Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 30: Sean Nevin

This is the last day of April, and thus we come to the end of another National Poetry Month. I hope you have enjoyed this year’s Poem-A-Day series at least as much as I’ve enjoyed curating and sharing it with you all. If you’ve missed any of the poems, just click through the previous post breadcrumbs at the bottom of each page to see them all. It was, if I do say so myself, an excellent collection again this year.

Tonight we end this series with “Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths” by Sean Nevin, a poem from an anthology of poetry about mermaids, although this poem really only tangentially refers to mermaids in particular. Yet I think the careful reader will notice in here themes that we commonly associate with mermaids, or sirens at least.

I love this poem in part because its vivid imagery reminds me of going to the Moss Wood Retreat in Maine. On Penobscot Bay in June, I have to wear a jacket and scarf and socks on the screened-in porch all day; the colors of the landscape are fluid, deep, and rich; mosquitos and spiders and — yes — moths look over my shoulder as I write. I could sit there and drink tea and write poetry and stories for a week and never look up to see how many days had passed, and when I’m there, that’s generally what I do. What, if not that, is one true type of love?

Hinged Double Sonnet for the Luna Moths

—Norton Island, Maine

For ten days now, two luna moths remain
silk-winged and lavish as a double broach
pinned beneath the porch light of my cabin.
Two of them, patinaed that sea-glass green
of copper weather vanes nosing the wind,
the sun-lit green of rockweed, the lichen’s
green scabbing-over of the bouldered shore,
the plush green peat that carpets the island,
that hushes, sinks then holds a boot print
for days, and the sapling-green of new pines
sprouting through it. The miraculous green
origami of their wings—false eyed, doomed
and sensual as the mermaid’s long green fins:
a green siren calling from the moonlight.

A green siren calling from the moonlight,
from the sweet gum leaves and paper birches
that shed, like tiny white decrees, scrolled bark.
They emerge from cocoons like greased hinges,
all pheromone and wing, instinct and flutter.
They rise, hardwired, driven, through the creaking
pine branches tufted with beard moss and fog.
Two luna moths flitting like exotic birds
toward only each other and light, in these
their final few days, they mate, then starving
they wait, inches apart, on my cabin wall
to die, to share fully each pure and burning
moment. They are, like desire itself, born
without mouths. What, if not this, is love?

***

Sean Nevin is the author of Oblivio Gate (Southern Illinois University Press 2008) and A House That Falls (Slapering Hol Press). His honors include a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Robinson Jeffers Tor House Prize for Poetry, and two fellowships from the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poetry has appeared in numerous journals and he has served as Associate Professor and director of the MFA Program in Poetry at Drew University and Arizona State University.     

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 29: Carolyne Wright

Here is another poem I had the good fortune to encounter during last year’s Poetry Super Highway contest. “KZ” by Carolyne Wright doesn’t need very much introduction from me; you will see its list of accolades beneath the poem itself.

But I do want to comment on its form, a sestina, one of my favorites to work with. The interlocking rotation of six key words at the ends of the lines offers the poet the opportunity to circle an idea, to bring it back around and around. In this way, in this poem, we remember the Holocaust, genocide, a looping cycle of circumstances and consequences, a history that we must always hold at bay.

KZ

                        “Arbeit Macht Frei
                                    —Motto over the entrance
                                    of every Nazi concentration camp

We walk in under the empty tower, snow
falling on barbed-wire nets where the bodies
of suicides hung for days.  We follow signs
to the treeless square, where the scythe blade, hunger,
had its orders, and some lasted hours in the cold
when all-night roll calls were as long as winter.

We’ve come here deliberately in winter,
field stubble black against the glare of snow.
Our faces go colorless in wind, cold
the final sentence of their bodies
whose only identity by then was hunger.
The old gate with its hated grillework sign

walled off, we take snapshots to sign
and send home, to show we’ve done right by winter.
We’ve eaten nothing, to stand inside their hunger.
We count, recount crimes committed in snow—
those who sheltered their dying fellows’ bodies
from the work details, the transport trains, the cold.

Before the afternoon is gone, the cold
goes deep, troops into surrendered land.  Signs
direct us to one final site, where bodies
slid into brick-kiln furnaces all winter
or piled on iron stretchers in the snow
like a plague year’s random harvest.  What hunger

can we claim?  Those who had no rest from hunger
stepped into the ovens, knowing already the cold
at the heart of the flame.  They made no peace with snow.
For them no quiet midnight sign
from on high — what pilgrims seek at the bottom of winter —
only the ebbing measure of their lives.  Their bodies

are shadows now, ashing the footprints of everybody
who walks here, ciphers carrying the place of hunger
for us, who journey so easily in winter.
Who is made free by the merciless work of cold?
What we repeat when we can’t read the signs—
the story of our own tracks breaking off in snow.

Snow has covered the final account of their bodies
but we must learn the signs:  they hungered,
they were cold, and in Dachau it was always winter.

This poem has been recognized by the following:
* Lucille Medwick Memorial Award, Poetry Society of America (selected by Michael Harper)
* Honorable Mention, The Pushcart Prize XV: Best of the Small Presses, 1990.
* Originally published in Blood to Remember: American Poets on the Holocaust, ed. Charles Adés Fishman. Texas Tech U Press, 1991; second edition, Time Being Books, 2007.
* From Seasons of Mangoes and Brainfire, (Eastern Washington U Press / Lynx House Books, © 2000, 2005 by Carolyne Wright). Blue Lynx Prize; Oklahoma Book Award in Poetry; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation.
* Reprinted in I Go to the Ruined Place: Contemporary Poems in Defense of Global Human Rights, ed. Melissa Kwasny and M. L. Smoker.  Lost Horse Press, 2009. * Published in This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017).
* © 2017 by Carolyne Wright.
* Airlie Single Poem Prize, Airlie Press, 2019.

***

photo credit: Erik Rucker

Carolyne Wright’s latest book is This Dream the World: New & Selected Poems (Lost Horse Press, 2017), whose title poem received a Pushcart Prize and appeared in The Best American Poetry 2009. A Seattle native who has lived and taught all over the country, and on fellowships in Chile, Brazil, India and Bangladesh, she has 16 earlier books and anthologies of poetry, essays, and translation. A Contributing Editor for the Pushcart Prizes, Carolyne has received NEA and 4Culture grants, and a Fulbright Scholar Award will take her back to Bahia, Brazil after the CoVid-19 pandemic.  https://carolynewright.wordpress.com

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 28: Patricia McMahon

Tonight’s poem comes from the wonderful Patricia McMahon, who — among other things — is the director of the Moss Wood Retreats, a writing experience in Maine that I have been to twice and dearly loved both times. You can read about those experiences here and here, if you like. (Fair warning, that second like contains a poem I wrote the last time I was there.)

This poem of hers, “The Last Time. One Sixty Seven, Seventh Street,” reminds me that nothing is permanent and ghosts are everywhere. And that’s okay, too, because it is a gift, not to be taken for granted, to feel the full range of emotions. I love the vivid descriptions here, how they carry the reader through this tiny landscape, pinging us from loss to joy to nostalgia to reminiscence and back through that catalogue again.

The Last Time. One Sixty Seven, Seventh Street.

The white gate no longer swings open,
the hinge rusted, the bushes, once small
and filled with bees to run from, screaming
for fun, are grown too tall, too wild for this small
space. A narrow concrete path leads around
back where the sapling is a great tree taking
most of the yard over now. But the green pitcher
is still moist on the outside on this summer’s
night, iced tea filled with fresh lemons. Mint
as well, when she grew it by the tulips on the
other side of the house. She wrapped them in
wet paper, carried to the kitchen. The mint is no
longer there. Not a tulip in sight. Still, the pitcher
will hold a handprint on this evening. Peach cobbler
would have been there.  Pastel pajamas for
the three girls on hot nights.  Seersucker. Lying
in the bedroom across the hall from the one with
a big dresser. And big shoes in front.  A big man.
Her side table piled with books. Over here
a silver brush and mirror, a cut glass perfume
bottle.  Jesus gazes down from one wall to his
mother Mary on the other side, while my father,
who has left the everyday behind, has slipped out
of time, stares across the room where my young
mother’s ghost combs her hair with the long handled
brush. The children are nowhere to be found.

***

Patricia McMahon writes poetry for adults and literature for children (patriciamcmahonbooks.com). The author of fourteen books, a graduate of The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, Patricia has worked in publishing, as a bookseller, and is Past President of the Foundation for Children’s Books. The founder and director of The Moss Wood Retreats, each June finds her organizing writing retreats in the loveliest spot on the coast of Maine (mosswoodretreats.com). A committed traveler, she has lived on four continents; currently, Houston, Texas is home. 

The Mutable Hour Poetry Reading Series

Mutabilis Press, a publisher of poetry whose board I currently sit on, has recently begun a reading series called The Mutable Hour. Our first reading on April 1st was wonderful! Our second one, this coming Thursday, April 29th, has another excellent line-up! This is a free event happening on Zoom, so you may attend from anywhere that has an internet connection. (And I know you do if you’re reading this post…)

The reading will start at 7:00 p.m. central time and go for about an hour. As I said, it’s free, but you do have to register to get the Zoom information to get into the reading. Go to The Mutable Hour’s Facebook page to get the link to get into the reading. If you have trouble getting the link (although I don’t anticipate that you will) let me know before 6:30 p.m. central time this Thursday.

I hope to see you there! 

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 27: Book Spine Poetry

One of my favorite kinds of found poetry is the Book Spine Poem. Tonight I made one entirely out of a few of the poetry books in my personal library.

If you’re not familiar with this form, the idea is to make a poem out of the titles of books. Once you see one, it’s perhaps easier to get the idea. So here’s mine (with my arranged and punctuated text below):

original love
the currency:

poisoned apples,
stolen mummies,
exchangeable bonds —

in danger,
we put things in our mouths.

lay back the darkness:
ungodliness,
the resurrection trade,
footnotes in the order of disappearance…

shipbreaking
joyful noise!

asunder:
the magic my body becomes!

yesterday had a man in it.

the dream songs:
dance dance revolution.

***

Have you made any Book Spine Poems lately? Want to make one? Feel free to share yours in the comments below.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 26: Andrew Marvell

So that last poem was about marriage and the absence of love. Tonight’s poem is about love, too, and probably the absence of marriage. It’s an old one by Andrew Marvell. Something unrequited, and if so, then this definition must indeed be bleak, despite all its potential bliss.

The Definition of Love

My love is of a birth as rare
As ’tis for object strange and high;
It was begotten by Despair
Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone
Could show me so divine a thing
Where feeble Hope could ne’er have flown,
But vainly flapp’d its tinsel wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive
Where my extended soul is fixt,
But Fate does iron wedges drive,
And always crowds itself betwixt.

For Fate with jealous eye does see
Two perfect loves, nor lets them close;
Their union would her ruin be,
And her tyrannic pow’r depose.

And therefore her decrees of steel
Us as the distant poles have plac’d,
(Though love’s whole world on us doth wheel)
Not by themselves to be embrac’d;

Unless the giddy heaven fall,
And earth some new convulsion tear;
And, us to join, the world should all
Be cramp’d into a planisphere.

As lines, so loves oblique may well
Themselves in every angle greet;
But ours so truly parallel,
Though infinite, can never meet.

Therefore the love which us doth bind,
But Fate so enviously debars,
Is the conjunction of the mind,
And opposition of the stars.

***

painting by unknown artist, circa 1655-1660

Andrew Marvell is surely the single most compelling embodiment of the change that came over English society and letters in the course of the 17th century. In an era that makes a better claim than most upon the familiar term transitional, Marvell wrote a varied array of exquisite lyrics that blend Cavalier grace with Metaphysical wit and complexity. He first turned into a panegyrist for the Lord Protector and his regime and then into an increasingly bitter satirist and polemicist, attacking the royal court and the established church in both prose and verse. It is as if the most delicate and elusive of butterflies somehow metamorphosed into a caterpillar.

This biographical information is quoted from Marvell’s page at the Poetry Foundation, where you can read more in-depth about his life and works.

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 25: Choonwha Moon

This poem from Choonwha Moon, “Jackson & Perkins Mail-Order Bride,” operates on what might seem like a common trope at first blush, but it also digs into a larger issue in a subtle way. How much have we been subjected to the phrase “cancel culture” lately? How ironically has it been thrown about in recent weeks? How much do we, as a society, disregard others as no more necessary or meaningful than a social media post or a pile of junk mail or an ill-fitting item of fast fashion? At what point does a person lose their value in the eyes of another person? There’s more here than meets the eye’s first reading.

Jackson & Perkins Mail-Order Bride

            “… easy to grow 4-inch African violets.
            The violets are gold medal winners,
            And like a good marriage, they blossom year ‘round.”
                        –Jackson & Perkins flower catalog

Her thick limbs lean away from the stove,
The omelets and the bacon grease.
Cornered between the window
And brochure dreams,
She soaks in her own desires.

Last month her look was demure,
And she listens with her foreign leaves
To my black soles passing.
Her rigidness tells me
That too much tension causes retention,
So I love her at five-day intervals.

When I bought her, she had no other function
But to echo in small violets.
Instead, she has remained, as if pregnant,
Hardly approaching motherhood,
A woman preened hollow in her pride.

Over morning coffee,
I remind her that bad women are thrown away.

***

Choonwha Moon earned an MFA from the University of Florida.  She won The Lorene Pouncey Memorial Award in 2015, was the Featured Poet for the 2016 Houston Poetry Fest, and has been interviewed by NPR Houston Matters for its Poetry Month Series. 

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 24: Varsha Saraiya-Shah

So many other important things have pushed the Covid death tolls out of the top of the news cycle over the last several months, but we must remember that the landscape out there is still a pandemic, and we still need to take precautions against it, no matter how gloriously bright the light at the end of this wretched tunnel is. According to Johns Hopkins University Covid tracker, as of today, there have been over 571,000 deaths from Covid in the US and over 3 million worldwide. These figures are top of mind today as I read Varsha Saraiya-Shah’s poem “I Speak from Towers of Silence.”

I Speak from Towers of Silence                                                                               

It is spring, people are afraid
to sit on empty benches in parks 
self-distancing. Coffin’s length apart, 
no matter where on the street or at work
dreading a footloose and lethal microbe. 

Hugs are hats hung at the back door.
Babies like flowers can’t stop being born,
mamas in hazmat suits swollen with milk
weep for their misfortune.

Imagine a massing of crows on terrace
gathered for feast to appease the dead.
Vultures plucking at corpses
I wish not to pollute air or water,
earth or fire. Let birds of prey feed on us.

Fire, Good fire, that burns to cleanse us all
of hunger and passion, anger and emptiness.
Assure the earth, it makes us part of our dirt.
Tell the skies, merge in your stardust. 

O Invisible! Can you hear our dirge?
Italians belting out operas alone? 
Tarantellas on balconies? 
Hear the Spaniards banging pots, 
strumming guitars in night skies? 
Indians trumpeting conchs, chanting
Aum, Aum, Aum.

This poem was published at the end of 2020 in A Global Anthology of Poetry Under Lockdown: “Singing In The Dark” by Vintage – Penguin Random House India.

***

Varsha Saraiya-Shah’s collection “VOICES” was published by Finishing Line Press. Her poems appear in journals such as Borderlands, Cha, Convergence, Echoes of the Cordillera, Mutabilis Press anthologies, Penguin Random House India, Skylark-UK, Soundings East, Kallisto Press, UT Press. Her poetry has aired on Public Radio and performed in multi-language/century dance program: “Poetry in Motion.” Featured on poetry reading panels of Matwaala South Asian Diaspora, WIVLA, and also Asia Pacific Writers & Translators (APWT), she served on Mutabilis Press Board as a Director and Treasurer for several years.

Being an Indian American poet, she wrote in Gujarati during school and college years. Houston’s Inprint House is her Alma Mater and Houston Poetry Fest, a stepping stone into the English journals. Honing the art of poetics continues through studying with esteemed poets at various programs: Sarah Lawrence College, Squaw Valley Community of Writers, Tin House, Grackle & Grackle workshops and more.

 

Poem-A-Day 2021, Day 23: William Shakespeare

I typically like to post something by Shakespeare on his presumed birth- and deathday. This year it’s Sonnet 12.

I’ve been thinking about mortality and legacy. I’m maybe at that time of life, I suppose? But also, these seem like good things to consider from time to time, to make sure we aren’t wasting our time. Or maybe that’s just me.

I try not to obsess over any of it — and don’t advocate that anyone should, frankly. But tempus fugit and all, and I guess I want to make sure that what I spend so ridiculously much time doing means something beyond the time I spend doing it. Gods, I hope it means something good.

Shakespeare advocates that having children is the way to achieve immortality, after a fashion. I get his point but really don’t think that will do it. Tim O’Brien wrote that stories would save us, that books were a form of immortality. That seems a bit more like it. If I recall correctly (and I might not), David Eagleman imagined the afterlife, in one iteration, as a vaguely purgatorial place where souls had to hang around, waiting for their eternal rest, until no one who yet remembered them was still alive. Shakespeare was miserable in that waiting room, watching lots of less noteworthy people shuffle off to some great reward while he had to sit there wishing people would stop reading his work.

Sorry, Bard. Your sonnets are the bomb.

Sonnet 12

When I do count the clock that tells the time, 
And see the brave day sunk in hideous night; 
When I behold the violet past prime, 
And sable curls all silver’d o’er with white;
When lofty trees I see barren of leaves 
Which erst from heat did canopy the herd,
And summer’s green all girded up in sheaves 
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard, 
Then of thy beauty do I question make, 
That thou among the wastes of time must go,
Since sweets and beauties do themselves forsake
And die as fast as they see others grow; 
   And nothing ‘gainst Time’s scythe can make defence
   Save breed, to brave him when he takes thee hence. 

***

Click on these links for the Shakespeare posts from 2018 and 2019 for some biographical information and images of him. I’ll warn you that the bios get more irreverent as time goes on, and I’ll add that he’s one of the few old dead white guy authors I think we still need to teach. Cheers!