For the last three years I’ve written a What We’re Reading post once a month for Hazel & Wren. I’ve become a better critic in that time, but I’ve always tried to treat each book fairly and objectively, to the best of my abilities. However, reading is a hugely subjective activity and in my reviews I hope to communicate why I, personally, like or dislike a book. I attempt to take each book on its own terms and explore how the author succeeds or doesn’t.
All of that being said, I don’t read in a vacuum, and I know that my opinions of a work can be and have been colored by the opinions and actions of those around me, and the world at large; I can’t change that fact. This month, I finished reading Jamaal May’s excellent Hum (Alice James Books, 2013) on Saturday, August 9th, and then checked Twitter, where I saw news of the shooting of Michael Brown. Brown, an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white police officer, and that evening protests roiled the suburb of St. Louis. I began to reread May’s poems, but now with a steady stream of disturbing news from Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere changing the way I experienced these poems.
May’s work touches on issues of race, class, and injustice, specifically in Detroit, but paralleling similar issues in other parts of the country, including Ferguson. “If I say riot helmets outnumbered the protesters” begins “The Sky, Now Black with Birds” and images of a militarized police force materialized in my mind and on my phone’s screen. In another poem, May describes a time he matched the description of a crime suspect, as Michael Brown allegedly did:
Because the silk scarf could have cradled
a neck as delicate as that of a cygnet
but was instead used in last night’s strangling,
it is possible to marvel at the finish on handcuffs[…]
The poem ends, hauntingly,
Because the baton is long against my window,
the gun somehow longer against my cheek,
the vehicle cold against my abdomen
as my shirt rises twisted in fingers
and my name is asked again—I want to
screech out, Swan! I am only a swan.
May’s skill is in directing the reader’s attention, often just away from the main action. He doesn’t ask us to look at the force used to pin him to a vehicle, he asks us to “marvel” at juxtaposed materials: the soft silk, skin, and feathers against the metal of handcuffs, gun, baton, vehicle.
By directing the reader’s attention to details or just to the side, a poem’s main subject is thrown into sharp relief. May’s images and metaphors stay fresh long after the poem has ended, often becoming more complex upon subsequent readings. In this way, May is able to make his lived experience political. The poem “Pomegranate Means Grenade” is addressed to 11-year-old Jontae, who is quoted as an epigram to the poem.
There will always be at least one like you:
a child who gets the picked-over box
with mostly black crayons. One who wonders
what beautiful has to do with beauty as he darkens
a sun in the corner of every page,
constructs a house from ashen lines,
sketches stick figures lying face down—
May implies that Jontae’s whole life has been picked over like the box of crayons, before the drawing has even begun, but ends with a glimmer of rage-filled hope:
You stand nameless in front of a tank against
those who would rather see you pull a pin
from a grenade than pull a pen
from your backpack. Jontae,
they are afraid.
Typically, I shy away from calling a poem autobiographical. We are taught, in writing workshops and literature classes, to separate the persona in the poem from the poet who wrote it. Confessional poetry and the use of poetry as therapy has muddied the waters when it comes to what is true and what is fabricated in art. May, however, is explicit in his poems. People thanked in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book are mentioned by name in the poems. One of the more beautiful moments of this tactic comes at the end of “On Gentleness” which reads:
Tell me about the night I hurled a phone receiver
at your head and the orb of blood on your lip
seemed like it’d never fall, how you
bound me by a wrist, bruised my ribs against the floor,
and never threw a single punch. Wasn’t that
a kind of gentleness, Jabari?
Until Jabari’s name is invoked as the last word in this thirty-line piece, the reader never quite certain the I in the poem is the poet. “Didn’t a poet say cracks are how light gets in everything? / I’m probably mixing that up” May writes in “Thinking Like a Split Melon” and seems to be talking about cracking poetry to let in reality, or vise versa.
But this is how I think. Give me a box,
and I’ll fill it with dirt
or fill it with water
or fill it with both
and trouble that mire
with whatever stick I happen to find.
It’s comforting to me, as a critic, that May is willing to blur the line between his poet self and his persona, especially as the reality of the continuing events in Ferguson bled into my reading of his poems. Cracks let the light in, and May’s poems are filled with plenty of light. It’s bright, and it can be blinding, but his gentle hands help us look just away from the light, at the orb of blood, ripe, but not yet fallen. In this way, the reader is able to see more clearly the violence of living.
I hesitate to make an argument that poetry can save or even change the world. In many ways poetry saved my own (very) small world, but poems are fragile things and few of them stand up to the test of time or the burdens of politics. Nazim Hikmet was jailed and exiled simply because soldiers were reading his poems; Seamus Heaney was a steady voice of reason during the Troubles in Ireland. But many political poems are shrill, flat, or dated. The trick—and May knows this as well as Hikmet and Heaney did—is to focus on humanity, not politics. I hesitate to say that Poetry can Save The World—but it can help ease the pain of living.
So I want to know what poets ease your pain. What poets do you turn to when the news of the world is too much? What poets offer comfort when it’s needed? What poems do you keep in your wallet or on your desk or your bedside table?
Or, if you prefer to take it on: can Poetry Save The World?
Let’s take some time for a moment of solitude this week, before the end-of-summer rush begins. I’ve collected three solitary figures. Care to write a character or scene around one (or all)?
Markus Åkesson, The Passage, 2012. Oil on linen. www.markusakesson.com
Muge, Untitled from Moments series. Photograph. www.mugephoto.com
Alex Colville, Ocean Limited, 1962. Oil on synthetic resin on board. Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Underground is a hefty book of poetry, both in size (275 pages) and imprint. These are poems mostly of daily life observations, poems that wind their way into your own daily life, causing you to see the woman at the bus stop you take every day, or the barista at your favorite coffee shop in a new, refreshed light. Underground is Moore’s first retrospective collection of both selected and new poems, featuring poems from his previous seven books of poetry, as well as twenty new poems. Retrospective collections like this spanning a writer’s career are always daunting to me for reviews, as there is just so much to talk about. While I do my best to work through these poems, you’ll enjoy it more if you just buy the book once it publishes September 2.
I love Moore’s poetry because it’s so easy to enter his world with his simple yet profound language. He has a clear and confident voice that tremors with emotion when writing of politics or loss, while in another poem, casting an aura of delight around a daily moment. While reading through this glance at his life’s work thus far, I feel that he increasingly zeroes in on his subjects, his focus, his voice by his mid-career, and then his later and most recent work opens up again. This isn’t to say that they don’t have focus or voice, but rather, they have a light airiness about them, and often turn the eye back towards the reader. It’s interesting to see this trajectory and shift in atmosphere in Moore’s work throughout the years.
First section of poems from the 1975 book The New Body. This is work of a poet grounded in daily life observations, and writing in a direct, personal tone. A couple poems are for other writers, namely, Tom McGrath and Meridel LeSueur. His fresh use of language in a surprising fashion brings this section alive, which bubbles through in this first section of the poem “Music” for Meridel LeSueur:
The cold egg of the snow cracks open,
broadens into chunks of fog.
10 A.M. and the street corner is invisible.
I turn on the electric heater, listen to Casals,
watch the branches like thin asparagus stalks
shrouded and growing under water.
Something lives here bigger than my skin,
larger even than the old man Pablo bent over his bow,
the old man Pablo brushing his quick strokes on paper,
the old man Pablo writing his last poem from a hospital bed.
Moore also quickly shows us that he’s just as adept with long poems as he is with short poems, such as the poem “How to Close the Great Distance Between People”, quoted here in its entirety:
Do it over coffee,
like fish that appear to be talking,
but are really eating to stay alive.
In the next section, from 1988′s The Freedom of History, we see the poet with his brow furrowed a bit more. He takes on politics (the Iron Curtain in Prague in 1980), rape, terrorism, and world travel. In selections from The Long Experience of Love (1995), includes familial poems about the speaker’s mother, father, an imagined son, daughter, friends, and more intimate portraits of people. The sections move on, shifting slightly in tone or subject, bringing the reader along the trajectory of Moore’s writing. Later selections show Moore as more pondering, often asking questions, wondering aloud without necessarily filling in the answers. This pointed awareness brings us into his world, and in turn, we bring his world into our own life routines, his questions and pondering thoughts following us throughout our day.
The final section of new poems, title “Twenty Questions”, starts with those questions again, and in fact, the first and title poem turns us back to that awareness of the surrounding world:
Did I forget to look at the sky this morning
when I first woke up? Did I miss the willow tree?
The white gravel road that goes up from the cemetery,
but to where? And the abandoned house on the hill, did it get
even a moment? Did I notice the small clouds so slowly
This section includes a sparser, less-definite Moore. If wisdom comes with age, then wisdom for Moore is all about asking yourself questions, and probing deeper, always deeper. The lines of his poem stretch out, taking up space, and not worrying about the increasing white space between the lines. The form of these poems is confident and clear, just like Moore’s tone.
Mark your calendars for September 11, 7:00 pm for Jim Moore’s publication launch celebration for Underground at the Loft Literary Center. I’ve marked mine!
What other career retrospectives have you read that have stuck with you? Is there a writer that you’ve noticed a large shift in their work over time?
Today, fresh from our falling edition of last week, let’s carry on the dream state and call upon three more surreal images, shall we? No point in heading back to reality just yet, not when there are so many strange things to ponder (and write about).
Adam Rankin, Eric from the series Moving, 2005. Photograph. www.adamrankin.com
Martin Vlach, Untitled, 2011. Photograph. Via flickr.
Jean-Baptiste Courtier, Untitled from Elephant Rose series. Photograph. www.jeanbaptistecourtier.com