Poem-A-Day: Stan Crawford

For our last day of National Poetry Month, I’m featuring a piece by Stan Crawford, whom I met years ago in a poetry workshop and whom I now see around town at poetry events every once in a while. He’s a very kind and interesting person, and it’s always fun to hear him read his work. In particular I admire his blend of accessibility and intellectualism and his subtle sense of humor.

Stan is very much a Houston poet, as this piece which refers to Ken Lay (of Enron infamy) will hint at. The devastating impact of the Enron debacle on Houston probably can’t be overstated. Even though it was nearly twenty years ago, we haven’t forgotten about it, or its perpetrators, or about the crimes which radiated from their choices.

***

After Reading in San Francisco About the Death of Ken Lay, and Consulting Orwell and Balzac

I scrutinize my morning face,
all folds and puffs.
Hair slack, gray-streaked,
random as straw.
A balcony of skin beneath each eye.

At fifty we have the face we deserve.
I too must be guilty of something.

Near Embarcadero a homeless man
with dreadlocks tangled as CIA plots
defies the signs that forbid feeding pigeons
and scatters his scraps of illicit bread.

Disheveled panhandlers and skateboard punks
hang on Haight Street and litter the park
with detritus of undertow
drenched in gold light.

Behind every great fortune, a crime.
A prison placed near the golden gate.
Sour inextricable from sweet
inside the chambers of our grapefruit hearts.

***

Stan Crawford is an attorney and poet who lives in the Houston Heights with his wife Dawn and their menagerie of pets. His poetry collection Resisting Gravity (Lamar University Literary Press) was selected as a Finalist by the Texas Institute of Letters for its First Book of Poetry Award in 2017.  

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Poem-A-Day: A. E. Stallings

I recently saw this poem and it just knocked me out. The author, A. E. Stallings, generously allowed me to share it with you here.

In an environment where some writers may feel a tension between wanting to give voice to a marginalized perspective and not having the right to assume that perspective, Stallings’ poem creates a space for empathy and understanding and compassion and guilt without being heavy-handed. On a more technical note, I’m impressed by the poet’s use of rhyme and meter to create the even but not even, symmetrical but somehow “listing,” feeling of riding waves on the ocean.

Below the poem, find the poet’s own commentary on it. This poem first appeared in Literary Matters, and it later appeared in Women’s Voices for Change along with Stallings’ commentary.

***

Empathy

My love, I’m grateful tonight
Our listing bed isn’t a raft
Precariously adrift
As we dodge the coast-guard light,

And clasp hold of a girl and a boy.
I’m glad that we didn’t wake
Our kids in the thin hours, to take
Not a thing, not a favorite toy,

And we didn’t hand over our cash
To one of the smuggling rackets,
That we didn’t buy cheap lifejackets
No better than bright orange trash

And less buoyant. I’m glad that the dark
Above us, is not deeply twinned
Beneath us, and moiled with wind,
And we don’t scan the sky for a mark,

Any mark, that demarcates a shore
As the dinghy starts taking on water.
I’m glad that our six-year old daughter,
Who can’t swim, is a foot off the floor

In the bottom bunk, and our son
With his broken arm’s high and dry,
That the ceiling is not seeping sky,
With our journey but hardly begun.

Empathy isn’t generous,
It’s selfish. It’s not being nice
To say I would pay any price
Not to be those who’d die to be us.

***

“I am trying to remember exactly when I wrote this—it seems to have been published in September of 2015 but must have been written in the summer. My son did indeed have a broken arm, and my daughter was a six-year old who was fearless on the beach but with little in the way of swimming skills. The civil war in Syria was starting to become more visible in Athens—there had been a number of people, mainly families camped and protesting in the main square, Syntagma, until the police whisked them off one night. My husband is a journalist and had gone on Coast Guard patrols in the Eastern Aegean as these flimsy dinghies started coming in greater numbers. He had interviewed people who had been in the water for hours. (In one case, a woman had managed to save a baby, but not another child, who slipped her grasp.) That famous photo of the drowned toddler (Alan Kurdi) was shared widely in September of that year, but that was only one image, and this poem would have been written before that, I believe. Local news and social media sites often showed images of the drowned—kids my own kids’ ages, in similar clothes.

“By January of 2016, an average of ten people a day were drowning—again, often children, with one day seeing thirty-nine deaths. And of course not everyone was even found or declared missing. That was after this poem was written, but this sense that children were drowning in the same water we swam in haunted me all summer, the sense of the Aegean as dangerous and full of death as well as wine-dark or Santorini blue, and that the same element that caressed my children pulled others under. I had dreams about making that crossing. It was maybe that heightened sense of vigilance and danger you just have as a parent of young children, the way you can’t avoid reading terrible news stories about mishaps and accidents.

“But I did not want to write from the point of view of people undergoing this—that felt false to me; in a way I felt it was unimaginable and I wanted to keep that sense—and I wanted to engage with the very difficulty of writing about it. Empathy is derived from the Greek, of course, but it has almost the opposite meaning in Modern Greek to its English denotation—to feel in or towards someone and thus perhaps to feel against them. (The English word is itself a relatively recent coinage, with a pseudo-Greek lineage out of the German translation—before that, I suppose we had only “sympathy”—to feel or suffer “with” someone.) The poem was written relatively quickly, and I wanted to make sure in revision not to smooth the rough edges, the odd off-rhyme or rhythmic off-kilterness. I don’t normally end a poem so flatly, on such a bald statement, but I wanted that gambit here. And I wanted the poem to be published and distributed quickly—it spoke to the moment—which was why I was very glad it was taken by the (then-new) online magazine, Literary Matters.”

—  A. E. Stallings

***

A. E. (Alicia) Stallings studied classics in Athens, Georgia, and has lived since 1999 in Athens, Greece. She has published three books of poetry, Archaic Smile (University of Evansville 1999), winner of the Richard Wilbur Award, Hapax (TriQuarterly 2000), and Olives (TriQuarterly 2012), as wells as verse translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days (Penguin Classics 2018) and Lucretius’s The Nature of Things (Penguin Classics 2009). A new book of poetry, Like, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux Press in the fall. Stallings is the recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and is a teacher beloved of students all over the world. Visit her website and order her most recent book here.

Poem-A-Day: Adamarie Fuller

Have you ever had that feeling of waiting, of restlessness, of expectancy? Of course you have. We all have.

One thing I really like about this poem by Adamarie Fuller is how deceptively simple it feels. It’s accessible, yes, quite. But it’s also more, it could also be about so many other things. It’s the kind of poem the reader can layer meaning onto as needed. Your mileage may vary.

Tell us in the comments what you think the poem could be about.

***

Today

I stared into my refrigerator
like I was looking for the Second Coming.
All I saw were bits and pieces
of previous meals.
The leftovers from Pappa’s,
half a jar of niçoise olives,
couple glasses of wine left in the bottle,
a little cheese, some seedless black grapes.
Bottled water seemed to be the only
item in abundance. Clear, cool,
bottled in sanitary conditions,
totally tasteless.

***

Adamarie Fuller’s poems have appeared in numerous publications. She won the Artlines/Public Poetry ekphrastic poetry competition in 2012 at the Museum of Fine Arts-Houston. She also won Honorable Mention in the Austin International Poetry Festival in 2011 and the Texas Poetry Calendar in 2009. Adamarie has been published in various anthologies including Untameable City, Bearing the Mask, and The Weight of Addition, as well as the Houston Poetry Festival. Adamarie is a native Houstonian, mother, and grandmother.

Poem-A-Day: Adam Holt

One of my colleagues, another cross-genre writer named Adam Holt, has a new book out. It’s the third in his YA sci-fi series about a boy named Tully Harper who stows away on his dad’s spaceship with his best friend and the girl he has a crush on, and fate-of-the-solar-system level hijinks ensue. It’s a popular series; my daughter is one of his fans. My son scored major brother brownie points by giving her a signed copy of the newest installment, A Cord of Three Strands, for her birthday this month. Admittedly it wasn’t that hard for him to manage it. Adam is his English teacher.

But I mentioned the cross-genre thing. Adam is also a poet, and rather a competent one at that. Enjoy.

***

Hope and Distance Out West

Tired cowboys when the day is done
patch up their flak jackets and then their lives
with calls to their wives, their girlfriends, or both.
To parole officers, pastors, parents,
debt collectors, credit agencies,
or children. Their children. Their sons.

Slack-jawed lines ferry harmonica voices
from Motel Sixes in South Dakota
down the Great Plains
to eager ears in Albuquerque:
“When y’all comin’ home, pop?”
“Soon, son, soon.”
“Did you qualify today? How’d you ride?”
“Almost good enough,” he says.
“What that buzz on the line? What’s that buzz?”
The window unit gurgles.

The cowboy holds a beer to his bruised temple.
“It’s windy on this riverbank. Great sunset.”
“Y’all camped out!” says the boy. “You got a fire going, huh?”
“Soon enough. Get your sleep now, son. Good night.”

An image warms the child in his bed,
of Pop patting his Quarter Horse goodnight
beside a trickle of a stream.
The boy tucks himself under a sheet,
snug like embers in his father’s campfire,
the one he will watch until the smoke subsides.

Back at the Six, the cowboy eases himself
onto a moldy bedspread,
flips through standard cable for a spell
with his good hand,
remembers his own father’s voice
crackling homeward with those same words:
soon, almost good enough, good night.

These words, his father’s words, are now his own,
words that ride many miles but always return home.
They smolder in the ashes of the family they repair.
They make a man a totem a child can bear.

***

Adam Holt is a novelist, singer-songwriter, and poet. He was a featured poet for the

Houston Public Library’s Public Poetry Series, and his work has appeared in publications from Mutabilis Press and SMU’s Liberal Arts Magazine. His debut album — under the name Lone Star Rambler — was released in 2017. The Tully Harper Series, his YA sci-fi series, is a near-future novel meant to inspire young readers’ interest in human space exploration. An avid space advocate, Adam was the crowdfunding consultant on a Kickstarter that raised $500,000 to restore NASA’s Historic Mission Control. He is as an instructor at Writespace and The Kinkaid School. He lives in Houston, Texas. For more info on his work, go to http://adamholtwrites.com.

Poem-A-Day: John Donne (Oh look, another one by that guy.)

I just saw Infinity War and frankly cannot even. Srsly. Marvel’s got some ‘splainin’ to do.

So I’m going to cheer myself up by switching moods completely with another poem by John Donne. For an interesting analysis of this poem, click here.

***

To His Mistress Going to Bed

Come, Madam, come, all rest my powers defy,
Until I labour, I in labour lie.
The foe oft-times having the foe in sight,
Is tir’d with standing though he never fight.
Off with that girdle, like heaven’s Zone glistering,
But a far fairer world encompassing.
Unpin that spangled breastplate which you wear,
That th’eyes of busy fools may be stopped there.
Unlace yourself, for that harmonious chime,
Tells me from you, that now it is bed time.
Off with that happy busk, which I envy,
That still can be, and still can stand so nigh.
Your gown going off, such beauteous state reveals,
As when from flowery meads th’hill’s shadow steals.
Off with that wiry Coronet and shew
The hairy Diadem which on you doth grow:
Now off with those shoes, and then safely tread
In this love’s hallow’d temple, this soft bed.
In such white robes, heaven’s Angels used to be
Received by men; Thou Angel bringst with thee
A heaven like Mahomet’s Paradise; and though
Ill spirits walk in white, we easily know,
By this these Angels from an evil sprite,
Those set our hairs, but these our flesh upright.
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys. Gems which you women use
Are like Atlanta’s balls, cast in men’s views,
That when a fool’s eye lighteth on a Gem,
His earthly soul may covet theirs, not them.
Like pictures, or like books’ gay coverings made
For lay-men, are all women thus array’d;
Themselves are mystic books, which only we
(Whom their imputed grace will dignify)
Must see reveal’d. Then since that I may know;
As liberally, as to a Midwife, shew
Thy self: cast all, yea, this white linen hence,
There is no penance due to innocence.
To teach thee, I am naked first; why then
What needst thou have more covering than a man.

***

John Donne (22 January 1572 – 31 March 1631) was an English poet and cleric in the Church of England. He is considered the pre-eminent representative of the metaphysical poets. His works are noted for their strong, sensual style and include sonnets, love poems, religious poems, Latin translations, epigrams, elegies, songs, satires and sermons. His poetry is noted for its vibrancy of language and inventiveness of metaphor, especially compared to that of his contemporaries.

Poem-A-Day: Priscilla Frake

Tonight’s poem was originally published in the Mutabilis Press anthology Time-Slice: Houston Poetry 2005. Priscilla Frake, the poet, read it at the last reading I attended, and I knew immediately I wanted to include it in this year’s series.

***

Fire and Brimstone

I’m about to become translucent,
a permeable shadow. Prostrate,
I sprawl along the metal altar,
where acolytes regard my chest
with bored and painted eyes.
They shift me and prod me and draw
on my skin with indigo Sharpies,
connecting dots made days ago with needles.

My arms are pinned above my head,
my face averted, twisted down.
I’m in the crosshairs, unable to move,
afraid to scream. The machine
heaves over me, lowers,
caresses me with sub-atomic
fire: a buzzing vibrato with clicks.
It’s invisible, painless,
and damaging.

My part is done. I dress and leave.
Outside, I wave to the child who waits.
She is the Girl Who Comes
with her Pappy-Who-has-Cancer.
I am the Lady with the Hat.

***

Priscilla Frake is the author of Correspondence, a book of epistolary poems.  She has work in Verse DailyNimrod, The Midwest Quarterly, Medical Literary MessengerCarbon Culture ReviewSpoon River Poetry Review, and The New Welsh Review. Her most recent online publications are in the latest editions of The Wayfarer and Canary. She lives in Sugar Land, where she is a studio jeweler. 

Poem-A-Day: Vanessa Zimmer-Powell

Many years ago, when the incipient gentrification of Houston’s Montrose area was still rocking the neighborhood boat, my husband and I lived on the top floor of a duplex that had been built in 1936. The house next door to us, a single-story bungalow, had been recently and lovingly restored, and the young couple who rented it often came out and visited with the neighbors on their front stoop, in the shade of a grandfather oak whose canopy shaded their house, our front yard, and most of the wide street in front of us.

One day, the neighbors said they were moving out. They’d been given notice: the owners of their home had sold it to a developer named Ghods. About a month later, in the very early summer of 2001, I sat in my living room window and wrote poetry all day as I watched as a crew of day laborers bring the tree down. The neighbors hadn’t been gone more than a few days, and the house wasn’t slated to be razed for a while, but a city ordinance protecting Houston’s historical trees was about to go into effect, and so the developer wanted to get in there and saw the oak down before he could be prevented from doing so.

It took eleven men, armed with chainsaws and axes and chains and a pickup truck, eleven hours to hack the tree off its stump. They needed all those weapons, too, including the truck. Once they’d finally sawn through the base, they chained the trunk to the back bumper and spun the wheels for half an hour to budge the tree.

When the grandfather oak finally fell, it landed in the street with enough force that it shook my house, shook my chair on the second floor, shook me sitting next to the window writing shaky poetry. The destruction crew cheered that their herculean task was over.

Six adults could stand comfortably together on the tree stump. The next day they came back and chopped the tree into fireplace logs. They stacked the logs in the front yard; the stacks were taller than the abandoned house. All week people drove by, horrified, and left notes and flowers on the tree’s stump. Ghods was informed through these memorials that he had “committed a crime against the neighborhood.”

Less than a week after the logs and chopped canopy had been carted away, Tropical Storm Allison came through and dumped about three feet of water on Houston in a night. Ghods, the now-locally-infamous developer, had a hole-in-the-wall Persian rug shop on the commercial district on the outside of our neighborhood, and once the water drained away, people driving past his shop could see his soggy inventory, its colors running onto the strip center’s tiny parking lot, hanging on ad hoc drying racks in front of the open door. The next week he hung up a banner advertising a 90% off sale on Persian rugs. Schadenfreude-laden whispers of “Karma’s a bitch” might have been heard here and there.

On the lot next to our house, where that small 1930s bungalow had stood, Ghods erected a condo duplex. Three stories, garage underneath, no yard. It was the template for many such milquetoast houses which would come later, before people got creative with the architecture and tried to make the neighborhood artsy again. Ghods’ units were going for $600K apiece, which at that time was a small fortune, especially for the neighborhood. He had to move into one of the units because no one would buy them. And the city still penalized him over his antics: he was required to plant 300 trees, each a minimum of three inches in diameter, around Houston. One of them got planted in our front yard.

Honestly, it wasn’t quite the same.

***

Live Oak

On Flowerdale
the bulldozers were busy last night
taking Mrs. Miller’s house,
her driveway,
the lake,
her neighbor’s car.

This morning I walked into silence,
found a missing block of houses,
a devoured acre of sidewalk.

On this street the developers are hungry;
I feel their breath.
They send my house letters—
woo her in front of me.

She will get a new school,
fancy streets,
the drainage will be better.

I cast my eyes downward,
fear Stepford houses.
Am I strong enough?

Should I tell her that she will die
stripped of her trees and flattened
in just a few hours?

I think to send her a picture
of “Live Oak,”
the new neighborhood
within the neighborhood
whose acres
have only one live tree.

***

Vanessa Zimmer-Powell is a Houston poet and Speech-Language Pathologist. She attended the University of Texas at Austin where she received a bachelor’s degree in English, and a Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in Communication Sciences and Disorders. Poetry honors and awards include first place winner of the 2016 and 2017 Houston Poetry Fest ekphrastic competition, third place winner of the 2017 Friendswood Library ekphrastic poetry competition, Poetry Honors at the 2013 Austin Poetry Fest, and a 2013 Rick Steves haiku award. Her poetry has aired on the radio and has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Austin Poetry Fest anthologies; Avocet; Blue Hole; Bearing the Mask: Southwestern Persona Poems; Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review; Chaffey Review; Copperfield Review; Ekphrasis; Historical Feathers; Houston Poetry Fest Anthologies; San Pedro River Review; Texas Poetry Calendars; and Untamable City. In 2018 her poetry has appeared in Weaving the Terrain: 100-word Southwestern Poems and Echoes of the Cordiellera: Attitudes and Lattitudes Along the Great Divide. On the radio, her poetry has aired on KTRU, KPFT, Houston Public Media, and the Rick Steves radio program. Her chapbook, Woman Looks into an Eye, is published by Dancing Girl Press.