Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer (again)

It was difficult to choose just a couple of poems to feature here from the book Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. (I posted one yesterday as well.)

This year, National Poetry Month begins and ends with weekends. At the beginning of April, I featured two poems by the multi-talented Paula Billups, poems which touched me deeply. Ending this month is a weekend of poems by another person whose poetry has impacted me in a profound way. (You can read more of how and why on yesterday’s post.)

The following poem, “Natural History,” broaches the grim subject of the Anthropocene Era we have found ourselves in, while framing the debate in the real root of its sadness: our descendants and the mess we seem to be leaving them. On a weekend when half of my little family marched for the climate, I keep desperately clinging to the hope of productive tasks and resistance willpower, using what influence and abilities I have to chip away at the problem and, ideally, lead others by example.

Like parenting, like teaching, I don’t always know if my leading by example actually makes an impact, but I continue to try to do it, because the alternative feels cowardly.

***

NATURAL HISTORY

 

To say love is why explorers trekked north
with oilskin and sextants believing mastodons
were still alive is fiction, but I would haul a sled

over tundra, hoping a herd survived, hoping you
will survive. My body opens like an umbrella
as you become an abstract of history, speeding

through evolution until you are covered
with arboreal fur. Before you have fingerprints,
or even hands, your ribs unfurl in fiddleheads.

They articulate in pairs. The world without us
is nameless. There are words for all the molten ages
before the seabed bloomed, but none for after us,

not even in Latin. Our imagination spurns
extinction, even when shown a dinosaur egg
or skies once darkened by pigeons. In the museum,

a diorama waits for the future, a camouflage
of blankness. I surrender to your small chance
of being, though you are only a faint shadow

in sonar, a muffled thrum. This love is talons
and wild valor against the baying of hounds.
Glass boxes bear sabertooth skulls, meteorites,

and tracks in volcanic ash. The revolutions
are numerous. A blue whale drifts from the ceiling,
navel wide as a dinner plate, a half-ton heart

on the floor underneath. It is doubtful hearts
will be larger in the future. I want to promise you
permanence, my constant orbit, but even continents

are revisions. I am only your diving bell in water
hemmed by shifting plates. For now, the only name
I give you is my own, though maps are drawn

for seas ten million years ahead. In Ethiopia,
a rift will open wide enough for water
to pour a new coastline and drown the valley

where the skeleton of a woman, not quite human
or ape, was found. As you take my bones
for your own, my greedy passenger, the certainty

of elements is all I have. Your inheritance
of calcium was starfish, then mountain,
then lettuce, and will be a third of what remains

when we are afterward and underwater again.
Bones will say stop before they snap. To reach
the heart, a surgeon cranks open the awning

of ribs until they gasp. My chest expands
without lathe or scalpel, only the force
of your arrival loosening the baleen corset.

To say I made you is inaccurate. You make
yourself from secret blueprints, a shapeling
clutching a manifest of your demands, the parts

salvaged from my body. The revolutions are sudden.
In-between marine, you command dark tides
and destroy me in your making. You wind

umbilical inside, as if to stay. I let the doctors
carve me open like cardboard. My body
could have been a grave. After nothing familiar,

all you know is survival, a green bank of yelping.
You practice a pantomime of instinct, crying
in my accent, grasping for branches with flung-out

arms, and rooting for my breast. Intricacies
of milk and sleep dismantle me. I empty
myself into you, hollowing by the ounce.

There are seven white rhinos when you are born.
A year later, six. I try to tally the animals
vanished in my lifetime and lose count. The frogs

in Costa Rica are gone, an ibex of the Pyrenees,
clouded leopards in Taiwan, the Caspian tiger
and Java tiger, a boa in Mauritius, and grizzly bears

last seen beside the headwaters of the Yaqui River.
Their names chant a grim litany for you to learn,
a half-formed loss. We are in a great dying.

You are going to die. No longer my throat
or temple, the most breakable part of my body
is on the outside now. A javelin anchors the air

between us. Fifty billion creatures have lived
among antlered legends and trampled mud,
but only one percent still ambles leeward.

Dream wary, I feign courage or madness.
There may be no refuge in greenwood,
but you are a stockade of light. I abide

in your clear voice in the grass. You have
only words for what you love: apple,
book, and home. You name the rest yourself:

cat a plaintive moan, spiders are wriggling
fingers, the sky is hands waved above.
But you have no word for me. The question

of who I am confounds you, as though asked
to name a reflection. Not mother or son: us.
We are a coral reef, a pod of whales, descendants

of slime, an endless expanding. Under the city,
aquifer fills with seawater, slowly drawing
the avenues down. Someday, someone

will find our ribs in a midden of oyster shells,
ship hulls, and wooden doors. Instead of a cage,
may they lash our bones together as a raft.

***

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

***

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.

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.

***

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.

 

***

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. 

***

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.

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!

Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Sewell

I’ve always been struck by the fact that the name we use for someone who suffers mightily, unjustly, and beyond all sense or reason is the same name for the work we do in order to earn payment that we might gainfully live.

I teach, and sometimes — like around this time of year — the beckoning breath of a break — in this case, summer — magnifies the stress of the workload I and most of my colleagues are laboring under. I’m lucky in that my administrators understand that “every ask is still an ask,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a basketful of asks awaiting each of us — teachers, students, and administrators alike — around every turn. The weight of it is like stones piling on my chest, and like old Giles Corey, I keep coming back.

Case in point: here is my current grading stack.

This giant mug holds 20 ounces of tea and is nearly the size of my face. You know, for reference.

 

And here is an ekphrastic poem by Elizabeth Sewell. Note the rhyme scheme and rhythm, how they mimic orderliness, how they taunt. You know, like the act of grading papers.

Persist, my friends, persist.

***

 

Poem-A-Day: Lucille Clifton

It’s common for people to assume all poetry is autobiographical. It’s not.

Yes, some of it is, of course. And sometimes poetry feels autobiographical and even begins with a nugget of memoir but then evolves into something else.

I wish more people understood this, but then I also wish more people understood and/or appreciated and/or even read poetry. (That’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)

One form of poem which I really enjoy, in part because it specifically breaks up the autobiography stereotype, is the dramatic monologue, in which the poet is writing specifically as someone else. The speaker in this first-person poem can be real or made up, but it is decidedly not the poet.

One of my favorite examples of this form is Lucille Clifton’s “Moses.” Note the succinctness of the poem, how it economizes a familiar narrative with visceral imagery. Note how it uses unconventional choices regarding its capital letters and punctuation to create tone and rhythm and voice. Note the final, gorgeous, implied rhyme of the last few syllables to give the reader insight into just what motivates the speaker, Moses.

***

Moses

 

i walk on bones
snakes twisting
in my hand
locusts breaking my mouth
an old man
leaving slavery.
home is burning in me
like a bush
God got his eye on.

 

Poem-A-Day: William Shakespeare

I like to post something by Shakespeare to commemorate the anniversary of his birth and death every year. It was yesterday — both his birthday and his deathday — and I missed the date, alas. But I’m just not on top of things as well as I’d like to be this week. My school and writing loads are both, at the moment, heavy.

I’ve been thinking about middle school lately, since I’ve got a daughter in the thick of it and my son will embark upon it next year. Middle school is such a traumatic time of life, for nearly everyone. That’s just developmentally where humans are. (I might, in fact, be concerned about someone who didn’t find it awful in at least some ways.)

One monologue that I always come back to is Helena’s indignation from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Like many young person social dramas, a great deal of hurt follows a great deal of misunderstanding. I’m not trying to celebrate that. However, I find this monologue particularly poignant.

In the wonderful film version of this play from 1999, Calista Flockhart makes what might be one of her greatest performances ever, as Helena. She does an amazing job of portraying a young lady with not nearly enough self-respect but a fire in her belly.

***

Injurious Hermia! most ungrateful maid!
Have you conspired, have you with these contrived
To bait me with this foul derision?
Is all the counsel that we two have shared,
The sisters’ vows, the hours that we have spent,
When we have chid the hasty-footed time
For parting us,–O, is it all forgot?
All school-days’ friendship, childhood innocence?
We, Hermia, like two artificial gods,
Have with our needles created both one flower,
Both on one sampler, sitting on one cushion,
Both warbling of one song, both in one key,
As if our hands, our sides, voices and minds,
Had been incorporate. So we grow together,
Like to a double cherry, seeming parted,
But yet an union in partition;
Two lovely berries moulded on one stem;
So, with two seeming bodies, but one heart;
Two of the first, like coats in heraldry,
Due but to one and crowned with one crest.
And will you rent our ancient love asunder,
To join with men in scorning your poor friend?
It is not friendly, ’tis not maidenly:
Our sex, as well as I, may chide you for it,
Though I alone do feel the injury.

***

Ah, youth. As they say, it is wasted on the young.

Poem-A-Day: Marie Marshall

You’ve seen the poetry of Marie Marshall here before. She’s a poet whose work I admire, in part because she pushes boundaries and experiments with it in ways that other writers might shy away from. Perhaps she isn’t afraid to ignore her comfort zone? Perhaps she’s just too filled with creativity to worry about it. Either way, her work challenges as well as fulfills. I highly recommend you check out her blog and her books. (More on those below.)

The poem she’s sharing with us this time stretches us in part by its visual form. There are six stanzas here in a contiguous poem, but they are meant to be seen discretely. On paper, each stanza would appear on a different page, but since I can’t easily do this on the blog, I’ve included blank space between the stanzas. Imagine, please, that you’re turning a page, and remember that the post isn’t finished until you get to the bio at the end.

To better explain what you’re about to read here, I’ll let Marie, who is “currently very manic and creative, and monkeying about with [her] poetics,” tell you about it in her own words:

***

  • I have tried to move away from being “the great poet whose innermost thoughts and feelings the readership will hear expressed.” I am moving to an idea first mooted in the 1970s by poets like Lyn Hejinian and Barrett Watten, that the prime creative force in poetry is the power of the reader rather than of the writer. I am trying to open up to the co-creative, co-initiative reader. So it’s not really a new idea, but I’m just poking it into life again.
  • I’m influenced by poets like Hejinian, Susan Howe, and Lisa Jarnot, but I’m doing my own thing.
  • I use a lot of repetition, letting words and images circulate and re-form. Again this isn’t new. Jarnot did it in her famous poem ‘Ye White Antarctic Birds’, and I did it a lot in my 2010 ‘Lithopoesis’ experiment. Lyn Hejinian says that repetition forces re-assessment and the application of new meaning.
  • I don’t give my poems in this current cycle any title in words, because I think that a title is the first point at which a poet forces a meaning on what’s going to come after. I have been numbering my poems lately, and this poem is ‘62’. Although a number is not without its own semiotics, as a simple numerical or mathematical expression it has less of the chameleon quality of a word or a phrase.
  • I have lately written several poems in six regular stanzas of six lines each. This breaks up what is basically a free-form poem, creates a tension between regularity and irregularity. I have tended to allocate a separate page for each stanza. This is to add tension – what came before / what comes now / what will come later. It does, however, leave the reader free to consider a stanza alone, a stand-alone poem if you will, even to the extent of uplifting it from the whole. Once given out, I make no insistence about my poems!
  • I also sometimes (as in this case) appear to begin in medias res and end without a resolution. This suggests (but does not insist) that on reaching the end of the poem the reader may begin again, or even that there is no set beginning/ending point. I would like readers to read it over and over again, as this would facilitate their association of new ideas and meanings, newer each time as each reading is a new phenomenon, but of course I do not insist.

***

a torn down sign on a bent pole points

at a cloud; your lover has called, her

voice betraying blind joy, you estimate

she is somewhere with half-an-hour of

air left and this becomes a puzzle; from

carr to carse, alder to grass, there’s a

.

.

population of paper animals paired seeming

to feed on buds, shoots, and blades; a

plane’s shadow passing overall; from

above the animals make geometry; the sign

of a downed C L O U D whose shadow

dwarfs the alder and willow, whose downdraft

.

.

unsteadies the animals, whose air breathes

in your lover, whose voice is a sign, whose

pole is a constant, whose joy is a puzzle,

whose alders are torn down, whose hour is

halved, whose B E T R A Y A L is blind,

whose blade is pointed, who is budding

.

.

who is estimating, who is shooting, who

is S H A D O W I N G, who is feeding,

who is grass, who is love, who is torn,

who is passing, bending, blind, plane,

somewhere, bent, betrayed, clouded,

becoming puzzled overall geometry

.

.

paper animal above S I G N down from

populationofpaperanimalspairedseemingto

make the sign of a downed cloud half

an hour and estimate a blade, carr, carse,

willow, alder, call, voice; thus your lover’s

joy , to which the torn down sign as though

.

.

at a cloud in the sky, a passing plane, a

G E O M E T R Y in the grass, whose

population is paper animals, paired,

feeding on that grass, your lover is blind,

your joy, half an hour of air, carse to sky,

hoc signo aenigma est, bud to your lover

***

AUTHOR BIO:

I shall be sixty this year, and I was already middle-aged when I first started writing stories, poems, and novels. My primary mode is poet, and I think that feeds into my other writing. I’m what Angélique calls a ‘page poet’ — let’s face it, as a virtual recluse I could hardly be a performance poet! Since the invention of printing — writing even — the first physical manifestation of any poem, even one intended for performance, is on paper. Thus it is the medium most familiar to people, and I believe that even YouTube won’t damage its primacy. I started writing free verse and graduated from there to writing sonnets. I was glad of the discipline that gave me. After having written shedloads, I stopped, and looked to start experimenting again; I’ve tried lots of ways of handling language, and I like to keep pushing.

I was born in England, where my life was unremarkable. I moved to Scotland, where my family originated and where my life was equally unremarkable. I have an unremarkable university degree and an unremarkable job. I’m happily gay, but am in a long-term opposite-gender relationship which has proved comfortable and supportive, the reasons for which and the details of which would be too tedious to explain, so I’ll keep them private. I live near Dundee on the East coast of Scotland. I like people to get to know me by what I write.

I have published three novels, Lupa, The Everywhen Angels, and From My Cold Undead Hand. I didn’t set out to be a writer for older children and young adults, but that’s what the second and third novels show me to be, I guess. The Everywhen Angels was written because people told me to shut up criticising JKR unless I could write a fantasy set in a school. From My Cold Undead Hand was written because my publisher asked if I could write a teen-vampire novel, and so I dashed one off in the space of a month. It’s rather good, although I say so myself. I have written the sequel, KWIREBOY vs VAMPIRE, but a tragedy struck the publishers and it might not see the light of day. I have other novels in a work-in-progess file, but I am in the midst of a long sabbatical from novel-writing at the moment. I have had two collections of poetry published, Naked in the Sea and I am not a fish. The latter was nominated for the 2013 T.S. Eliot Prize. My books are on Amazon except for I am not a fish, which is available direct from Oversteps Books. Some of my individual poems have won prizes, but I generally don’t put them in for competitions.

I have also served as associate editor on a handful of magazines and anthology projects, and am currently the editor of the zen space, an online showcase for haiku and in-the-moment short poetry.

The poem I have given to Angélique for you is fairly typical of what I am doing at present. It’s 100% me, but I’ll acknowledge the influence of writers such as Lisa Jarnot and Susan Howe and the ‘Language Poets’. I want to step down from my plinth as The Poet and give (though it isn’t actually in my gift) the authority to assign meaning, over and over again, to whomever reads and re-reads my poetry, to allow you to be co-creators. Originally each of the stanzas of this poem were presented on a separate page, to encourage fresh creativity each time one was encountered. But it’s an interesting experiment to see them all together.

***

Here are some more Marie-related links you might find interesting:

her poetry blog
a walk in space — poetry she created for New Orleans Mardi Gras ‘parade throws’
Lady Wot Writes — an occasional blog for humour and semi-serious political satire and point-scoring
Lithopoesis