night in the snow.

What happens next, though, surprises. The verbs change and in changing suggest that though this woman is upset and alone, she is also active, not passive, in face of whatever she fears. Look at these verbs. She goes out to “stalk,” “fall,” “touch,” “channel,” “track,” and, finally  “shepherd.” If something awaits her, she will find and come to understand it. Moreover, in the end what she shepherds is “grief,” suggesting that even if what lies before her is indeed hard, she can take a gentle sort of care for it.

The poem ends, 
“she walked/that night/to vacancies/white trees were filling with” 
no closing mark of punctuation, ending with a preposition: all indications are that the walk is not over, that the “empty spaces between the stars” that Frost writes of must be lived. The paradox of vacancy filling a space extends this notion. Life requires us to face absences and our fear of loss, and if we accept loss, we can actively examine it. If we examine loss, we have something—a space is filled by seeing and accepting.  If we try to stay inside, where it’s warm and safe, the loss is still out there and we have nothing but our fear.
I’ll end where I began. Wow.

Kirkpatrick won the first Linquist-Vennum Prize for Poetry and her book, Odessa, will be published this December by Milkweed.  For more information, see the link below.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Poem 29 Carol Willette Bachofner

Allow the Year

Allow the year to end, clouds
gusting in an ocean overhead

and the sun on its passage
to solstice, sinking near earth.
Allow the thickets of winter

shadows to cross the yard
and ivy to ascend chain link

crimson as a neighbor’s light
brazenly on and off. Allow loss.
Allow the grinding traffic

whatever its various ends
to stop unseen and the mice

under the bird feeder to eat
among sparrows. Allow them.
Allow the trash pickers. Allow

their bottles, plastics and cans.
And the old cat her last patch

of warmth on the back steps.
And the housefly on the wall
its frail hold. Allow the year

to end, whatever the way, allow
the kitchen curtain to blow

in and out, and in and out.
Allow the year to end, the soul
to rise and fall, then rise again.

— Carol Willette Bachofner

from I Write in the Greenhouse, Front Porch Editions 2011
first published in Bangor Metro.

I chose this week’s poem because I struggle with letting things be. So much of my nature is devoted to resistance, to grasping, and especially in the fall when I so want to keep winter from coming, want to keep the world green.

Carol Willet Bachofner is a Maine poet, and we can see Maine a bit in the landscape of this poem.  It is a sort of prayer to change, a gentle reminder to appreciate the beauties of the world, with the incantation of “allow.” I am reminded of Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come” and its repetitions and gratitudes, its God who “does not leave us comfortless.”

In this poem, the speaker isn’t addressing the season’s shift between summer and fall but rather the solstice’s turn from fall to winter. And the speaker doesn’t seem to be struggling with the change, as I do, so much as celebrating all the various aspects of daily life—the beautiful, “the thickets of winter/ shadows” that “cross the yard” and the mundane, “mice/ under the birdfeeder.”  Through her repetition of “allow”—a lovely word, full of those open vowels—the reader is mesmerized, drawn in and allowed (if I may say that) to really see the world, ordinary and beautiful at once. This detailed depiction of a day, with its sparrows and trash pickers and houseflies, is evoked finely and becomes, through careful description, beautiful.

But in case we are not convinced by the quotidian, the poem’s last lines leave us no doubt : “Allow the year to end, the soul/to rise and fall, and rise again.” Note how subtle the move from the physical to the metaphysical here, and the gorgeous internal rhyme of “end” and “again” to make the argument. Change is part of the human condition. We must allow it, and in allowing for it, perhaps we will be able to see its beauty. If we fall short, if we “fall”, we can rise up again—the next day to the clouds and sparrows—or eventually, if we so believe, into a heaven that might be better than this world. Or maybe not. Maybe this world is heaven. Certainly we need to be here and paying attention to know.

Oh, how I love poems. Willette Bachofner’s poem, reminding me to see, is a gift right now in my busy life. Thanks, Carol.

If you’d like to know more about Carol Willette Bachofner, go to these links: