That’s right, today I’m sharing some of my own poetry with you. And technically, it’s four poems, because I’m doing a livestream of some of my work from various publications. It will be at 6:00 p.m. central, live on my Facebook author page and on my Instagram. I hope you’ll join me there, but if you can’t make it to the live reading, you can always watch the video in both places. See you soon!
Tonight’s offering, “The Black Girl Comes To Dinner,” is a gorgeously written poem whose relevance is absolute in every direction. You don’t need my commentary on the subject; I need only to lift this poet’s voice up as best I can by sharing the poem with you.
I will comment, however, on the beauty of the form: Byas uses the pantoum structure, a repeating and interlocking series of lines, with such adeptness, playing with the syntax of the repetitions to let the form recede into the story. This is complicated, admirable stuff. The pantoum form also highlights the tragic repetition of the subject matter among our society’s failures.
We drive into the belly of Alabama,
where God tweezed the highway’s two lanes
down to one, where my stomach
bottoms out on each brakeless fall.
Where God tweezed the highway’s two lanes
with heat, a mirage of water shimmers into view then
bottoms out. On each brakeless fall,
I almost tell you what I’m thinking, my mouth brimming
with heat. A mirage of water shimmers into view then
disappears beneath your tires.
I almost tell you what I’m thinking, my mouth brimming
with blues. Muddy Waters’ croon
disappears beneath your tires.
I want to say I’m nervous beneath a sky brilliant
with blues. Muddy Waters’ croon,
the only loving I’m willing to feel right now, the only loving
I want. To say I’m nervous beneath a sky brilliant
enough to keep me safe means to face what night brings.
The only loving I’m willing to feel right now, the only loving
that will calm me—I need you to tell me I am
enough. To keep me safe means to face what night brings
to the black girl in a sundown town—
that will calm me. I need you to tell me I am
safe. That they will love me, that the night will not gift fire
to the black girl in a sundown town.
Your grandmother folds me into her arms and I try to feel
safe. That they will love me, that the night will not gift fire
are mantras to repeat as
your grandmother folds me into her arms. And I try to feel
grateful. But get home before it’s too late and watch out for the flags
are mantras to repeat as
we drive into the belly of Alabama.
This poem originally appeared on the Poetry Super Highway.
Taylor Byas is a Black Chicago native currently living in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is now a second year PhD student and Yates scholar at the University of Cincinnati, and an Assistant Features Editor for The Rumpus. She was the 1st place winner of both the Poetry Super Highway and the Frontier Poetry Award for New Poets Contests. Her chapbook, Bloodwarm, is forthcoming from Variant Lit this summer. You can find her on Twitter @TaylorByas3, and you can find her work at https://www.taylorbyas.com/.
Today I’m featuring Elina Petrova’s “Things of the Sky.” This poem reminds me a bit of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” with its loosely related vignette structure — although I think Petrova does a better job of building cohesion across the length of the poem. Her work here is accessible and lovely, deftly balancing the lyrical and familiar.
I love also that it resolves into a quiet epiphany at the end: not the sweeping and epic sort that movie franchises are built on, but the furtively powerful kind that make you stop in the middle of the day, in the middle of a task, and take note that your life has moved, is moving, forward.
Things of the Sky
At dawn, I heard a cargo train whistling,
lifted a curtain and saw through fog
a white egret limping toward my lawn.
I broke rye bread and went outside
to approach him with crumbs.
A sparrow hops from one empty branch
to another. While peering at the sky,
my retina conjures smoky amoebas,
tiny transparent chains. It’s drizzly
and calm. The sudden red miracle
lands on a Chinese maple and whistles.
I miss your letters, Lao. A bird
never forgets his song. Why did I?
The gore-stained talon.
Eyes clear of apathy. A hawk
alights on my fence again
when the only clear patch
in the sky is lit against
a distant thunderstorm.
It’s nearly four PM, and the sun pierces
feathery clouds at such an angle that
a fragment of the horizontal arc glows
in them for almost twenty minutes –
copper-violet haze at the height
where ice crystals meeting sunlight blaze
like love in its unbearably pure form.
Passersby glance at the fire rainbow
and return to iPhones.
Yesterday, while gardening, I touched
the trembling blue dust on the wings
of a black swallowtail, overheard a song
that reached me to younger rings
of my tree trunk.
I translated its lyrics from Spanish:
What am I doing in this field? – I’m not
falling in love or singing. The larva
comes out of his silken prison
and turns into mariposa – a butterfly.
Cardinals are back to my tallow tree.
When I hear their trill, spot a scarlet
flutter on the lower branch,
my limp heart restores to rapture.
Scarlet leaves in the brightest cold sky—
colors of ecstasy like on a Chagall painting.
Workers replace the sewage collector
in the neighbor’s yard, speak rapid Spanish.
I put in earplugs to proof-read contracts
on the porch. Silver insides of maple leaves
now clap in silence, and an egret
with his feet pressed to the white plumage
floats above the roof in slow motion.
You are never alone, even in this petty
perimeter guarded with earplugs, and if
you put papers aside, there is magic
you used to notice in childhood—
a dragonfly, a bumblebee; even the drone
video of your listed bungalow that captures
the blues & scarlets, and you in the fisherman
jacket, looking up at the egret, with a foolish
smile of a ten times five-year-old.
Pearlescent riders and elephants
on the cerulean. The sword of a jet
trace dissipates. Feathery clouds
hasten above Forum of cumuli
sculpted to be soon destroyed.
Nothing has happened to you.
Until 2007 Elina Petrova lived in Ukraine and worked in engineering management. She published two poetry books in English (Aching Miracle, 2015, and Desert Candles, 2019) and one in her native Russian language. Elina’s poems have appeared in Chicago Quarterly Review, Texas Review, North Dakota Quarterly, Southwestern American Literature, Porter House Review, California Quarterly, FreeFall (Canada), Ocotillo Review, Poetry of the American Southwest series, Wicked Wit (Runner-Up Award for Public Poetry), and numerous anthologies. Find her poetry website by clicking here.
This is another poem that I first read while judging last year’s Poetry Super Highway contest. It’s a marvelous example of a myth poem, or a poem which performs ekphrasis in response to a story or character from mythology. Diana the Hunter shows up in a few places in modern literature; possibly my favorite reference to her is Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy which begins with A Discovery of Witches.
I love the character of Diana the Hunter and the way Buckley characterizes her here: agencied, powerful, unapologetic, vivid and unafraid and embracing. She has the same verve as Beatrice in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, who howls of Claudio, “O God, that I were a man! I / would eat his heart in the marketplace.”
But Diana isn’t filled with heartbroken sorrow for her cousin’s unfair misfortune and its resulting vengeful fury.
Buckley’s Diana knows from an early age the full scope of life and death and her place in that cycle, and she operates within it with extraordinary clarity and confidence.
Diana in Autumn
I am not afraid to say I live by blood.
Before that red flow gushed
from my own belly
I was a swimmer elbow-deep
in the carcasses of deer,
I ripped breath’s tunnel
from a slit throat,
used all my strength
against the weight
of a stomach full of grass
and alder shoots.
I held a heart, still beating,
in my hand,
took with soft lips
from the blade of my father’s knife
that slice of liver, hot and raw,
my first communion.
Before my breasts bloomed
I had burned bodies,
torn flesh from bones,
howled the mad wild joy of it.
Eden is closed,
and I in every ruddy leaf
I love the incense of decay,
this dust we are
and were and will be,
the arrow singing slaughter
in my hand.
B.J. Buckley is a Montana poet and writer who has worked in Arts-in-Schools/Communities programs throughout the West and Midwest for over 45 years in schools, libraries, hospitals, senior centers and homeless shelters. Her work has appeared in Whitefish Review, ellipsis, Sugar House Review, December, Sequestrum, About Place Journal, The Comstock Poetry Review, and many others. Her most recent book is Corvidae, Poems of Ravens, Crows, and Magpies, with woodcut illustrations by Dawn Senior-Trask, Lummox Press 2014.
There have been times in my life when I have pulled my car hastily into a parking lot and yanked napkins and a pencil from the glovebox to scribble a poem down before it evaporated from my head. The ten weeks between my taita’s diagnosis and her passing come to mind: a whole series of lamentations was conceived on the well-traveled streets between my aunt’s house and my apartment.
My elder child turns sixteen this weekend. My younger is a teenager now, too. I try not to get nostalgic about the days when they were small enough to fall asleep in my lap. I was exhausted then and could just as easily fall asleep with them, weighted down by their milky warmth. I’m exhausted now, too, and only a little bit from missing the time when it was easy to solve their problems for them just by meeting their basic needs.
I love the adolescents they’ve become as much as I loved the babies they were. But parenting is like one long series of fleeting moments dragging you through their timeline, alternately endless and the length of a blink, a chronology of fatigue punctuated by bliss and terror.
I can’t imagine I would ever trade it.
Tonight’s poem, “For Little Hawk” by Pat Anthony, reminds me of the holiness of ephemeral moments and of how much we miss when something larger than ourselves interrupts them. I hope, fervently, that we will reach some comfortable medium of immunity and stability by later this year. My ambitions are not grand, but sometimes, honestly, when I look at the world around me, they feel immense.
For Little Hawk
I stop the car to write
how it’s been six months now
arms aching from the weight
your sleeping little boy body
this cradle of absence
my shoulder bowed yet
from the curve of your head
my lap waiting for the spill
of your blanketed legs
Then we breathed each other
my quick inhales fragrant
with your milky exhales
your gentle settling into sleep
Now I press my fingers against glass
this air between us laden
the lot of us at risk
of losing so much
squares of cloth
threatening to breach
larval we twist inside
by a single strand from
which we thought to anchor
before the dizzying spinning
thinned the sheath
the struggle within
trying out first words today
holding back my own
across an unsocial distance
But here along this road
where I’ve stopped
beside melons split open
their bloody hearts raw and dying
I just wanted you
to know how much I miss.
Pat Anthony writes the backroads, often using land as lens to heal, survive, and thrive while living with bi-polar disorder as she mines characters, relationships, and herself. A recently retired educator, she holds an MA in Humanities, poems daily, edits furiously and scrabbles for honesty no matter the cost. She has work published or forthcoming in multiple journals, including The Avocet, The Awakenings, The Blue Nib, Haunted Waters, Orchard Street, and more. Her latest chapbook, Between Two Cities on a Greyhound Bus, was recently published by Cholla Needles Press, CA. She blogs at middlecreekcurrents.com.
Tonight’s poem, “Letter” by my dear friend and colleague Christa Forster, is the perfect encapsulation of what living with anxiety feels like — at least, to me. There’s a cascade of inevitable circumstances pooling into surreality: the inevitability of inconvenience, the disjointedness of misplaced boons, the intellectually sanguine yet emotionally miserable understanding of just how precarious every detail is.
Tonight I celebrate Christa and her poem and acknowledge that I’m not sure how I’d make it through a school year without her.
It’s winter. I’m sick, naturally.
A kind salesman tried to sell me a kumquat,
but I don’t think he arrived in time because
there’s a war on, eking out another champion.
The mothers shouldn’t be disturbed, so I walk
quietly. Perhaps their dreams will occur
to me: I hear them in their famished forms.
I know the world won’t end this time,
but I’m super scared, and I’m never clean.
In a week, the streets will clear.
Change is uncomplicated. I can put
your stuff in storage and walk around.
Christa Forster earned an MFA in poetry from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program, where she studied with Edward Hirsch and Adam Zagajewski and served as poetry editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. She has won multiple Individual Artist Grants in Literature, attended the Tin House and Naropa Summer Writing workshops, and written for and performed in live bands and theater productions, including several original one-woman shows. Her literary work has been published in print anthologies and in online literary journals. Additionally, her feature work appears in Bluestem, The Broken Plate, Cite Magazine, ellipsis… literature & art, The Houston Chronicle, The New York Times, The Round, Sanskrit, and Sculpture Magazine.
I’m teaching A Tale of Two Cities right now to my AP seniors. Don’t laugh — it’s one of my favorite books. Almost everything you could need to teach to a high school class about the study and form of literature, about writing, about vocabulary, about character arc and archetype, about narrative structure is in that book in one way or another. I also teach a lot of non-dead, non-white, non-men in my classes, too, but this is my favorite book by Dickens.
I annotate my texts and teach from them. I’ve spent the last hour transcribing notes on the four chapters I want to cover in tomorrow’s class from my old copy of the book, that is literally held together with a binder clip, into a new edition that won’t fall to individual leaves every time I open it.
This is a busy week for me. It feels like I have enough meetings and appointments and grading or critique deadlines to keep me occupied until the heat death of the universe, and more of all of these keep piling on every day. I don’t even have lunch breaks these days.
Tonight’s poem, “With Vincent, at Saintes-Marie” from Brook the Divide by Rebecca Spears resonates with me in perhaps unexpected, perhaps predictable ways.
The feeling of being in one attitude, one state, one circumstance for so long it’s beginning to transform me.
Considering jumping away into a completely different landscape, suddenly.
I hear there’s still snow up north. Here, the mugginess swelters as we flirt with just enough rain to get us out of the latest incipient drought but maybe not enough to cancel Saturday afternoon at the park.
The poem is the escape. The poem, and then back to work.
With Vincent, at Saintes-Marie
We have come to the southern sea by way of diligence.
Five hours across the Camargue.
I was a child here. I have seen this view so often
my hair has turned the night-blue of memory, woven
in white strands of Milky Way. I have begun
of salted air
and barnacles. My bones are
My insides sponge.
For the first time I see the green and yellow-russet
flecking the blue iris. Now you stare back, half-wild.
On your skin I can feel the damp, orange soil
that nourishes the wheat canvases. You smell
of sardines and tuna, silver and tin. You’ve become
The sun can cure many ills, you say.
Yes, I agree. I like to think of this sea
that falls over
the French shore here, Africa there—
from here we could go by boat
to Istanbul or Odessa
Barcelona or Algiers
leave behind this world.
I wouldn’t mind dying there, lying with you
on a cold seabed.
Imagine going down under the dazzle
of green and yellow-white stars.
lightning flashes of sun.
I must sketch the boats, you say. Accurate
drawing, accurate color.
Please, I say.
But things here have so much line.
You see things with an eye more Japanese. I feel color
Show me then, show me
how you see.
Rebecca A. Spears, author of Brook the Divide: Poems (Unsolicited Press, 2020) and The Bright Obvious: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2009), has her poems, essays, and reviews included in TriQuarterly, Calyx, Crazyhorse, Barrow Street, Verse Daily, Ars Medica, Field Notes, and other journals and anthologies. She has received awards from the Taos Writers Workshop, Vermont Studio Center, and Dairy Hollow House. Brook the Divide was shortlisted for Best First Book of Poetry (Texas Institute of Letters). Spears is also a Pushcart nominee.
I always love featuring the poetry of my friends, and Robin Reagler is someone whom I appreciate very much. She’s a kind person, smart and reasonable and even-keeled in my experience, and sometimes I find that reading her poetry feels comfortable, inviting. Just like she always was when I was working at Writers in the Schools back in the day, when she was their director.
And sometimes that comfort comes in gently askew, as in today’s poem. Either way, I feel a sense of calm.
Enjoy “Hangnail,” which is from her new collection Into The The, just recently released from Backlash Press.
12:17 A.M. I subject my toenails to a little
stopgap analysis. Conclusions reached?
On earth you matter. Sure
the circumstances change
but you’re with us or you’re against us.
I have my own little aphorism:
On earth the circumstances alter.
One day it will go like this:
A penniless boy will arrive very late.
If you have the question, you have the question.
Go ahead, take my place.
Step into the garden.
Robin Reagler just published INTO THE THE, winner of the Best Book Prize from Backlash Press. For over 20 years, she led Writers in the Schools (WITS). You can order her books or find out where she’s performing next on her website www.robinreagler.com.
Here is another lovely fragment from Mala of the Heart, this time by Hafiz of Persia (Iran). It reminds me of the need and mutual benefit of kindness in the world.
from the shoulder
Hafiz (ca. 1320-1389) was born in the garden city of Shiraz. It is said that after the early death of his father, Hafiz worked for a bakery, where he caught sight of Shakh-e Nabat, whose incredible beauty moved him to write and sing of his love for her. During a forty-night vigil to win this girl’s love, Hafiz had a vision of an angel, whose beauty led Hafiz to realize that God was infinitely more beautiful than any human form. The angel revealed where Hafiz could find a spiritual master. Hafiz then met and became a disciple of Attar of Shiraz, who led Hafiz to union with God. Like other great Sufi poets, Hafiz employed imagery to express his longing and love for the divine.
This biographical information is quoted from Mala of the Heart.
Last year I was one of the judges for the Poetry Super Highway Annual Poetry Contest, and this was one of the poems that the judges all deemed excellent. (It won 3rd place from among nearly a thousand poems.) After the contest was over, I asked Rick Lupert, who runs PSH, if I could learn the names of the poets who’d written a handful of the poems I read while judging. He obliged, and I contacted them, and some have agreed to let me post their work on my blog this year. Angele Ellis is one of those gracious and talented poets. She is also, like me, of Lebanese descent, and has written about her roots. I highly recommend this wonderful poem of hers.
Today’s offering, “Scenes from Frozen River,” speaks to me for several reasons, even beyond the vivid imagery and poignant depth of feeling. I love the consistency of the form, the evenness on the page despite the emotional maelstrom of the content. I love that the speaker seems to have a multi-ethnic ancestry: I myself am both Arab and Native American (each from a different parent) and don’t often encounter anything that or any person who embodies or acknowledges both.
There’s not much else I can say about this poem that it can’t do on its own, and far better than I, so I’ll just leave it here for you to enjoy.
Scenes from Frozen River
(1) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning
to this burdened snowscape, this land pressed
flat by a lake effect sky. The deep blue bays
of Ontario ripple and swell, an ocean
drawing in. Tides, shrieking gulls, shells.
Twenty years ago, pulling up to a cousin’s
winterized cottage in Chaumont—Shah-moan,
for the French nobleman who claimed it—
her mother warned: Don’t be shocked if she’s strange.
O God of our childhood. She was bloated and strung out
on pain pills—shaking and keening over her best friend,
killed in that so-called one-car accident two years before.
Broken—broken through a frosted wall of glass
the fabled good looks of Yasmina,
my father’s far relation. On that other side—
unknown beauty whose tear-stained mouth embraced
her steering wheel at the terminus of white tracks.
My aunt: She wouldn’t have wanted to live after that.
(2) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning
to this burdened snowscape, this land where
a hard-bitten movie heroine craves a doublewide,
bad enough to smuggle illegals on thin ice
over the invisible border slicing the Mohawk rez.
I know her plowed-field misery. And the other,
her accomplice: black hair and pillowed cheeks.
The young face of my Mohawk cousins, before
we started gambling, every goddamn day.
I know that plywood shelf crowned with Regal,
these dead drifts deeper than crevasses,
those thrift stores stalked by marked-down bosses.
This land slapped flat by a husband’s hand.
On film, beached hope is salvaged. The ravaged
woman goes to jail. Her Mohawk friend tends
their children in the showroom trailer, gleaming
whale tamed by its female Jonah. Swallowed
whole into darkness, I no longer care how it ends.
3) Often Rebuked, Yet Always Back Returning
to this burdened snowscape, this land, in a van
far removed from the rattling paneled station wagons
of our pasts. Upholstered plush muffles gossip
as we glide, cresting the scenic route. There’s
no place like home! cries a cousin, half-amazed.
We finger landmarks from her tinted windows.
Almost a pleasure trip, this funeral: what’s left
to the middle-aged. Another death, yet we go on
like the Donner Party, sucking marrow from dry bones.
Does it matter who remains among the living?
This land pressed flat in our broken View-Master.
Bovine doublewides grazing the old farms. Lusting
for nothing, we laugh to break the stitches in our sides.
Copyright Angele Ellis. First published in Yew Journal.
Angele Ellis’s haiku appeared on a theater marquee after winning Pittsburgh’s Filmmakers’ G-20 Haiku Contest. Her poetry, fiction, essays, and reviews have been published in seventy journals and seventeen anthologies. She is author of Arab on Radar (Six Gallery), whose poems about her family heritage and political activism won a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Spared (A Main Street Rag Editor’s Choice Chapbook), and Under the Kaufmann’s Clock (Six Gallery), a fiction/poetry hybrid inspired by her adopted city of Pittsburgh, with photographs by Rebecca Clever. For more information on Angele and her work, click here.