Poem-A-Day: Book Spine Poetry

And so today, as promised, two poems since I missed posting one yesterday.

Book spine poetry is a marvelous thing. Once you see an example, it’s probably pretty easy to figure out how it works. You just use the titles of books as your lines. I suppose you could consider it a type of found poetry.

Every April at my school, the library holds a contest to see who can come into the stacks and “find” the best book spine poems. Here are the two winners from the faculty/staff category this year.

BSP by Christa Forster:  the winter people / wake / dogs of god // reawakened / old magic

 

BSP by Harlan Howe:  spell it out // I was here / yesterday / why not me? // you / betrayed / the man who stayed behind // pregnant pause // I thought you were dead

 

Have you made any book spine poems lately? If so, please send me a picture of it or post it (if you can) in the comments below!

Women Writers Wednesday 7/1/15

You’ve heard from Christa Forster on this blog before: during National Poetry Month she contributes to the Poem-A-Day series (in 2014 and 2015), and she’s done a WWW review before too.

Today she gives us a review of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, a book people seem to either love or hate (but mostly love) from an author who makes a walloping impression. I read Tartt’s The Secret History when I was in college and was profoundly affected. I read it many years later when I was teaching and was impressed it held up. It remains to this day one of my favorite novels. (Plus I can empathize with someone who takes a decade to write a book…)

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Donna Tartt has written one of the first great American novels of the 21st century: The Goldfinch. Her aptly-named main character — Theo Decker — alludes to the Nietzschean idea that not only is God dead, not only have we killed him, but we’ve wasted him, blown him away, stuffed any remaining shreds of sacredness into a padded bubble mailer and not even noticed when someone switched out our only miracle while we were zonked on drugs or booze or gambling or relationships or Facebook or whatever has enthralled us. With The Goldfinch, Tartt holds up a mirror to nature that is so cracked it is hard to keep looking: it’s especially alarming, because we don’t want to believe that we’ve doomed ourselves to the extent that we have.

 

THE GOLDFINCH cover

 

It is not a novel about climate change. It’s a novel about a boy who loses everything. Near the story’s end, Theo admits that “Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean that we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open.” The paradoxical tone of the novel — this bleak open-heartedness — divides people into two distinct groups: those who love it and those who cannot tolerate it. Lukewarm reports from people who “sorta liked” The Goldfinch are hard to find, maybe because the novel, at 771 pages, requires a hearty investment of time. Readers either finish the book and love it, or they don’t immediately love it and therefore don’t finish it.

 

The basic plot is this: Theo Decker’s life is devastated early on by a bomb attack on an art museum, wherein he and his mother seek shelter from a rainstorm and kill time before a scheduled conference with Theo’s school principal. The explosion suggests the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and although Theo walks away from the catastrophe physically unscathed, his soul forever after suffers from what the explosion steals from him (his mother, his sense that the world is an okay place). In addition to leaving with all his limbs, he also escapes the wreck with “The Goldfinch,” a small painting by the obscure Dutch master, Carel Fabritius. Unsure of why he’s taken the painting (described alluringly by Tartt), he frets about how to return it, taking so much time that he fears what will happen if he does return it. So he avoids returning it, but he cannot unknow that he has not returned it; thereby, he unwittingly commits one of the great art heists of the century, a fact which haunts him epically, but not enough to motivate him to return the painting. Tartt uses Fabritius’ painting as a MacGuffin to move the plot along and to complicate the conflict in the plot. However, as with all great stories, the characters keep the reader turning the pages. Along with Theo, an ensemble of major characters dominate the scene: Boris (Theo’s hardcore best friend, son of a Russian mobster); Theo’s duplicitous, rattled father and his skeezy girlfriend, Xandra; the blueblood, seemingly inbred Upper East Side Barbour family; the evil villain Lucius Reeve; the uber-mensch Hobie and his niece, the ethereal Pippa.

 

Certainly, The Goldfinch can be categorized as a dark novel, but also one that is certainly steeped in light. Anyone whose life has been touched by addiction — her own or someone’s close to hers —  will be amazed at Tartt’s knowledge of the subject matter. The main characters in this book abuse a LOT of illegal substances. One might even wonder if the twelve-year radio silence between the publications of The LIttle Friend and The Goldfinch wasn’t caused by Tartt’s own journey through a dark night of the soul. Regardless, Tartt has turned whatever baggage she’s carrying into a true treasure with The Goldfinch. This is literary fiction of the highest order (remember, it won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, the highest accolade a work of fiction can receive in America), which means that the characters are complex, conflicted, and psychologically profound; the settings (New York and Las Vegas) are saturated with symbolism; the atmosphere and mood are dense and tense, rendered with exquisitely-tuned concrete, sensory detail. As all classics are, Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a must-read for any writer — aspiring or seasoned — to learn or remember how and why the objective correlative matters, why and when the first-person/past tense point of view works best, what a MacGuffin is and how it advances a story’s plot.

 

Even a potential design-flaw, like the overabundance of times that Tartt’s characters wipe their foreheads with the backs of their hands, is absorbed by the gratifying experience of finishing the novel and the memory one has of the story and of reading the story. And perhaps, for those readers who persevere long and read closely enough to notice it, this ubiquitous brow-wiping is another example of the objective correlative at work in this novel:  Whew! Made it through the wreck this time. Hopefully, the next generation, and the next, will make it through, too.

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Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.

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To see more kinds of reviews like the ones in this series, check out these blogs by Melanie Page and Lynn Kanter. And of course go to the Sappho’s Torque Books page here to see other reviews by me and by other contributors to the Women Writers Wednesday series.

The Women Writers Wednesday series seeks to highlight the contributions of women in literature by featuring excellent literature written by women authors via reviews/responses written by other women authors. If you’d like to be a contributor, wonderful! Leave a comment below or send me an email, tweet, or Facebook message with your idea.

 

Women Writers Wednesday 4/15/15

Tonight, as Women Writers Wednesday and Poet-A-Day collide so beautifully, enjoy a review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars in a thoughtful review by Christa M. Forster. You can read one of Christa Forster’s poems from last year’s Poem-A-Day series here.

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My God, It’s Full of Duende

A Review of Tracy K. Smith’s Life on Mars

 

What do you need to know about Tracy K. Smith’s third book of poems, Life on Mars, before you read it? Do you need to know that it won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry? Maybe you need to know that her two previous books — The Body’s Question and Duende — won the Cave Canem Prize and the James Laughlin Award, respectively. Maybe all you need to know is that any poet bold enough to title a book Duende better be worth her salt. Trust me (and the Cave Canem, James Laughlin and Pulitzer prize committees): Tracy K. Smith is worth it.

 

In the first poem in Life on Mars, “The Weather in Space,” Smith announces what kind of multiverse she’s writing from: our very contemporary one. In the present, which now more than ever feels simultaneously like the future and the past, “When the storm / Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing / After all we’re certain to lose, so alive — / faces radiant with panic.” Right after this, Smith begins the book again with the poem “Sci-Fi,” which alludes to an impending, existential cosmic storm: our technology’s distractions and demands — specifically our rapacious social media — have seduced us away from our necessary solitudes and productive boredoms, resulting in a psychosocial landscape that bodes the kind of loneliness visible in every sex club. Smith illuminates this emotional apocalypse in stunning, declarative couplets with the command of a matriarch-savant:

 

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

 

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

 

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

 

Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,

 

Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.

 

For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.

 

In this first half of “Sci-Fi,” the reader recognizes the distinct grip of Smith’s poetic capabilities. Her poems swing musically from image to philosophical statement to narrative, to image again. Her mastery affects the reader with a cumulative weight that must be born; the weight is painful, but, even more than that, deeply and strangely pleasurable. In the multi-sectioned tour-de-force, “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” Smith’s felicitous angst recalls another end-of-an-era writer: William Shakespeare. Here’s section 4 — in its entirety — from this poem:

 

4.

In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on….

 

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

 

On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.

 

* * *
A lesser poet might have ended this section with the foreboding question. After all, isn’t this what everyone wants to know: Does one’s life end at the end of what one can name? But she is not a lesser poet. With Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith establishes herself in the pantheon of visionary poets. Her impulse to look at and name history — the history of her era, which is our era — is richly rewarding and generative; in fact, her work is full of that ineffable life-blood of solitude and wonder — full, that is, of duende.

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Christa Forster: Writer, Teacher, Performer whose goal is to make life more meaningful for herself and others through Education and Art. Follow her on Twitter @xtaforster.

Featured Poet: Christa Forster

Today’s poet is Christa Forster, a colleague whom I admire very much for her tremendous use of innovation in the classroom and for her ability to sustain an artistic career while teaching full-time and managing a household and family.  She’s an inspiration to me.

Here’s her official bio:  Christa Forster is a writer, teacher and performer living in Houston, TX. She earned her MFA from the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and is the recipient of several Individual Artist Grants from City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance. Information about her most recent work can be found at http://ysidora.wordpress.com.

 

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Axiom

 

In a mildewy booth, I drain Lone Stars
with a sculptor named Nestor and listen
to a local band thrashing in the rear
room. We’re bored. Nestor knows a spot —
an abandoned incinerator — you
have got to see this place, he says. We take
my Datsun to some forsaken ash-
wracked shell, spare boxcars stranded on broken
rails, weeds looming like The Dream. Near midnight
we’ve found the apocalyptic garden.
Nestor shows me the burnt out heart
of the place — scorched black swath
smearing a white concrete wall: trash
theater, he calls it. Who knows what type
of carcinogens still haunt this stage?
We leave and hit a bar that sells wine
after last call, drive 288 South to Surfside.
Dow Chemical dominates the shore.
Ditching our clothes, we rush the sea
blue as our tongues. Luminous plankton
galaxies surround us, shooting stars
within waves. Nestor cradles my body.
In the spangled darkness I can’t feel where
my own skin ends, where salt water begins.
After a spell, we’re wiped and return
to the car. When I flick on headlights
we’re shocked by hundreds of beached fish
littering the shore, looking dead, their slick
white bellies glinting in the quartz-halogen gaze.
Where did they come from? Nestor wants to drive.
I tell him I can do it. The wheels bump
over bodies as we head home.