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