Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer

One of the most beautiful books of poetry I read in the last year was Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. I keep it on my nightstand and flip to a random page sometimes before going to bed at night just to read a poem that will clear my mind.

It’s one of those books whose poems are so finely wrought that their artistry emanates from every syllable without coming off as pretentious or too academic or more-poetic-than-thou. These are poems that feel intentional in their craft and heft, and which tell intimate stories. But they’re not an “easy read,” by which I mean they aren’t accessible to a fault: you can’t read them without paying attention, your mind really focused on something else. These are poems that feel glorious to wrestle with, and when you’re done, you feel like you’ve read something that matters.

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AT HOME

 

The copper carries my wishes.
A storm snapped a dozen trees

the day you left; the same
straight firs cut for masts.

The Gazette held no word,
no sight of your sails. Each week,

my fingers traced columns of ships —
Flying Cloud, Lion of Waves,

Golden Empire — with titles
broader than their beams,

bold as thoroughbreds, as if
a name could seal a fortune.

My mind slipped to the ocean
floor, littered with wrecks.

I placed silver coins
beside your picture and knit

scarves until we received
the rattle and whalebone

swallows. I send you handshakes
in return. Our son was born

this winter: eight pounds
and eager thirst, no fever.

It was three days of labor
with compress of nettle

and yarrow leaf, every knot
in the house untied. His ears

are tiny shells, hands in fists,
your brown hair. The cradle

is drawn with yellow dories.
For your birthday, a party

without you here: spongecake
and cherryade. Hope you were

given bread and molasses.
My love, remember, the polestar

is not alone, but twinned,
a pair of suns, guiding you North.

 

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Credit: Robin Beth Schaer, “At Home” from Shipbreaking, published by Anhinga Press. Copyright © 2015 by Robin Beth Schaer. Reprinted with the permission of the author. 

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Robin Beth Schaer is the author of the poetry collection Shipbreaking (Anhinga 2015). Her writing has appeared in Tin House, Paris Review, and Guernica, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Saltonstall, Vermont Studio Center, and VCCA. She has taught writing in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, and she worked as a deckhand aboard the Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot ship lost in Hurricane Sandy. Her website is www.robinbethschaer.com.
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Poem-A-Day: Sarah Freligh

“So I Call My Mother On Sunday” by Sarah Freligh is one of those poems that’s just so spot-on about families and about life that I don’t know how I could possibly say anything to introduce it that would be worth its truth.

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SO I CALL MY MOTHER ON SUNDAY

every Sunday, though I don’t say
how are you anymore because I know
she’s dying and each day will be worse
than the day before. Her liver’s rotting
the way an apple goes bad, swelling
as it softens and maybe smells sweet
as fruit does before you toss it.
I ask her how the weather is, snowing
like crazy here, about the traffic
at the bird feeder. She likes to watch
the small birds, chickadees and nuthatches,
not so much the sparrows though
today she says the minister’s there
and she’s planning her funeral. She wants
to be cremated. She wants an urn
and the family to bury her, no one else
in attendance. A memorial service, maybe
sandwiches after. It’s been snowing
every day for a week now, I say, we’re knee
deep in it. Did you hear me, she says
and I tell her it’s such heavy snow
to shovel every hour I get so tired
of shoveling, god, I want to cry.

***

Sarah Freligh is the author of Sad Math, winner of the 2014 Moon City Press Poetry Prize and the 2015 Whirling Prize from the University of Indianapolis. Other books include A Brief Natural History of an American Girl, winner of the Editor’s Choice award from Accents Publishing, and Sort of Gone, a book of poems that follows the rise and fall of a fictional pitcher named Al Stepansky. Her work has appeared in Sun Magazine, Hotel Amerika, BOAAT Journal, Rattle, on Writer’s Almanac, and anthologized in the 2011 anthology Good Poems: American Places. Among her awards are a 2009 poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a grant from the Constance Saltonstall Foundation in 2006.

12 Days of Christmas Music That Won’t Turn Your Brain to Goo (Day 7)

Unless you’ve been living under a boulder the size of a bantha or have eschewed all mention of pop culture anywhere, then you know why I’m posting this song today.

Maybe you’re not a fan of the movies, the books, the universe that is inspired. My fandom doesn’t require that you be.

Episode IV was the first movie I saw in a cinema, and it had a profound impact on me. Not just because it was a movie and I hadn’t seen one on the big screen before. Not just because Princess Leia was the kind of strong woman that I think my mother wanted me to become. Not just because the special effects were groundbreaking for their time. All those things, yes.

But also? Because my father in his youth was a comics and sci-fi fiend. I saw all the big movies with him — the Star Wars films, Star Trek, Superman, the list goes on — and he read me Spider-Man comics at bedtime. As he got older, his fandom subsided under the weight of his adult responsibilities, and this thing we shared became something of a fond memory.

But today, later this morning, I will be at a cinema with him. And with my mom and my brother (who’s home for a few days from Hong Kong) and my sister and my husband and my children. We will share this awesome thing again.

I hope the movie is good, I really do. But even if it’s not as great as I hope it will be, I will probably love the experience of being there with my family, and that, for me, is enough.

Enjoy.

 

Women Writers Wednesday 1/7/15

The Women Writers Wednesday series is back after a long holiday hiatus! This week I’m featuring a review of Jung Chang’s memoir Wild Swans, presented by Niva Dorell Smith. Her short bio follows the review, as does information on how to see more of this series and how to be a part of it. I’m always interested in new voices!

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The next time you think or say, “This country sucks” (it’s okay, we’ve all felt this way at some point), please do yourself a favor and read Jung Chang’s debut memoir Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China (Simon & Schuster, 1991). I guarantee you’ll feel differently when you finish it.

 

Wild Swans

 

In Wild Swans, Chang recalls the trajectory of her family and country from 1909 to 1978, expertly weaving the stories of three generations of Chang women with China’s historical struggle to redefine itself from feudal society to Communist super power. The result is part history lesson, part family soap opera, and entirely epic in both breadth and depth. I couldn’t put it down.

Chang begins the story with her fifteen-year-old grandmother Yu-Fang being given by her father to General Xue Zhi-Heng as a concubine. Seven years later, Yu has her one and only child, a daughter, Bao Quin, with whom she escapes from the General’s palace when Bao is a baby. Together, they live in exile for over a year until General Xue dies. His last words are that Yu be given her freedom. A short time later, Yu remarries Dr. Xia, a respected local doctor forty years her senior, who raises Bao as his own daughter and nurtures both her independent spirit and quest for knowledge.

During this time, China transitions from an empire to a republic/warlord society; the Japanese invade in the 1930s; a Communist-Kuomintang alliance leads to Japanese surrender in the mid-1940s; and a political struggle between the two victors results in the brutal Kuomintang-Communist Civil War. Chang’s mother, Bao, becomes a student leader, joins the Communist underground, and falls in love with Wang Yu, a Communist rebel leader. They marry right before the Communists prevail and General Mao Zedong establishes the People’s Republic of China.

Despite being a young couple in love, Wang Yu and Bao immediately butt heads on how to approach life, the Communist Party, and the raising of their own young family, including the author, Jung Chang, and her three siblings. Her father, Wang Yu, is a hardcore Communist who believes that being a Communist leader requires the strictest adherence to Party rules and values; in other words, no special treatment for himself or anyone in his family. Her mother, Bao, believes that a man in a position of authority should do everything he can to protect and provide for his family, even if it means making exceptions to Party rule and occasionally, secretly, questioning Party values. This conflict, which continues throughout their marriage, results in serious repercussions as both become senior officials in the Communist Party, and life becomes increasingly harsh under General Mao.

Chang writes with both emotional restraint and painstaking detail about growing up within the highest ranks of the Communist party, from walled communities to school beatings, to joining the Red Guards and watching her parents be denounced, tortured, and eventually sent to labor camps during the ten-year-long, ultra-violent Cultural Revolution. She chronicles the gradual transformation of her own psychological and emotional attachment to the almost mythical figure of General Mao, whom she loves, respects, and adores as a child and begins to question only as a young adult. Her father, though strict, earns the respect of even his fiercest enemies for remaining faithful to his principles, even when they eventually conflict with the radical Communist agenda. Her mother remains fiercely determined to fight for her loved ones, pulling every string and calling on every favor possible to protect not only her children, but also people who come to her for help.

Despite everything the family endures­­––starvation, torture, separation, forced labor, and prison camps––they manage to prevail and remain close. When Jung Chang leaves China in 1978 for London, one cannot help but share in her relief and joy at the miracle of freedom.

Whatever your thoughts about our government’s––or any government’s––being flawed, Jung Chang’s Wild Swans will illuminate unequivocally how Communist China was a thousand times worse. Families were torn apart by the regime, with neighbors turning on neighbors, children turning on parents, and parents turning on each other. Almost all symbols of Chinese history, including the majority of China’s vast art collection, were destroyed. Somewhere between fifteen and seventy million people died under Mao Zedong.

But the most painful aspect of Wild Swans is the psychological effect of living in constant fear. Jung describes a political and social environment that discourages any form of independent thinking, to the point where she no longer trusts her own thoughts. Breaking free of this psychological manipulation is not only extremely difficult but also dangerous. In Communist China your thoughts could get you arrested, tortured, and killed, and ruin your entire family for generations to come.

It is no wonder that this book is taught in colleges worldwide. Wild Swans is an unprecedented, intimate view of what it’s like to grow up in one of the most secretive and oppressive societies in the world. Only someone who experienced it first hand could have written it. Be grateful you did not.

***

Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently working on a memoir titled The History of Us. She writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com. Follow her on Twitter @nivaladiva.

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.

12 Days of Christmas Music That Doesn’t Suck, 2014 Edition (Day 6)

So have you finished your holiday shopping yet? I sure haven’t. Maybe I can get around to that on Tuesday, because, you know, hope springs eternal.

You know, if you’re stuck trying to figure out what to get for someone, Finis. just went on super-sale today. No idea how many days that will last, but it won’t be very long. You can find it at the various links below for just 99 cents, for a limited time.

And in honor of the shopping frenzy — but also very much because I’m thrilled that some of my cousins arrive from out of town tomorrow — I’m giving you a Straight No Chaser song today, “Christmas Can-Can.” What’s the family connection, you might ask? One of the guys in Straight No Chaser is my cousin-in-law.

Enjoy! And get that consumerism on. Time’s a-wasting!

*heavy snark*

*maybe*

 

 

And speaking of cousins, where can you buy Finis.?* So glad you asked! Be sure to spread the word. (It’s just about the only way to sell books these days.)

Amazon

Smashwords

Oyster Books

Barnes and Noble

Scribd

Kobo

Baker & Taylor’s Blio

Apple’s iBooks Store

*  Did you see what I did there? Yep, those of you who’ve already read Finis. will understand.

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P.S. — It appears that the music videos aren’t showing up in the emails when these posts go out to my blog subscribers. Don’t know why that’s happening, but the videos are showing up nicely when you click on the link in the email to go to the blog directly. Thanks for subscribing, and thanks for clicking in!

Featured Poet: Justin Jamail

You might notice something about today’s poet’s last name, and that is that it’s the same as my last name. That’s because today’s poet is my cousin, who is also a poet.  We have an enormous family with very, very few writers in it.  He and I are about six years apart (he’s younger), and technically he’s my second cousin, though in a family as large and, in some ways, as tightly-knit as ours, that isn’t really distant.  We weren’t close when we were children, but we became friends as adults.  He had been living on the east coast for years when I met him again, back home in Houston, at his father’s funeral.

Our aunt came up to me after the service in one of the rooms of the funeral home where the mourners were having a sort of mercy dinner and told me, “You know, your cousin Justin is a poet, too.  You should go talk to him about that.”

“Oh, no,” I replied.  “I don’t think this is the right time for that, do you?”

She leveled her patented I-know-better-than-you-and-am-going-to-tell-you-what-I-know-because-I-love-you look at me and said, “Frankly, today,” and she gestured around the crowded salon, “I think he’d rather talk about anything else.”

“Okay,” I sighed and gingerly walked up to him. I waited for him to finish the conversation he was having and when he turned to me, I said, “Hi, Justin. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m your cousin Angélique, and Aunt Barbara told me to come and tell you I’m a poet.”  Then I shook my head.  “We don’t have to talk about this now.”

“Oh yes, hello, that’s wonderful,” he said with genuine kindness.  Then he gently took my elbow and gestured to a nearby couch and said, “Please, come tell me all about yourself.”

The last decade, we haven’t lived anywhere close to each other and see each other only now and then, but I consider him a close cousin and a dear friend.

Here’s his official bio:  

Justin Jamail is from Houston, TX.  He lives with his wife, the playwright Amber Reed, in Tokyo.

 

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Four Negronis in Singapore

 

When one thinks that recorded human history
has taken not more than seven or eight weeks,
and that even our sun, though an immense ball
of party talk, is a pygmy beside most of the furniture,
the figures of remotely viewed people begin to dwarf
this country’s houses into comparative insignificance.
The farthest source of commentary
that can be seen with the naked eye
this afternoon is a faint splotch
available in a few university libraries
so far away that its import takes a million
episodes to traverse the intervening glasses
of cool relief and fan-conditioned conquests.

 

Game Day Guac (and a Haiku Contest Update at the Bottom of This Post)

I do not watch the Super Bowl.

Even though I live in Texas, I admit I don’t really care for football, not any part of it, and so I don’t host or attend Super Bowl parties as a general rule.  I don’t watch the game, not even for the commercials (though I have been to quite a few SB parties in the past which were primarily devoted to watching the commercials).

But I know a lot of people do enjoy it, and so I wanted to share my recipe for Continue reading “Game Day Guac (and a Haiku Contest Update at the Bottom of This Post)”