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

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Poem 16 Kate Lynn Hibbard

"Sweet Weight" by Kate Lynn Hibbard

This poem is a beautiful celebration of the female body and a sort of joyful lamentation (if that’s possible) at the process of aging.  And while the poem is clearly situated in a woman’s body—the epigraph from Sexton’s poem makes this clear—it is also a celebration of women’s lives and the ferocity of the life force.

The poem begins with an image of a breast.  Or is it a peach?  In its sweetness and its ripeness it is both.  This notion of ripeness is important throughout the poem.  The speaker later on states “the sweet weight of sugar/ beneath the skin draws the berry down/to the ground.”  Here again fruit is a metaphor for the body.  But most important is its ripeness; fruit is sweetest when it’s heavy with sugar, when it is no longer young and firm.  In this same way, the poem argues, the very process of aging is a process of ripening.  We see the sweetness accumulating in the bones, in the hips, in the “moons/ in every woman’s face,” and in the “sweet weight/of our need.” This ripening is an embrace of life, not a passive decline.

But it is also a process that leads us toward death.  The sugar draws the berry “to the ground.”  In the next line, we have, for the first and only time in the poem, a first-person statement from the speaker.  She says, “Sweet weight of the skin/ on the back of my hand, falling faster/toward the bone.” This acknowledgment of change within her own body and the move toward a time when the speaker will die is mediated by the beauty of the natural process she observes and lives.  In a culture that so strongly urges women to be young and thin until they die, this speaker instead celebrates the beauty of weight and the passage of time as processes that enrich and satisfy.  If we let them.

I must talk about the music in this poem.  Hibbard is singing her lament, which makes it joyful, and in fact makes it a song.  We hear the long “o” sounds of grief throughout—globe, chosen, bone, oceans, repose, hope, O—and we feel the longing within them.  But as they accumulate, they become a sort of prayer, too.  They move so slowly across the page that we must savor their sounds in our mouths like the sweet, ripe fruit we also find here.  The word ‘sweet’ is repeated six times.  It too is a word of long vowel, a slow word to say, especially when paired with the equally slow “weight.”  All those open sounds, the wonderful “w’s” create in their music the tension that exists in the poem:  we all move toward death.  But that story is not necessarily only a sad one.  In fact, in this beautiful poem, the process becomes art.

Sweet Weight
                                    Sweet weight,/in celebration of the woman I am
                                                Anne Sexton, “In Celebration of My Uterus”

Yes, of a breast, a peach lifted
in the hand, the fragrant globe chosen
from a plush pile of sweetness. 
Sweet weight lifted from the tension
of gravity, how sweet the hips are
to rise up and take it, to lift us upright,
our big heads balanced like globes
on tiny sticks.  The many moons
in every woman’s face.  O moon
of eye and moon of mouth, the perfect
oh of a rose.  Sweet weight
of a body in repose, limbs dense
with sleep, weighted to the sheets
with dream.  The gravity of fluid pulled
from us like prayer, like tears and other
humours, energy of metal, of air
and meridians, our bodies full
of oceans and latitudes.  Meanwhile
the sweet weight of sugar
beneath the skin draws the berry down
to the ground.  Sweet weight of the skin
on the back of my hand, falling faster
toward the bone.  The flesh of the arms
sloping away but close enough
to remember.  The hope of bone
and the glow of bone, the sweet weight
of our need. All our lives long
spent spilling toward earth
that rises to claim us again, and again. 

You can find information about Kate Lynn's forthcoming book, Sweet Weight, at 

Or go to her blog:

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Poem 15 Ed Bok Lee

Ed Bok Lee's poem "String Theory" appears in his book Whorled (Coffee House Press, 2011).  A person could get awfully caught up worrying if she somewhat understands string theory before writing about a poem with that title, but that would be silly, wouldn't it?  Luckily, after reading String Theory for Dummies online, I did eventually realize I was getting a bit off track. I chose this poem simply because I love it, and I can explain why I love it without explaining string theory.  Thank goodness. 

The poem begins with the speaker's specific memory: "As a boy, I chose a beach ball/ with metal chopsticks/ over food and grownups".  The solitary boy, playing to keep a ball aloft with his chopsticks, purposefully stays within his own world.  This sets a scene for us of isolation and of play, of culture and, in the next line ("What wouldn't float away/despite any mouth") language.  These first lines also introduce the poem's structure.  None of the lines are endstopped, but each new idea is capitalized.  Thus the reader must decide:  does the "what" in line four mean the ball?  wouldn't the word be "that" if its intended as a relative clause? If so, what is it that isn't floating away? The capitalization also helps us begin to see that the ideas follow one another but are not necessarily grammatically connected to each other. 

The next line begins "Some things choose us" (as opposed to the ball the boy chose in line one) and is followed by a list of actions which are striking for their loss and longing, "waking in a best friend's coffin" and "falling asleep in a too-thin language" are just two examples of the speaker's sense of grief at his losses, of a native language, of a friend.  And the list goes on. 

But then at midpoint, the poem shifts.  With the line "Each time I burn the world pure" two things happen.  First, the loss is reconfigured as a way to achieve purity and beauty.  Second, from here on the first person speaker disappears, and the voice begins to echo the Book of Genesis, with the words "Let there be" beginning three lines. In the last lines of the poem, the speaker creates a new world, with a new boy child, who refuses "to obey."  This boy, we are told, "will speak through scissors;" he will cut away to make language (or poetry) by snipping one meaning from a larger fabric.  In the end, "He will fashion a kind of belief/in subtraction's eloquence"  

At the end, this new child, created from the burned pure world, holds out hope for a new religion of loss.  In the world of unsatisfactory language, perhaps it is in the math of subtraction we find beauty and a basis for belief.

String theory. Unified field. Reality changed by who looks at it and from where. The vibrations  of particles like musical notes. Or a boy at play with a ball, in a world separate from the world of his immigrant parents. His life will always be informed by different language, different food, different geographies. By taking control of the loss and becoming the shaper of his world with his scissors, this boy (the same one at the poem's beginning?) can make art from dislocation and loss.  

Um, did I mention Lee won the Minnesota Book Award in poetry for this collection? It's wonderful, challenging, beautiful. Buy it.

String Theory

                                    by Ed Bok Lee

As a boy, I chose a beach ball
with a metal chopstick
over food & grownups
What wouldn’t float away
despite any mouth
Some things choose us
Waking in a best friend’s coffin
Falling asleep in a too-thin language
The slow, inward draw of a lover’s
draining dream
Feathering rain that will never land
Sweet dry leaf sage translucent silver-
fish flee still dispatching oceans
Each time I burn the world pure
When the Lord created the sun
shadows unfastened themselves
Let there be the mature mind
Some things won’t return
Let there be the unquenchable sea
Let there be an infant somewhere, always
in the city night, refusing to obey
He will speak through scissors
He will collect infinitely useless string
He will fashion a kind of belief
in subtraction’s eloquence

To buy Ed's book, go to

For more information about Ed:

a gorgeous video of Ed's poem "If in America"

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Poem 14 Lorine Niedecker

Poem 14  Lorine Niedecker  “Poet’s Work”

If you don’t know Niedecker’s work, you really should.  She lived her life in a small Wisconsin town and worked a variety of jobs--for the local newspaper and, later in life, as a cleaner at the hospital, among others.  In addition, she was a well-read, well-connected writer who published four books during her lifetime.  Look to the bottom of the page for links to learn more about her Niedecker’s life and bibliography. 
This weeks poem is wonderful in its humor, its concision (or more appropriately, its condensedeness—if that might be a word!), and its beautiful attention to line and music.
Even with the title, Niedecker is condensing.  “Poet’s Work” should probably have an article in front of it, most likely “the” because we see this is the singular possessive—the work of just one poet.  Maybe “a” would fit here, but immediately as the poem begins we see the poem is personal.  This is a specific poet, the speaker, and a specific work.  By dropping the article in the title, Niedecker’s condensery is in business.
In the first stanza, each line has three syllables and an identical rhythm: stressed syllable, unstressed syllable, stressed (GRAND fa THER/ AD vised  ME/ LEARN a TRADE).  Of course I’m over-emphasizing here—not all the stresses are equally hard--but I am not sure how to make the computer show my intent.  At any rate, this is a not unexpected piece of advice from a grandfather, and the predictable rhythm emphasizes that.
The next stanza immediately breaks the rhythm though.  “I learned” is only two syllables, suggesting the rules or expectations are going to be broken.  However, the words themselves suggest the opposite:  the speaker could have learned a trade, followed the advice.  Notice the next lines though: “to sit at desk/and condense.”  Again, words have been condensed right out of the line.  Shouldn’t it read “to sit at a desk” or “to sit at my desk”?  Still, the poem could still be about learning a trade and studying.  But then there’s that “and condense” just hanging out there as if it were the most expected trade one might learn.  What does it mean to condense?  Well, the speaker’s been showing us all along.  She is making poetry. 
In the final stanza the speaker playfully puns on her trade.  She has more job security in her trade than if she were working in another sort of condensery (which really is a place where water is evaporated from milk).  So instead of working to evaporate water from milk, our speaker evaporates words, and in so doing enacts the poet's role while describing it. She recognizes the humor in the situation, too; poetry is not the sort of trade her grandfather had in mind.  While it might provide job security, it certainly doesn't pay all that well, as Niedecker's life of hard work at odd jobs demonstrates.  We don't see one iota of regret in the speaker's choice of this career, though.  Just pure pleasure at her craft.
Poet's work
advised me:
Learn a trade

I learned
to sit at desk
and condense

No layoff
from this

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

 Poem 13  Beth Mayer

This week’s poem is by local writer Beth Mayer.  Beth is an accomplished fiction writer—her stories have appeared in presitigious national magazines—but she is also, as this poem demonstrates, a wonderful poet.

Reading this poem, I can see a fiction writer wrote it.  I mean by that the sense of the story within the poem and the ways Mayer moves the narrative so gently down the page.  In 21 lines, we have a plot, a setting, two distinct characters.  But we also have a poem, not a short story with funky line breaks.   Maybe all of Mayer’s fiction is so exquisitely crafted, but certainly this poem is.  We can see how strong the verbs are the whole way through, and their momentum drives the poem forward.

And so what is this poem about?  It’s another mother/daughter poem.  As a mother and daughter (and a mother of daughters), I confess to be drawn to this subject.  But this poem, in spite of its domestic setting, suggests a radical revision of women’s domestic work.  The speaker in the poem models for her daughter a transformation of chore into religious practice, and while at the poem’s end the speaker is still questioning how much of her revery she should share with her daughter, the fact that the poem is written tells us that,yes, she will instruct her daughter in an alternate form of domesticity.

The poem is stealthy.  While the situation is clear in the first stanza—the mother has left her “body behind at the kitchen sink” (the opposite of Thich Nhat Hanh’s suggestion to be fully present even when we wash the dishes)—the reader is inside two consciousnesses at once—the speaker’s and her daughter’s.  We also see that while the adult speaker can understand the child’s thoughts, the child cannot yet fathom the adult’s.  How does the child react? With action, strong verbs: she can  “turn…chatter into song,”  “hit her brother” or “confess she is afraid.”  It’s on that verb “confess” that the speaker turns inward.  It is also here that the previous structure of beginning each line with a verb poses interesting questions for the reader.

The colon at the end of the line “Here I am doing marvelous things:” suggests a list (like the one in the previous stanza) will follow.  What are these things?  “Asking every pertinent question” seems clear, but the reader must wonder—of whom?  The next line reads “Talking to God” and we have to wonder, is that a list of two things or one sentence?  Is talking to God different than asking every pertinent question?  The next line, when the speaker “is transubstantiating the ordinary” does not really answer the question,instead offering wondrous possibilities for accessing the divine within the domestic.

That the final stanza ends in questions seems entirely appropriate.  How does one explain to a child the world of belief?  How does one understand faith and the power of that faith in words?

This is a gorgeous poem.  And wait until you read Mayer’s stories!

The Marvelous           

My daughter does not like this
when I leave my body behind at the kitchen sink
my hands moving under warm running water
as if they are washing a glass.

She knows the three surest ways
to bring me back:
turn her chatter into song
hit her little brother
confess that she is afraid.

Here, I am doing marvelous things:
asking every pertinent question
talking to God. I am
transubstantiating the ordinary. 

Should I tell her
my travel is dangerous
but essential? Tell her
I would never, could never
leave her behind? Tell her
that when my work is done,
how glad I am
to step back into my feet?

Check out Beth's webpage for more information about her and her publications!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Poem 12--Deborah Keenan

One of the Old Songs by Deborah Keenan

Today's poem is by another local poet, the wonderful Deborah Keenan, author of eight books of poems and award-winning teacher in Hamline's MFA program.  

This poem begins with the overheard song sung by a passing pedestrian.  Interestingly, the singer is "the guy," not, as he becomes later, a "stranger."  The definite article "the" calls attention to this guy--who is he? why does his song matter?  It's almost as if he is bringing a specific message to the speaker, a notion reiterated later when she says the song becomes her "gospel."

The lyrics themselves are central to the poem.  "White bird, in a golden cage, on a winter's day in the rain" provide not only the thematic core of the poem, they provide the words the poet uses throughout. 

The speaker says that the songs she hears on a given day--"whatever songs/ the radio assigns me, whatever songs strangers sing" become her songs for the day, her "way of trying to stay/in the world I was born into."  The speaker, then, makes a cage of the songs she hears, building of them a structure to contain her.  In the same way, the poem uses those lyrics as its building blocks.  The word "day" is used six times in this 14 line poem, as is the word "song".  The overheard song lyrics become a structure within which the poet must move, restraining her to a cage from which she sings.

But an interesting thing happens as the poem progresses.  Because I read this as a sonnet (almost any poem with 14 lines gets called a sonnet in my book), at line nine, where we'd expect to see the 'turn' in an Italian sonnet, something begins to change.  The speaker stands at her kitchen sink, singing the song, and she understands herself to be the bird.  But as she has this understanding, the song moves inside her, where she begins to live it "in [her] body and mind."  Charting the verbs that have preceded this moment (variations of "singing" the song), the verb becomes "live," as now the song "lives" in her.  The speaker, in spite of her understanding of the situation, is no longer the caged bird singing, she has in fact caged the song in her own body, making it her own.   I am reminded of Wallace Stevens' "Idea of Order at Key West" in which the singer beside the sea is "the maker of the song she sang." Even if "the guy" at the beginning has given the speaker a song for the day, her "gospel,"even if the speaker believes the song to be representative of her own life, by the end, she has made it her own.  In the end, the poem is about creativity and making one's own song from the found material of daily life, no matter how quotidian it may, at first, appear.  

What a great poem!  

One of the Old Songs     by Deborah Keenan

The guy walked past singing White Bird, in a golden cage
on a winter’s day in the rain.  One of the old songs,
by the group, It’s A Beautiful Day.  Whatever songs
the radio assigns me, whatever songs strangers sing
as they pass me, those are my songs for the day.
This is my creed, my gospel, my way of trying to stay
In the world I was born into.  I sang the song
doing the dishes that night, and it felt right singing
White Bird, in a golden cage, on a winter’s day
in the rain.  It was winter, I was white, as I always
would be. I understood myself to be in a golden cage,
large enough to live a whole life in.  I understood
it’s a beautiful day, and I lived the song in my body
and mind for that whole beautiful day.

For more information about Deborah Keenan:

for information about her books: