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

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Poem 20 Jen March

Poem 20!  How did we get here?  Today's wonderful poem is by Jen March:

if the world is fragile

i did not notice
i buried the knowledge deep
in the soil of my skin
a thousand years before my birth
there was a cherry tree in the front yard
sour fruit between young lips
bloodied bruises on the sidewalk of self
the truth of roots of grasses of seasons
all of it was fresh and fine by me
if there was a question of strength
i never thought to ask
i kept my own serpentine soul skinned
and waxed
i kept a roar in every orifice
a wrench in every pocket
ready to build
i remembered the cherries
i pointed to the sky
i was a lion
i called the world
to my warm fur

This is a wonderful, deceptively complex poem. The title is also the first line, so the reader is in the poem before she knows it: “if the world is fragile/i did not notice.”  What I like immediately is the complication of tense.  I would expect a continuation of the present “the world is fragile” but “i do not notice” (or, more expectedly, "as i have noticed"). This complication points to the poem’s heart.  It continues in the next line “I buried the knowledge deep.” I am even more curious now because this line implies that the speaker knew something about the fragility of the world but never noticed it, suggesting we are born with an innate sense of our mortality along with the absolute ability to deny it.  So, three short lines into this poem, and a lot is going on.

What happens next is a building of images of strength and power, the ways in which the speaker saw herself as in control of her life and her destiny.  As a child, “all of it was fresh and fine by me” she says about bruises on “the sidewalk of self” and the “seasons.” She goes on “if there was a question of strength/I never thought to ask.” I just love these lines and their directness. If we don't ask the questions, we won't ever have to hear an answer we fear. This is a form of strength, but it's limited, as we shall see. Then the fabulous images:  “I kept a roar in every orifice/ a wrench in every pocket” the speaker says. She is fearless, with a noisy strength and the right tools for the job. There is nothing to fear. 

The poem concludes, “I was a lion/I called the world/to my warm fur.”  There is no doubt in these lines that at one point the speaker was oblivious to the ways in which the world is stronger even than the most powerful. Not even a fearsome roar and a benevolent sense of power can protect us. And we know that something has changed for her in the use of past tense.  There is something sad and elegiac in all those lines beginning with "i" and a verb (i buried, i kept, i remembered) the speaker uses build to let us know that this was before whatever the unnamed event (life?) changed her.

Other poems in this collection deal with grieving the loss of a mother, and I read this as a grief poem, too.  Grief changes us in many ways, but one of the most painful is in its ability to shift the world as we knew it.  It’s retroactive in its power.  How could I have refused to notice the world’s fragility? the poem asks.  But it does so subtly, letting the reader work down through the gorgeous line breaks, the controlled, mostly iambic lines, and through the use of past tense. 

I have not talked about that “if” that starts things off.  I would argue that the question it raises (is the world fragile? or is it we who are fragile?) is answered in the tense shift, but I have thought about it a lot and am not completely convinced of my reading of that title. What do you think?

For more of March's work, as well as information about her wonderful poetry-movie festival, please go to:

her poetry-movie, Swim, can be found online at:

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Poem 19 Kay Ryan

“Things Shouldn’t Be So Hard” by Kay Ryan

A life should leave
deep tracks:
ruts where she
went out and back
to get the mail
or move the hose
around the yard;
where she used to
stand before the sink,
a worn out place;
beneath her hand
the china knobs
worn down to
white pastilles;
the switch she
used to feel for
in the dark
almost erased.
Her things should
keep her marks.
The passage
of a life
should show;
it should abrade.
And when life stops,
a certain space—
however small—
should be left scarred
by the grand and
damaging parade.
Things shouldn’t
be so hard. 

I adore this poem.  I adore Kay Ryan.  Her poems are always surprising although there is much in them familiar from one to the next:  very short lines, word play, an unexpected emotional intensity.  Certainly we see all these elements in this poem.

It begins with a statement, “A life should leave/deep tracks.”  The reader isn’t quite sure whether these tracks are metaphorical or literal, but quickly sees the very literal everyday journeys of a life: to get the mail, to move the hose.  The beauty of these lines is in their specificity and concision; through them we can see the absent woman clearly.  This is a person who takes care of herself and her house, who washes her dishes by hand, who probably lives alone (“the switch she/used to feel for/in the dark”).  She seems to have done these things for a very long time.

The first half of the poem is all one sentence, a series of clauses connected with the ever-wonderful semi-colon.  At the end of this long sentence, we find a very short one:  “Her things should/keep her marks.”  Here the speaker directly makes her argument.  A life ought to be visible even after the person who lived it is gone.  But she goes further, stating “it should abrade.”  The speaker revises her previous statement here; she doesn’t want the life to just show.  She wants it to have worn out its implements, maybe even painfully. 

The last lines of the poems are my favorites.  “And when life stops,/--a certain space--/however small/should be left scarred/by the grand and/ damaging parade.”  After lulling us with those four-syllable lines, full of their soft, sad “s” sounds, we end up with a parade?  Who else but Ryan would dare make such a delightful turn? The speaker’s surprise choice of “parade” reminds us that life is ridiculous and glorious. And it passes by.

Then the last two lines.  Up to this point, the speaker has used the word “should” five times, each to show how the life of the loved one (friend ?mother?) hasn’t left much of a trace.  But in the last two lines, the speaker reverses the pattern to make a play on words, changing should to shouldn’t.  The poem concludes:  “Things shouldn’t/be so hard.”  We know, as the poem has demonstrated, that the speaker means this literally: the sink knobs should have worn down to “white pastilles” and the floor before the sink should be “worn out.”  But here she returns to the question the first line posed: are those deep tracks literal?  Yes. And metaphorical.  Things don’t change despite the loss of the one who used them.  And yet the events of life, the things we all endure, are too hard, sometimes, it seems to bear. The emotional shifts within these last few lines are breathtaking. 

What a great poem.  Kay Ryan was the 16th Poet Laureate of the United States.  You can learn more about her here:

Here's a great essay about her poems:

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Poem 18 Eva Hooker

"So Unlike Any Simple Thing I Know" by Eva Hooker.

Many years ago, sometime between its glory years and its slow, sad death, I walked into The Hungry Mind bookstore on Grand Avenue and found a book I've come to treasure.  A chapbook, rather, somewhere around 30 pages long: Eva Hooker's The Winter Keeper. I don't know why I picked it up--I am cheap and 12 bucks for a chapbook might have stopped me. But I am also drawn to beauty, and the book itself is beautifully designed. I do remember that once I picked it up and looked through it, I couldn't put it down. And in the intervening years, Hooker's poems have drawn me back and back again, in their spare strangeness, their reverence, their silences. I am unbelievably honored to put her poem "So Unlike Any Simple Thing I Know" in the box. I hope you will seek out her chapbooks, buy them, and love them. Because I ended up writing so much about this poem, I decided to put it at the beginning, rather than the end, of the post. 

So Unlike Any Simple Thing I Know

Near the gray barn, the tumultuous sky
the color of white-bean ash:

it seems as if the lights of the truck
barreling through tunnels of white

do not blink, but strum the gravel
ragged along the road; it seems as if,

half sound, half silence, the sky
is composed to number and stay my wheels:

how long it takes to move round the curve
in the dark, careful like an empty freight

car: how the Schramel farm rises up,
unhurried, its exhausted fence too strong

to fall upon itself in the wind:
how sometimes at twilight you can see

the dead fall and sun floating down
like bloodroot:  how I have lived like that.  

I realized that I haven't been spending enough time on titles in these entries. Perhaps I think of this tonight as I write about Hooker's poem because, as I begin reading, I haven't any idea what in means in connection to the poem's contents. Or rather, I see how it connects, but the object of the (negative) comparison is not clear. From the start, I am drawn in, uncertain, and in search of understanding.

The poem's structure is very important.Starting with an image of a "tumultuous sky" which is "the color of white-bean ash" --a comparison that goes one step farther than we expect (white beans we know; white bean ash, maybe not) the poem then shifts. From here on, we find a series of lines beginning with "as if" and "how" and concluded with colons. "It seems as if" the second stanza begins. Here we have a simile, another comparison. But what is the "it" that seems "as if"? Do the comparisons connect to the sky in the first line?  to the unnamed unsimple thing of the title? We don't know.

The stanza continues, "as if the lights of the truck/barreling through the tunnels of white//do not blink, but strum the gravel/ragged against the road." And at this point, the poem has moved us farther and farther away from certainty. The truck's headlights are eyes of sort, unblinking as they "strum" along the road. Eyes are supposed to see! They don't make music and they don't hear music. Interestingly, this line is end-stopped with a semi-colon, the only one in the whole poem. Here's what follows:  "it seems as if,//half sound, half silence, the sky/is composed to number and stay my wheels." Notice how gorgeous those lines are. The line "half sounds, half silence, the sky" is perfectly balanced syllabically:  2 syllables, 3 syllables, 2 syllables. The pauses of the commas create the "half silence" and the long "i" repeats, as does a slant rhyme of "half" and "the." And we are back at the sky, another comparison.

Here we have come to the heart of the poem. The sky is "composed" by someone as music is composed, and for a purpose:  "to number and stay my wheels." A benevolent sky, then, which cares for and protects the driver, steadies her in her hard travel. Now the poem makes another turn, following another colon (I love colons, and I think Hooker is using them as well as Bridget Pegeen Kelly does in her wonderful book Song): "how long it takes to move round the curve/in the dark." We are reminded that this travel is fraught and that the speaker feels vulnerable. Then another colon, and another image without giving us more information about the last one."How the Schramel farm rises up" surprises us because its such a concrete object, its appearance in the poem like the sudden seeing of an object in the ribbons of our headlights when we drive. The named farm suggests this is a familiar drive. The fence around the place is "exhausted" but "too strong//to fall upon itself."

The poem itself becomes a journey the reader must take with the speaker, trusting her to help make the situation clear. We are, the speaker suggests, like drivers on a dark road, empty freight cars, fences too strong to fall. No one simile fits exactly, though. And then we come toward the end with another line beginning with "how": "how sometimes at twilight you can see//the dead fall and the sun floating down" and what a shift the poem has made. The dead fall but the sun floats; the sun will go on but our corporeal selves will not. But Hooker isn't done yet. She has one more colon, and one more "how" for us.  Let's look at the whole last stanza:

the dead fall and the sun floating down
like bloodroot: how I have lived like that.

I realize that "dead fall" can be a noun--a kind of trap for animals or the brush that gathers in the woods, but I read this line in its more obvious sense "the dead" followed by the verb "fall". Of course, I could be completely wrong.

Notice that we finally come to a period here at the end. Notice too that the speaker appears (before she was just there in her truck, suggested by "my wheels"). Notice that she seems to be answering the questions she set before us in the first line--I have lived like that. Beneath the tumultuous sky. Driving a familiar but frightening road in the dark. And yet that same dangerous sky is the one that "stays" her wheels--builds her up, keeps her safe as much as possible from the harms of her journey. Yes, she seems to say, I have been afraid and in danger, but knowing that someday I will fall beneath the sun, that is how I have managed to live. The force that sustains her is a form of faith. 

I've gone on long tonight and still have more to say. In another poem, she writes, "I know now--my plain song is fragile, a privacy." When I read Eva Hooker's poems, I find songs generous, rich, and, yes, fragile. And in them I find grace.

If you want to learn more about Eva Hooker, here is a brief bio:

And a wonderful interview:

And to purchase her chapbooks, go to:

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Poem 17 Conrad Hilberry

"Tongue" by Conrad Hilberry 

The beginning of June is an odd time for so wintery a poem.  But I have been thinking about my first poetry teacher, Conrad Hilberry, a lot lately, and that sent me back to his books.  I don’t know why, of the many beautiful poems of his I might have chosen, this is the one I settled on.   And I realize that in my own mind this poem conflates with a scene from “A Christmas Story” when the same event—a tongue stuck to cold metal—occurs.  And yet in Hilberry’s poem, the event is not related for humor but for the shame it evokes in the boy.

The poem is straightforward.  A boy absent-mindedly puts his tongue to the cold metal fence out of some childish habit, like sucking on his thumb.  He is lonely on the playground, not one of the boys who is roughhousing in the snow.  Once it’s there, stuck, his shame is such that he won’t cry for help.  Instead, he simply tears his tongue from the cold post.  Back in the warm classroom, he refuses to let anyone know what has happened and sits by himself, swallowing his own blood.

The poem’s power comes from its precision—it begins in iambic tetrameter and sticks fairly closely to an eight syllable line throughout.  The notion that the boy “did not mean to test the cold” suggests that he would not take on a powerful force (cold, the other boys who play roughly) intentionally; he is a timid kid, who “might suck/a little solace from his thumb.”  That last line of the stanza returns to perfect iambic tetrameter and sounds soothing, too, with the repeated “s” sounds, those slow l’s, the internal rhyme of from and thumb. 

The second stanza ends brilliantly with the line “The cold clanged shut.” The four stressed syllables in a row lock down that tongue.  But they also create a feeling in their hard “c” “d” and “t” sounds.  The line sounds painful, and it is.  The kid is trapped, tongue to cold metal.  In his panic, (note the interesting simile—he pulls at his tongue “as if it were a leech”—something horrible, not of his own body) he rips his tongue away and injures himself.

But because of his shame at his actions (which are really fairly typical of small children) he won’t tell anyone what has happened.  He returns to the classroom and sits silently.  The poem ends with the repeated two-word sentence “He swallowed. He swallowed.” which leaves a feeling in the reader’s mouth and a taste of blood, a taste that becomes a metaphor for his enormous shame. The small boy seems so terribly alone at the poem's end, and we are reminded of shame's terrible isolating power. 

I am not sure why I choose this poem right now.  But whenever I read Hilberry’s work I’m struck by the precision of his images and the careful, but not fussy, music and rhythmic structure of his poems.  And I am struck by my fond memories of our creative writing classes, by the warmth and encouragement with which he taught. In addition to being a wonderful poet, he was a fabulous teacher—generous and open to young writers.  He treated us as if we had a right (maybe even a responsibility) to write poems.  I can’t imagine a better teacher for a young writer.  Thanks, Con. 

                        by Conrad Hilberry

He did not mean to test the cold
or his own daring.   He did it idly,
not thinking, as he might suck
a little solace from his thumb.

Alone at recess, watching three boys
wrestle in the snow, he touched
his tongue to the cyclone fence
and it froze.  The cold clanged shut.

With his fingers, he pulled at the tongue
as if it were a leech, sucking
the blood of his leg.  But the ice held.
In panic, he tore away his mistake,

tore loose his tongue, leaving skin
like patches of rust on the metal.
What could he do with the torn and swollen
tongue, with shame that tasted like blood?

In school, he hid his mouth behind
his hands.  He swallowed.  He swallowed.

Here is a wonderful interview with Con:

A few more of his poems and some biographical information: