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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Poem 28 Tim Nolan

Old Astronauts by Tim Nolan

When they get together now—
they nod to one another—

don’t talk about the pitch
black of airless space—

don’t want to remember
the dust of the moon

in the treads of their boots—
they fall in bathrooms—

just like everyone else—
but from a greater height—

and before their heads
hit the tiled floor—

they float for awhile—
weightless seeming to dance

at the end of a cord—
one of them found

Noah’s Ark—or is just
about to—mostly they

remain dead silent—
whatever they saw and felt—

lost for generations—it’s that
they were led to believe

they really could escape—
the pull of the molten core

With Neil Armstrong’s death last week, this poem by Tim Nolan seems appropriate, doesn’t it?  I am especially enamored of the line breaks in this one, along with the use of the dash which is so often used (think of Dickinson) as a mark of punctuation that refuses closure. 

In the second stanza, the line break “the pitch/black of airless space” nicely disorients the reader. Pitch is a great word, full of possible meanings, and it looks like a noun there at the end of the line. But when we move to the next line, we see it was meant as an adjective for “black” and somehow Nolan has created in us a sense a bit like zero gravity. 

This is a sad poem, about—as many of the poems in this book are—how we understand the lives of those we love who are dying, have died. What did their lives mean?  The astronauts in the poem cannot articulate the exceptional experiences of their lives.  But they are not just like the rest of us, for even as they “fall in bathrooms” they fall “from a greater height.” And in that falling is the floating their bodies once knew in space. In this way, Nolan suggests that the experiences of these old astronauts are articulated by their bodies if not their words, even as their lives end. In such a notion is consolation.

The last lines mourn the fact of gravity, of our boundedness to this planet and a span of time. The astronauts “were led to believe/they really could escape--/the pull of the molten core.”  And notice again that dash. There is no escape, the poem tells us, but the speaker resists that knowledge, pushes forward again and again to keep the line/life going.  Punctuation can’t stop death. But it can put up a great fight. In this poem, and in many others in this wonderful collection, Nolan takes on hard subjects and wrestles with them, searching for solace and meaning as time continues to pass.

Good stuff.  Look for the book, And Then, coming soon from New Issues Press. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Poem 27 Connie Wanek

                      by Connie Wanek

We used to play, long before we bought real houses.
A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.
The money was pink, blue, gold as well as green,
and we could own a whole railroad
or speculate in hotels where others dreaded staying:
the cost was extortionary.

At last one person would own everything,
every teaspoon in the dining car, every spike
driven into the planks by immigrants,
every crooked mayor.
But then, with only the clothes on our backs,
we ran outside, laughing.

"Monopoly" by Connie Wanek, from On Speaking Terms. © Copper Canyon Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

Connie Wanek is a deceptive poet. Beware. Her poems seem easy. They are not. They are supple, subtle, smart, musical, and hard. They demand several readings, but the straightforward-seeming speaker in each never lets on. No, she just makes her observations and leaves off, leaving to the reader the task of paying attention.
But what a reward one gets for looking closely. 

Wanek has written a series of poems based on children's games, and this is another. The situation seems fairly clear: a speaker remembers playing the board game Monopoly as a child.  Looking closely, though, we come to see this poem is an exquisite commentary on the current economic situation: many people lose their homes while a very few get rich, owning more and more. The case she makes is powerful for its lack of bombast, its illumination of the political through the sphere of childhood, and its trust in the reader to make the connections for herself.

The poem begins with two interesting choices--the use of the first person plural “we” –indicating we are all in this together—and the “used to,” clearly setting the poem as memory.  The next words about playing the game “long before we bought real houses” begins to pull the reader into complexity.  What about these real houses? how do they connect to the childhood game? But Wanek’s touch is light; she just moves back to the game with the line “A roll of the dice could send a girl to jail.”

We know this is literally true about the game, but as the poem goes on, we see that this arbitrary bad luck doesn’t seem to be only part of the childhood game.  The implication becomes clear: these days, it can just be bad luck that sends a person into bankruptcy or foreclosure.  The speaker continues, remembering the color of the Monopoly money, the thrill of ownership, the way placing those hotels on your properties spelled doom for your competitors. 

The move between stanza is so understated: “at last one person would own everything” and then “everything” is illustrated—teaspoons from the “dining car”, railroad spikes “driven….by immigrants”, crooked mayors—all elements of the railroads that made our country’s first barons.  And yet we know these items are not part of the game but were in fact part of the first economic collapse.

The poem’s last two lines manage to make the case all the clearer while steadfastly turning away from the move most poets would make. Instead of clarifying for the reader, “hey, I’m making a point here about our current economic situation,” Wanek turns deftly back to the game, “But then, with only the clothes on our backs/we ran outside, laughing.” Notice the brilliance of that “but then.” It, like the rest of the poem, means two things at once. On the one hand, “but then” the game is over, and the children go out to play. And also, “but then,” and the comma really matters here, means, but back in those days, we “with only the clothes on our backs” were playing a game. The children, of course, are laughing.  But now, the implication is clear, this isn’t a game.

See what I mean? This looks like a fairly accessible poem about a favored childhood memory. Instead, it indicts our current economy, where bad luck dooms people to homelessness and the loss of everything they possess, except maybe those clothes on their backs. 

As I write tonight, feeling inarticulate in comparison to the poem’s grace and confidence, I am remembering Pope’s line:  “True ease in writing comes from art, not chance.”  Connie Wanek makes poetry look easy.  What a gift.

For information about Wanek's latest book:

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Poem 26 Emily Dickinson

            by Emily Dickinson

As imperceptibly as Grief
The Summer lapsed away—
Too imperceptible at last
To see like Perfidy—
A Quietness distilled
As Twilight long begun,
Or Nature spending with herself
Sequestered Afternoon—
The Dusk drew earlier in—
The Morning foreign shone—
A courteous, yet harrowing Grace,
As Guest, that would be gone—
And thus, without a Wing
Or service of a Keel
Our Summer made her light escape
Into the Beautiful—

I have chosen this poem because I am a nostalgic, and especially this year, as summer’s close brings with it the end of my glorious sabbatical.  For me, this poem captures the way the endings--of summer, of many things--feel.

I am not a Dickinson scholar. I am much more an ardent admirer.  She is, for me, like an idolized but peculiar relative in whose company I long to be, but whom I never understand much better for having spent time with.  Sometimes I am utterly unable to make sense of her poems and other times, as in this poem, my whole body understands immediately and intuitively the feeling the poem addresses.

To start, what about that first simile? Summer does creep imperceptibly away. As does grief. But the lessening of grief is a relief—days later we realize we haven’t cried for our lost one.  But the creeping away of summer causes a form of grief for the speaker, so the simile is a bit odd.  The leaving is the same, yes, but one absence is comfort and the other is not.

Then look at the next choices.  “The Summer” is this past particular one, in the past tense where the poem is located (not “a summer”), but not yet, as it later becomes, “our summer.” The verb “lapsed” also works in surprising ways.  I misremember this line always as “The Summer slipped away.”  But lapsed is so much the better choice, meaning as it does “to fall away by degree” and also a fall from grace.  Grace, like “our summer”, will appear much later in the poem. (Not to mention that “lapsed” is sonically more surprising and interesting than the alliterative “slipped” would be; lapsed keeps the “s” sound but pushes it to the middle.)

This slipping, the speaker tells us, was so imperceptible that it couldn’t be a form of betrayal, of “perfidy.” And then she faces the difficult task of describing something she has claimed is imperceptible. If it can’t be sensed or understood, how can it be described? The poem really could be broken into four four-line stanzas.  The middle two stanzas are where Dickinson takes on the task of describing the passing of time. “Twilight” begins earlier, “dusk” draws “earlier in”.  Such changes are by degree and are subtle; the natural world often moves in time too slow for the human mind to catch it. Only later do we realize the season has shifted. And by that point, it feels a bit like betrayal.

The summer has been a guest, and guests must eventually leave. Her leaving couldn’t really be a surprise.  But even so, somehow there is something “harrowing” about the “Grace” that, like a guest,  “would be gone.”  What might a harrowing grace be? A distressing beauty? A troubled divine love? And summer has become female and ours (“our summer”), personifying and personalizing the loss even more.

The last stanza doesn’t resolve these questions but turns away from them. Summer is perceptible, if her leaving is not, and even without a clear means of transport, she still makes her escape—though it is “light”—into the “beautiful.”

I would never claim to know what Dickinson might have meant by anything, and I am bold in claiming her as a favored, strange auntie. But I understand these last lines somewhere near my solar plexus.  We can’t help feeling grief for summer’s passing—for time’s passing—but we also must recognize that such passage provides light and beauty.  Even when our hearts protest.