Rachel Rosenthal was one of my Creative Writing students when she was in high school. (She graduated about a decade ago.) She did beautiful work, and one of her poems recently came up at school — or rather, the subject of it did — when one of the student community groups decided to make their service project this semester a campaign against using the r-word. First published in 2009, Rachel’s poem against this word was rooted in her personal convictions. I’m glad to say I have noticed a decrease in its usage among our students.
If I try to casually shout the word,
toss the syllables away like popsicle sticks with bad jokes,
down a hallway warped
by teenage hormones, my half pursed lips choke
on the R and swallow the E without chewing.
Failed math tests are not retarded,
not living people with minds brewed
just a little differently, just slightly deviated.
Biology fails to bring the word to life
with lectures on chromosomes and mutation:
Despite the high-definition, the laptop’s pixels of lifeless
DNA can’t capture the sensation
of passing time with my twenty-three-year-old
sister by singing Raffi, watching Toy Story, and tucking her into bed.
Rachel Rosenthal grew up in Houston, Texas, with three sisters and lots of good trees. She likes to split her time between parks and bookstores, drinking lots of Earl Grey in between. On the side, she just finished her first year of University of Colorado’s MBA program.
Today I’m sharing the last of the new Mutabilis Press anthology poems for this year’s series. Make no mistake, there are many other poems from this most recent book that I would like to curate into my annual Poem-A-Day, but some of them will have to wait for next year, because April is drawing to a close.
I cannot express enough how much I love today’s poem by Mary Wemple. It continues this year’s informal and occasional continuum of sowing and nurturing, and it speaks to us in language both accessibly plain and elegant.
It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me well that I have trouble keeping plants alive, but I’m not so terrible so far (knock on wood) at growing animals. I have two adolescents and three cats in my house, including a ten-week-old kitten named Feyruz rapidly ingratiating herself into the household. She gambols about all night and then finally settles down on top of my husband or me to purr herself to sleep; she’s so loud I’ve given her the nickname Iron Jenny. During the day we’ve been letting her interact with our adult cats, Salaadin and Sheherazade, and they’ve slowly started becoming if not friends, at least not enemies, most of the time. One day Feyruz will be big enough to hold her own in a wrestling match with Salaadin and won’t seem like just a miniature version of Sheherazade.
One Day You Will be Tall Enough
We found you in the backyard
at the edge of the path to the garage.
You had pushed your way out
of a layer of gravel.
We decided to dig you up
and replant you a little closer to the fence
where you wouldn’t get stepped on
The remains of Bunny and Harry
are just south of you now.
As you grow up, you’ll get closer to them,
touch their shrouds,
maybe curl into their soft fur.
They say it’s like winning the lottery,
the likelihood of a seed to root.
We think you came from the cypress
across the street.
One day you will be tall enough to see her,
wave back at her in the wind.
Look up. The sky is open for you here.
A mocking bird trills a car alarm sequence,
The freeway moans in the distance.
Mary Wemple is a poet, artist and creator of Words & Art, a reading and workshop series inspired by the art in Houston. She holds degrees in English and Studio Art from the University of Houston and an MFA from Maryland Institute College of Art. Her poetry has been published in DiVerseCity 2015, Houston Poetry Fest 2005, 2009, 2014, Harbinger Asylum and she was featured in the 2014 Words Around Town! poetry tour lineup. Her art has been shown at the Inman gallery, DiverseWorks and Lawndale Art Center.
I first met Varsha Saraiya-Shah in the early 2000s, I think, when we both landed in a poetry workshop at Inprint House. It was being taught by either Derick Burleson or Alan Ainsworth, if I recall correctly. That was a long time ago, and I remain to this day grateful for the whim that made me sign up for the session in the first place.
I see Varsha now and then, usually at a reading. (Houston is a big city, you know, and there are so very many writers here.) Earlier this year our paths crossed at the launch party for Mutabilis Press‘ most recent anthology The Enchantment of the Ordinary, and she graciously agreed to share her poem from it with our series this year.
Perhaps I love this poem because I love numbers. Perhaps it’s because Varsha radiates warmth and good cheer every time I see her. Perhaps it’s because this is such a lovely poem. Perhaps it’s all these things.
IN THE HANDS OF NUMBERS
I ran into the whole of you this evening––
your blue onion-skin letter in jet-black ink
I urged you to write every July 17––
a reminder, I’m getting older
just the way you were.
Last year I had a foreboding––
I may receive it no more.
Me 59, you 89, number 9 our common
denominator we hi-fived in the air from afar.
How you and I talked of numbers as if people,
a mutual passion. And, their permutations––
5 and 8 add to 13. 8 and 9 make 17, my birthday––
loved the way you enunciated –– sattar, in our mother tongue.
Lucky, you exclaimed when I broke the news of
my new home #1309, needless to say
the four digits tally to 13, of course you blessed
it with one more letter.
The Zero didn’t need explaining, our tacit referee.
We could zero in on any problem that plagued our heads,
on paper, in our pockets, on our finger tips after all
Zero is the beginning of us all, you’d say
and I would nod.
Your letter slept this whole year inside my piano bench.
Tonight I ramble on its chords. You gone,
major feels minor at the moment leaving
me in the hands of numbers, full of
promise yet nonchalant.
Varsha Saraiya-Shah is an Indian American with roots in Gujarati language and a financial professional. Her poetry has appeared in numerous journals such as Borderlands, Cha-An Asian Journal, Convergence, Echoes of the Cordillera, Right Hand Pointing. Her poetry has been featured on local Public Radio and presented on stage by “Poetry in Motion,” a multi-language, multi-century dance program by Silambam, Houston. Her chapbook, “VOICES,” was published by Finishing Line Press.
Memories quicken my pulse
when I think of how we strode
through the funhouse of artists and thinkers
that year the corn didn’t grow.
They beat out rain-dances on the walls
with paintbrushes, charcoal, and empty-paged books
while we marched past each closed door
and every muffled prayer. The mirrors
were hung with towels as if death
had taken everyone by surprise, and even
the writers couldn’t figure out how to cope
with this dry spell.
I felt old and familiar when you led me
out the back door and onto the rows of plowed dirt.
The tall joys of sitting cross-legged
in those hesitant, sown fields of fecund not-yets
were our thrown-to-the-sun discoveries,
the most ineffectual revelations
on a most ineffectual harvest.
We made a gift of feeling
in this pursuit of strained giving,
begging the ground for food
and from each other, our stare-eyed patience.
The craze of collecting surprises,
one kernel in each pocket and a
love-letter in your shirt,
started to involve the very dirt and sky,
and the haunting, used principles
of withholding, withdrawing, and retreat
shrieked and screamed the wild west of our planting
until I said, No more, and it was back,
back, back to the east, and your tender verve died, too.
You don’t really need a biography of me, do you? If you really want one, click here.
Otherwise, let me tell you about this book. It’s a collection of stories as much as a series of poems. In it, the characters swerve between the rain-drenched, tree-lined, concrete plains of Houston and the voluptuous, dynamic terrain of Los Angeles. They face multiple realities, and though they’re earnestly grounded, they sometimes swim in the waters of magic realism. Their story is both relatable and a little bit surreal.
And here’s some advance praise for The Sharp Edges of Water:
“For Jamail, loss is the fecund territory complicated by the travails of geographic movement, emotional upheaval, and cultural dissonance and where the poetry sings its best.” — Sarah Cortez, Vanishing Points: Poems and Photographs of Texas Roadside Memorials (editor and contributor)
“The Sharp Edges of Water is a collection of superbly crafted poems…poems of faith and freeways, of lies and longing. Angélique sees the details of Los Angeles and love, with a necessity of details we locals have forgotten. As the title implies, you might get wet reading them. Wear appropriate clothing.” — Rick Lupert, author of Beautiful Mistakes and God Wrestler, creator of http://www.PoetrySuperHighway.com
My cousin Justin is in town this week from New Jersey, and we’re going to be interviewed together on the radio tomorrow evening (Thursday) on the LivingArt program on KPFT, Houston’s Pacifica radio station. The show starts at 6:00 and goes for an hour, though I don’t know what time our segment will be. If you can’t hear it live, you can hear it later for a while on their website. I hope you can tune in; the show is always lots of fun.
Here tonight is one of the poems from Justin’s book, Exchangeable Bonds, which came out last year from Hanging Loose Press.
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.
Justin Jamail is the author of Exchangeable Bonds (2018, Hanging Loose Press) and has published poems and commentary in many journals and online publications. He is the General Counsel of The New York Botanical Garden. He studied poetry at Columbia University and the UMass Amherst MFA program. He grew up in Houston, TX and now lives in Montclair, NJ.
A second poem for you today (which will bring me to being caught up from my missed days earlier in the month) —
Here’s another poem from the collection Mala of the Heart, which remains one of my favorite books of meditative poetry ever. (Thanks again, Nicole!) This poem is by Hafiz of Persia (now Iran). Instead of my interpretation or response to the poem, though, this time I would love to read your responses to it in the comments below. What does it make you think of? Share an anecdote it reminds you of.
all this time
the sun never says to the earth,
“You owe me.”
Look what happens
with a love like that–
it lights the whole
Hafiz (ca. 1320-1389) was born in the garden city of Shiraz. It is said that after the early death of his father, Hafiz worked for a bakery, where he caught sight of Shakh-e Nabat, whose incredible beauty moved him to write and sing of his love for her. During a forty-night vigil to win this girl’s love, Hafiz had a vision of an angel, whose beauty led Hafiz to realize that God was infinitely more beautiful than any human form. The angel revealed where Hafiz could find a spiritual master. Hafiz then met and became a disciple of Attar of Shiraz, who led Hafiz to union with God. Like other great Sufi poets, Hafiz employed imagery to express his longing and love for the divine.
This biographical information is quoted from Mala of the Heart.
ALSO IT IS WORLD BOOK DAY TODAY! I wonder if there’s a coincidence? (See my note at the end of this post for more on this.)
Not gonna lie, I love most of Shakespeare’s work that I’ve ever read. (Except Titus Andronicus. Holy cats I dislike that play. And Julius Caesar. What a nightmare that was to teach.)
His sonnets are an absolute technical marvel. Sonnet 29, in particular, reminds me of what it feels like to be in mid-life crisis, or even just that No Man’s Land where you’re neither worth objectfying (thank goodness for small favors, right?) nor are you really even visible to most of the world (bah).
Except, except, except.
When you have wonderful people in your life. Stable relationships. Things to be proud of and happy about.
That’s just not such a bad place to be, after all.
When, in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
William Shakespeare is the sort of legendary writer who is so popular people don’t even want to like him, but who also makes cynics and skeptics think he couldn’t possibly have written so much awesome stuff because he didn’t have a fancy education. Poppycock, stuff and nonsense. Sorry, Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe and anyone else some dusty prof decides to sally forth out of jealousy. Imma go with that man was just a genius. Peace out.
Now, about World Book Day. In an effort to send more books out into the world, I am giving away copies of Finis. (up to ten) to anyone who asks for one and gives me their (U.S.) address. (I will send them out to other countries quite happily, but you’ll need to pay for postage on those.) You have until this weekend to do it. Cheers!