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

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Poem 7--Beth Roberts

This week's poem is by Beth Roberts, from her book Brief Moral History in Blue (New Issues 2001).  The poem, "Learning to Spell"  is doing many things at once:  capturing the domestic moment of practicing spelling words with a daughter, recognizing the brevity of those moments "trying to place/a pendulum", and delighting in language.  The speaker's facility with words stands in contrast to her daughter's struggles with these new ones, ridiculous in fact, that we all must learn "island"?  "Illinois"?  with those oddly disappearing s's?  

Roberts' poems tend to be challenging because of their playfulness and intelligence.  Don't let that discourage you.  Just enjoy the rhyme (or near rhyme) of Illinois/us, place/pace/space, still/spell.  Enjoy all those s sounds, the way the word spell becomes an incantation as well as a task, the way the speaker sees herself in her daughter but also sees the daughter as an individual, a "you".  A lot is happening in eight fairly short lines.  In the end, though, it's still a poem about a mother and a daughter, engaged in a familiar domestic scene, loving and tinged with a sense of time's passage.  

Learning to Spell

All the difference between Illinois
and Island hangs before us

like the task to trying to place
a pendulum.  Still, while I pace

entire pastures of palindrome,
ever clever clover, still

you (girl with a likeness to space
around the I) spell

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Poem 6--Joy Harjo

I chose today's poem because it's about, as the title suggests, the equinox, and here we are at the first days of spring. But, while the poem is about spring in some ways--the crocuses, the speaker's attempt to change her desire for revenge--it is also about balance, the way the world comes into balance on the equinox.  In this way, the speaker suggests, maybe she can balance the past, with its atrocities and genocides, with a future that has hope in addition to the pain of loss. Perhaps hope is too strong a word in this poem. Maybe it's just art that will carry her through, making her songs (poems) of "the blood, the marrow."

                  by Joy Harjo

I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.

I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees,
a mountain of sorrows, of songs.

I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning to mate and crocuses have
broken through the frozen earth.

Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead

and made songs of the blood, the marrow.


"Joy Harjo was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1951. Her books of poetry include How We Became Human: New and Selected Poems (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002); A Map to the Next World: Poems (2000);The Woman Who Fell From the Sky(1994), which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; In Mad Love and War(1990), which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award; Secrets from the Center of the World (1989); She Had Some Horses (1983); and What Moon Drove Me to This? (1979). She also performs her poetry and plays saxophone with her band, Poetic Justice. Her many honors include The American Indian Distinguished Achievement in the Arts Award, the Josephine Miles Poetry Award, the Mountains and Plains Booksellers Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, and fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts, the Witter Bynner Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She lives in Hawaii."


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Poem 5--William Butler Yeats

I have so far resisted putting any of the "old guy" poets in my box.  But this week's poem, "The Lake Isle of Innisfree" has special meaning for me right now.  It's one of Yeats' earlier poems (from The Rose, 1893) and, unusual for Yeats, is written mostly in iambic hexameter.   


By William Butler Yeats

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight's all a-glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet's wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart's core.

I am drawn to the sense of longing in the poem--the speaker's desire to be in beauty, to find peace in the natural world.  At the poem's conclusion, we see that he is imagining or remembering Innisfree as he stands in the middle of the city.  He doesn't, in the poem, ever actually go to Innisfree, an interesting realization that leaves the reader unsettled a bit at the end.  I love the words themselves, too:  bee-loud glade, deep heart's core, a-glimmer, a purple glow.  The images are comforting and the sounds soft, full of long vowels that slow the reader down, draw out the pleasure of the world being described.

Sometimes poems such as this can be off-putting to the modern reader.  We can get caught up in questions (what are wattles?  linnets?).  But if we read past the strangenesses and unfamiliarities, we find a situation to which we can all relate:  feeling tired with the circumstances of our daily lives, we seek escape into beauty and nature. 

My friend is dying.  I brought her this poem yesterday and she received it with gladness.  Maybe she will arise and go soon, and I can only hope she finds such peace as Yeats sought at Innisfree.

For me, poems do what the language of daily life cannot.  They articulate the experience of life in ways that every day language isn't designed for.  When we look closely at the best poems, we find our own lives and experiences reflected back to us.  We find access to our most vulnerable selves, our deep heart's core.

Here's a link to a biography on Yeats:

And here's a great link to Yeats himself reading the poem:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Poem 4--Kathleen McGookey

This week's poem is by Michigan poet Kathleen McGookey, from her just-released chapbook October Again (Burnside Review Press).

All day I check on the dove
                                            by Kathleen McGookey

All day I check on the dove, dead on the deck, and wish, each time I look, it might rise up, though I heard it smack against the glass, saw it drop, tremble, shake its injured wind, then lay its head down.  It was gentle, almost sweet, that last gesture.  And now, just after, I want to say, We all end that way, as if dying were as easy as falling asleep.  But that’s not right, either.  After my mother lay down, she waited four days.  I slept in her room, did what little I could—Vaseline for her lips, then a teaspoon of water.  When would the gentleness come?  Maybe the moment after.  Or the moment after that. 

McGookey's poems, prose poems and translations have appeared in over forty journals, including The Antioch Review, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and many others.  Her book, Whatever Shines, was published by White Pine Press and is available

Her translations of Georges Godeau's prose poems, We'll See, is available 

McGookey's work is exquisite--each image exact, overflowing with emotion that is otherwise gently contained, quiet.  As the speaker in these poems works through grief at her mother's death, the examination of the ordinary echoes the loss she feels, the ways she is trying to relearn the world that has been transformed by absence.  The understated quality of these poems gives them a haunting power--one that stays with a reader long after the book is finished.  The last poem in the chapbook ends:

"When the birds return to the lake in spring, when the single red and yellow tulip blooms again by the water's edge, we like to say this is your doing.  Of course you were not perfect.  But I was used to you."  

Those last words just rock me when I read them because they are true--in the end we love the people we love because we are used to them, they are familiar, they are ours and we are theirs.  What a simple, brave way to end a book about loss, mothering, being a daughter. 

This is a gorgeous book.  Please buy it.