Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Gross

I love social consciousness in poetry. Even better when satire is involved.

Remember back in December when seven important words were banned from appearing in CDC documents related to their budget?

Talk about insidious and damaging and hateful. Of all the things the current administration has done which are repulsive, this floats near the top of the list. It doesn’t even really matter how the words were banned or for what purposes. Anyone paying attention and thinking with a critical/analytical mind knows what’s going on here, and it has a lot to do with “framing the debate” (also known as “spin” or “controlling perception” or “manipulating the listener”) and with chipping away at civil liberties and human rights.

In response, enter the poet Elizabeth Gross and the sestina form.

If you’re unfamiliar with the sestina, it’s an old French form which operates on the spiral rotation of six words to create a thirty-nine-line poem. They are marvelous and fun writing puzzles. See if you can identify the key words and the rotating form in this poem by Elizabeth Gross, which first appeared in the CDC Poetry Project, edited by Sarah Freligh and Amy Lemmon.

***

Science-based ethical consciousness seeks same

Hellooo, potential soul-mates! A little about me: ever since I was a fetus
I’ve felt most comfortable underwater—we all start out transgender
mer-folk after all, with gills and tails—suddenly vulnerable
to everyone and everything when we hit the air. Entitlement
begins here, begins early, with a slap. Yet, for some, an evidence-based
approach eventually reveals that others exist, and there is a diversity

of consciousness to color in the lines drawn by our diversity
of physical bodies. I start with my own example as a fetus
but really I’m looking for someone older, awake to the evidence-based
world around them—I mean, the end of the world. A woman, transgender
or non-binary individual because I can’t even with the entitlement
of straight cisgender men. How are they still talking? How invulnerable

to shame? Are they actually convinced that they’re the vulnerable
ones in this society? Digging in their heels so the new “diversity
hire” can’t put on the same bad suits? Whining entitlements
are un-American! Hate-watching RuPaul’s Drag race from a fetal
position, tweeting rage, kept up at night by fantasies of transgender
people using the same bathrooms as their wives. An evidence-based

analysis reveals zero threat to cis straight men, but evidence-based
studies do show our culture slowly changing as the vulnerable
claim more space, more time (shout out to you activist honeys!) Transgender
women of color are still targets of violence but we wear DIVERSITY
IS STRENGTH on tee shirts sometimes, right? Now it’s me in the fetal
position—the world is too much/not enough right now—aren’t we entitled

to feel a little bit okay sometimes? No? Not ever? Am I even entitled
to a we here, in this divided moment? I want an evidence-based
takedown of the language of authority. I want a language-less fetus
culturally speaking, a fresh start. Let’s pretend we’re all vulnerable
here (because we actually are) and also recognize a diversity
of strengths as strength, remake ourselves in the image of a new transgender

god. To recap: I want to find a girlfriend (broadly defined). Transgender
non-binary genderqueer femme tomboy yay! (I know, I know, my entitlement
is showing.) My references will attest to my loyalty and candor. I offer a
.      diversity
of first date suggestions, crowdsourced and vetted—truly an evidence-based
approach to dating. Let’s trade anxiety dreams without touching, get vulnerable
and cry for a while, on the floor, separately, with NPR on, in the fetal

position. Too much? I’ll call you fetus if you call me science. We’re all entitled
to evidence-based pet names that reflect our true diversity—
transgender, cisgender, anygender the heart can hold, make vulnerable again.

***

Elizabeth Gross is a poet/translator/teacher/karaoke enthusiast from New Orleans. She completed her MFA in poetry at Hunter College of the City University of New York and still inhabits New York occasionally in her stress dreams. She co-translated and produced a new adaptation of Euripides’ Bakkhai at the Marigny Opera House in 2015. Her chapbook Dear Escape Artist, a collaboration with artist Sara White, came out from Antenna in 2016. More poems have recently appeared in Okey-PankyTENDERLOINFairy Tale Review, and Painted Bride Quarterly. You can find more about her and her work at grosselectricworks.com.

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Women Writer’s Wednesday 4/8/15

Shortly after I’d graduated from college and was teaching, one of my coworkers at Houston Community College, Eddie Gallaher, introduced me to the poetry of Leslie Adrienne Miller. “She’s good,” he said. “You’ll like her.”

He spoke of her as if he knew her personally. She was a contemporary poet, still producing work. He handed me her book Yesterday Had A Man In It. The author photo on the back cover was of a beautiful, young looking woman.

I had never read Miller’s work before and was happy to take it home and give it a look. “Thank you,” I told him and slipped it into my briefcase.

That night I opened up to a random page and started reading. After that poem was finished, I flipped to another random page and started reading again. And again. Soon I just went to page one and dug in, then read the entire volume in a single night. Miller’s poems imprinted upon me in a way that other poems, other poets, simply hadn’t. I couldn’t explain why — and to this day, I’m not sure I can. I just read them and love them. I don’t flag them to teach one day, I don’t recommend them to people obsessively for two weeks after I’ve read them, I don’t leave her books out on my coffee table. I just read them and love them.

And sometimes they make me want to write.

When I first read Yesterday Had A Man In It, I finished it in the middle of the night after a long work day. At the time I was on a sestina kick; that was my favorite and go-to form back then. (I confess I still enjoy writing them.) At that time I was trying to process a relationship that had sort of maybe ended but not for any identifiable reason other than distance. It had been with a good man whom I loved, who wouldn’t say he loved me but sometimes really acted like it. And the relationship didn’t appear to have truly ended. It was in a weird place, and I was willing to allow that without complaint because of the possibility of something more our current friendship promised.

It’s possible I may have been emotionally delirious.

At any rate, I picked up a pen and a legal pad and, in response to Miller’s book, wrote this poem. It first appeared in my chapbook Barefoot on Marble: Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.

 

***

 

Bleeding the Sky

 

In the time when my fingernails
were painted to perfection with a color
called “Granite” (poorly named, for proudly I wore it), I wished
for perfection poetic like the sky’s and knew as do the sage
gods (with wisdom buried and hard to recognize) it did not exist, could not
exist, as long as I thought about, wished for it.

 

I understood finally that it
was no small thing, that I could not drag my fingernails
across the sky (dark as a blackboard) and not
expect it to bleed with a dark color,
the color of wild primrose and sage
bound together with the strings of a deep red wish.

 

And I read the other poems, the wishes
of people who had scraped past its
perfection, beyond the sky where stars (like sage
old nuns) lay embedded like granite pebbles, breaking my thin fingernails
when I disagreed and tried to scrape them away to write their pale colors
out of the sky. And those other poems were not

 

gentle! Their words twisted my heart into knots
and turned my brain onto its side, wishing
for darkness to overpower their colors:
fear and passion and shame and anger, and love so deep it
grows outward from myself until its reach is longer than my fingertips’ –
even after I’ve stretched my arms out to touch the sagging

 

sky. And those other words were the sky, painted in colors (sage
and wild primrose and granite and black and red) and not
forgiving of my inept, fumbling fingers.
But I wanted to write! And even so I wished
a paradox: for you to hold my impulse down, to keep it
from spilling the perfect sky’s blood-colors

 

on my hands… but even now I do not know how to keep the colors
from their heaviness, to stop them from their sagging.
Had you been there you’d have had no small task holding it,
that fire-out-of-bounds impulse, and I could not
have been responsible for my actions or my wishes…
But I might have held you down with the sky (saved from my nails

 

by the exquisite distraction of you), my fingers dipped in the colors
of sage and wild primrose red (the hues of wishes
never before filled), not ashamed to paint granite words all over you and love it.

 

 

 

Featured Poet: Hannah Rosenthal

Tonight’s featured poet is yet another one of my former students — because, frankly, I love being able to showcase these amazing people here, people who were talented and accomplished before I’d ever met them and who have gone on to continue doing exceptional things. I was lucky to have the chance to work with them when they were in high school, and I’m fortunate still that they’ve chosen to stay in touch.

Hannah Rosenthal is an officer in the U.S. Army, serving her second tour right now overseas. Even when she was in ninth grade, her writing and personality and work ethic demonstrated a willingness to serve and a selflessness that was unusual among other, more typical students in her age group. She won numerous writing awards as a student and then distinguished herself further her senior year by being, if I’m not mistaken, the first girl from our school to be accepted to West Point, the school where she matriculated.

***

Never Let Me Go

 

Days last twenty-four hours in the tradition
we clench so tightly our fists mottle gray
from unswayed overuse. We say the sky is blue
because that beautiful color lowers the massive
panorama close enough for us to see, but still too high
to touch. We don wings with hearts of stone

and the mechanics of birds, but birds with stones
for souls and pebbles in their blood, propelling tradition
closer and closer to the stars we can’t even count, their high
shine and brilliant composure blinding us to the gray
puddle of grit they actually are. For centuries massive
mysteries have mystified and choked us until we are blue

in the face. We fail to realize that our oceans have no blue
left in them, only the sick grease of oil washing up on the stones
along the tarred seashores, pulling the massive
net of ozone slowly to the ground. This is our tradition,
and we cannot let it go. Our appetite for the itchy gray
of sophisticated ruin goes unparalleled amongst the high

ranks of nature and order and whatever higher
calling we choose to believe in or disregard. The blue
dyes of nature bleed slowly into an overly sanitized gray
conjecture, like watching a picture-perfect girl turn to stone.
Imagine photographs with all the color and tradition
washed out, the road open to men with massive

guns and only their carnality left inside. The massive
implications of our ways lead us blind into a high
stakes game of spin the time-bomb, like a kiss of tradition
horribly misplaced. Today, we see the sky as an ocean of blue
filled with dreams. Today will never last forever. The stone
castles will crumble into dust, the same gritty texture of gray

as the stars we honor at night. Cormac McCarthy saw the world gray
with ash, from sunrise to sunset, if the sun could overcome the massive
hole in its fiery heart. When the brightest star turns to stone,
we might finally see the world out of its high
rolling clothes, dressed down to basic faded blue,
the original color of health and peace. Sadly, tradition

barrels on. Blue skies always give way to gray misery because
we have forever played the stakes too massive, too high
for any other tradition to overcome what is set in stone.

 

National Poetry Month — Just a Little Over a Week Left! (Until Next Year, That Is…)

Hey there.  Have you all written a poem or two in honor of April, National Poetry Month?  Maybe you’ve attended a poetry reading?  (I know some of you have, because I saw you at mine a few weeks ago.  Thanks!)  Or maybe you’ve gone out and purchased a book of poetry, thereby doing your small part to help stimulate the economy?  No? Hmm…we can fix that…

Go out and support a local independent bookstore this week by purchasing a book from them, ideally (since it’s still April), a book of poems.  If you don’t like to read poetry yourself, then get one as a gift for someone who does.  And for the next week or so, you can even find copies of one of my chapbooks of poetry, still available till the end of month, at Brazos Bookstore in Houston.  Here’s their website:  www.brazosbookstore.com.  (Perhaps if sales of it go well this month they’ll want to keep featuring it on their shelves.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  It could happen.)

The chapbook they have in stock right now will likely be out of print soon, so this might be one of your last chances to find it anywhere.  It’s entitled Barefoot on Marble:  Twenty Poems, 1995-2001.  I thought, for this weekend’s post, it might be nice to share with you a sampling from this volume.  Back in the late 90’s when I was living part of every year in Los Angeles, I had written a short series of poems which my friend and poetry colleague Greg Rea had dubbed “mermaid lit.”; this is one of the poems from that series, a sestina.  (And because of the vagaries of WordPress formatting, I’ve placed an asterisk each time there’s a stanza break, just to make it clear.  Sorry I had to do that, and if you WordPress bloggers out there know how to insert a space-break on here without having the formatting ripped out when the post gets published, I’d love the guidance.  Thanks.)

Enjoy!

***

Moving to Green Rain Island, Your Home

We’ve been sitting on the bed
in the place where it rains
every afternoon as a part
of the natural order of things.
The afternoons become evenings
quickly here under the rainy sky.

I recall an afternoon when a green sky
made me want to crawl into bed
and wait for the dark, wet evening
to clean the greenness away with rain.
The sky-light washed all of our things
in a pale green bath, and a part

of me wished we could make a departure
from this place, jump into the wet sky,
leaving all our things
in the house, piled on our bed
in case rains swallowed the land.  Blanket-cocooned, I trembled for rain
to wash the daylight out of the evening

air, but the green tint slid even
onto the darkness, partially
dripped in sheets by the rain,
partially a reflection on the sky
of the wet trees.  The window by the bed
shook with the wind, and little things

started to scare me.  I packed a few things
into a satchel in case we left for the evening
to sleep in your old bed
at your parents’ house.  They were never a part
of the plan, but even I could not resist the sky’s
thundering, the ugly greenness of rain.

Now, wrapped in the blanket, we watch the rain
dripping rivers on the window.  You reassure me our things
will be safe in this house, under this sky,
under our bed, and that we will stay home all evening.
I’m not wild about the weather here, but I guess it’s part
and parcel of being with you, together in this bed,

in this house, under this rainy sky,
on an island where people leave their things under their beds
and the evening is part of the afternoon.

Reminder About Poetry Contest, Which Ends This Weekend

Hey there.  I just want to bump this back onto your radar, in case you’ve lost track of time.  The inspired-by-another-poet poetry contest ends this weekend, when March runs out.  (Click here to get to the original contest and see the entries that have come in so far.  They’re really enjoyable!)

I know there are more poets out there, so don’t be shy.  Participate.  It’s good for you.

Cheers!

Hey, Look! A Poem.

So in the spring of 2010, I began having some serious anxiety about my poetry.  Here I was, with a degree in poetry from the University of Houston, two books of poems under my belt, and a job teaching Creative Writing and English at a tiny high school which had developed enough of a reputation for Creative Writing that at least a couple dozen kids a year applied there because they wanted to be writers.

That’s all great, I thought, but a part of me was slowly turning to dust inside because I hadn’t written what I thought was a decent poem in several years.

To be fair, I was embroiled in writing a novel and had made some forays into memoir.  And I had always considered myself a fiction writer more than anything else, even from the time I was a child.  (I think the first time I read one of my short stories in front of an audience was during fourth grade, and yeah, I knew then that Story was It.)  But though I’d begun my education at UH as a fiction writer, about halfway through I felt stymied and switched to poetry, and then I wrote nothing but poems for about three years.

What did I learn from that?  Simply, how language works.  How to navigate the relationships between words.  So after writing only poetry for a while (other, of course, than the literary analysis essays — about other people’s poetry — required for some of my classes), when I came back to fiction, the result stunned me.  My stories were a lot better.

But back to 2010.  I hadn’t been writing poems.  I had barely been scraping together enough time to draft more than a chapter or two per semester on my novel, thanks to my job teaching high school.  I was coming slowly out of what some might have called a mid-life crisis but which my artist friends assured me was really an artistic crisis.  My identity, which had for most of my life been at least partially wrapped up in my ability to be creative, was suffering due to a lack of time for anything creative.  After having two kids and continuing to teach high school full-time, I had quit my hobbies (dancing, painting, jewelry making), and I was treating my writing (and please forgive me for this) like a hobby.

So Aaron encouraged me to sign up for a poetry workshop at Inprint over the summer (when I do not teach).  I took it.  It was transformational.  (And here I must give a shout out to the most excellent Paul Otremba, who was leading the workshop.)  I wrote a lot of poems that summer, and many of them received a good welcome, but beyond that, I was actually satisfied with my work.  I felt so relieved, every other aspect of my writing career began to flourish in the wake.

* * *

When I began teaching, lo these many eons ago, one of my classes challenged me to write a sestina with six words they chose on the spot at random.  They gave me a week to do it, in what I imagine they must have thought was a fun table-turning moment.  I laughed.  I’m not a trained monkey.  Why should I perform?

“Come on,” they said.  “If this form is so much fun, just do it.”

I sighed.  “Okay, this does sound interesting.  What are the words?”

They came up with them quickly, enthusiastically.  Flower, grace, cold, water, coward, chump.

“You’re on,” I grinned.  “I won’t need a week.”

* * *

So why am I telling you this story now?  I have learned, in the past month, that my poems are making their way into the world again.  Of those poems I wrote last summer, several are under consideration for publication right now, and one has been selected for print in two different anthologies.  I’m also going to be a Juried Poet at Houston Poetry Fest again this year.  I’m jazzed.

So I wanted to share a poem with you.  Since I can’t put any of those newer poems here on my blog while they’re under consideration or about to go to print, I thought I’d share that poem my students challenged me to write way back in the day.  (It has been published, in the e-magazine PHUI and in my book Gypsies, but I own the copyright.)  It’s also sort of an important poem for me because I think when I wrote it I crystallized, internally, the generally stoic nature toward most of the world which I hoped to adopt in my life.

If anyone is interested in the mechanics of a sestina or how to write one, please post a comment.  (And apologies:  one of the lines in this poem is really long, and the margins of the blog template won’t allow it to fit all on one line, and I can’t figure out how to tab it over, so it looks like two lines, but it’s not.)

Enjoy!

For the Cold Lovers
(or, Survival of the Fittest)

I must have been a real chump
to be excited by that rare treat, the flower
you gave me.  Maybe because I had been a coward
then, I thrilled to see the graceful
petals even after they’d fallen – gracefully – into the water
glass on the table in the cold

corner of the room.  (I thought the cold
would preserve (my chump-
euphoria and) the life (in the watery
grave) of the tiny flower.
I was wrong.  It died a pathetic – yet graceful –
death, leaning slowly toward its demise like a coward.)

That plant was a coward,
and so had I been, unafraid of the cold
(the wrong thing to trust) and worried, like a graceful
music box dancer, by the independence which might protect me.  We’re a bunch of chumps –
me, the satin-slippered chick, that slowly dying flower –
and we ought to be put out to sea without food or drinking water

in the hopes that the salt-water
creatures will overturn our craft of cowards.
Then I will try to hold, to comfort the choking girl as she weeps for the flower
(that has already found a grave in the cold
sea) and thrashes about (like the chump
she is proving herself to be) in that graceful

way she has, until I say,  “To hell with this grace
and daintiness, you’ll drown in these waters
if you don’t stop acting like a chump
waiting to be rescued and grow some strength!  The cowards
can’t swim to shore, and the cold
will overtake you if you aren’t wise.  The flower

is already dead.”  She’ll weep for the flower
and the death and the woe until her pathetic, graceful
thrashing convinces me not to care anymore, and I leave her to the cold,
unforgiving, undrinkable ocean water,
letting her gently (tired from the thrashing) weep, a quieting coward
sinking into the deep, the grave of the chumps.

And I, no longer a chump or a coward,
will swim back through those waters, strong of arm and a new grace,
wary now of the cold and unimpressed by flowers.