Monday, April 28, 2008

Poem: Claudia Rankine

I've highlighted her books before, but I don't think I've ever posted a poem by Claudia Rankine, so let's get this lovefest started right! I think she's producing some of the most fascinating and distinctive poetry--or work in and around that particular signifier--out there today, and her last book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely, was one of those books I carted around me with me for months, reading in it snippets of amazement at what she's achieved. (I did the same with Plot, which became one of my constant companions for months in Providence.) I haven't yet taught it because I haven't had the opportunity to do so, but one of these days, one of these days. (And then there's the eternal dream, of bringing so many of the poets I know and admire to the university....)

I thought of typing out one of the poems from Rankine's most recent book, but then I found the following poem on the Dia Center for the Arts's old poetry site, which occasioned a moment of nostalgia before I decide to copy the poem over here. (I do recommend folks head up to Beacon if they get the chance, because the town itself is a gem, but the disappearance of the old Dia sites in Soho and Chelsea, and that incomparable poetry series, with Brigde Mullins's grand introductions and the readers' sometimes complementary, sometimes clashing performances, will never be matched again.) Plot is, among other things, a book about assemblage, about the construction of lives, of domesticity, of subjectivity and interiorities, within a lyric--and one could say a narrative--field. Or a plot. The follow poem, then, enacts this idea.


Though a previousness, cushioned by dark, aggregates the room
(for there is no disparity),

a room is brought into existence, the activity of--

Here Liv is letting herself feel as she feels, her will yielding to
streams, the lyric field of her everyday depths.

Her presence is. It's come along, is lost, is loss, is wallside
reconciling: can I love now please?

Or in inclusion she bursts into a hood of tenderness: the body's
anguish and flesh and all reflected in the absorbed atmosphere
soaking her being,

then the self feels deeper the depicted insistence engaged, its
essential nest, its scape--

And always and each contiguous thought, approaching the
distance, augments. Viewed against, the mind reshapes and here
is refuge without its tent.

All that's resolved plots against her dividing self, binding her as
if any intervening space is recess for

her grave, an equivalence overlaying presence. Can I love now

Copyright © Claudia Rankine, from Plot, New York: Grove Press, 2001.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Thoughts + Poem: Claude McKay

Bell and familyJust some incoherent and incomplete thoughts: two days later, and I still don't have words to talk about the horrific Sean Bell verdict; not that I didn't think it would turn out this way, because when it comes down to a judge issuing a verdict about an unwarranted and insane police attack on Black men or people of color or poor folks, my first thought is that the judge, as this one did, is going to side with the cops. They usually do. That doesn't make it any easier, though.

I've been at a loss for words about this verdict and the long history, a litany, of miscarriages of justice, the injustice and anti-justice, against Black people in this country, against people of color, against women, against sexual, ethnic and religious minorities, against working-class and poor folks, about the structural impediments to change, the ways that the people in power maintain their power through various forms of violence and oppression, and make it diffuse, naturalize it, discursively and materially, how they attempt to and often succeed in industrializing our consciousnesses to accept it, to expect it, to participate in it, in part through silence...

Friday night I listened to Jeremiah Wright on Bill Moyers's PBS show Now, having to defend himself against the smears and distortions the Right Wing and establishment media have been propagating, to destroy the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama, the electoral chances of the Democratic Party, and Black religious faith and traditions in general. I haven't been able to post since as a result, and even now, I really don't even have a free second to catch up with the missed posts, a number of which are still in half-finished form. (The school year's end is still more than a month away....)

So here's one poem by Claude McKay, about the kind of violence from an earlier period in our national history that just keeps playing out in different forms (50+ bullets vs. a noose on a tree limb or post), despite the many changes, which still are too few....

If you'd like information on the Sean Bell case from those seeking justice on his behalf, consider going to Justice for Sean.

Update: Here's Bernie's much more articulate take.

The Lynching

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate's wild whim)
Hung pitifully o'er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

Copyright © Estate of Claude McKay, 2008.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Poem: Augusto de Campos

August de Campos(Completed post.) I would remiss if I didn't include some other kinds of poetry, especially of the sort I admire and have learned a great deal from. One poet whose work I admired and took a pointer from is Augusto de Campos (1931-), one of Brazil's major 20th poets, and one of the international pioneers in the genre of concrete poetry (poesia concreta). With his brother Haroldo de Campos (1922-2003) and others, he launched the literary journal Noigandres, which marked the beginning of the Brazilian contribution to concrete poetry. He has since gone on to create works in a variety of media, including online forms, and has also translated numerous other writers, published a number of critical essays on his and others' works and aesthetics, and also written on music. In fact, his earliest concrete poems were inspired by the Second Viennese school composer Anton Webern.

One of the best online places to check out de Campos's work is on his UOL website, which is only in Portuguese (except for those works, like the early poem "lygia fingers," which is multilingual), but because of the poetry's graphic style and beauty, you can admire them even if you don't speak the language, and you can even hear him read some of them (but you'll need Windows Media).

Below's his 1975 poem "o pulsar," from UbuWeb's historical archive. The common Portuguese vowels "o" and "e" flicker out as dots and stars, leaving only the pulsing of consonants and other vowels, a metaphorical pulsar likened to a kiss that no sun heats up (abraço que nenhum sol aquece) and which the black hole hides (e oco oscuro esquece). You could also read it as pulsations recording a morse-like code with this same idea; in either case, "pulsar" can be both a noun (a pulsar, a pulsation) and a verb (to pulse, pulsate, throb)...


Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Poem: Robert Lowell

Another poet we'll be looking at next week is Robert Lowell (1917-1977). When I was in junior high and high school in the 1980s, Lowell was still considered one of the most important poets of the era, though I'm not so sure that's the case these days; his presence and influence, as a versifier, as a teacher and mentor, and as a public poet and figure, were all still fresh, and his linguistic and lyric fluency, his personal and public aesthetic transformations, his larger-than-life personae and voice were all invoked by my teachers as models of what an American poet might be.

We read "For the Union Dead," of course, one of his greatest poems, and "Skunk Hour," and a a number of his other poems, and we talked about "confessional poetry," which was then somehow still controversial, rather than normative and passé--does anyone even blink an eye these days when poets put all their business on the page or screen, and thus in the (virtual) street?--though Lowell had been angling at confessionalism from the very beginning, with his family, one of the most prominent in New England and 19th century America, as his starting point. By the 1990s, though, Lowell's multiple marriages and lifelong nuttiness were the story, rather than the poetry. I sometimes wonder if he's taught or discussed as he once was. (When I suggested adding him to my syllabus, one friend, a scholar, seemed a bit chary.) One of my senior colleagues did tell me that in a graduate course on 19th and 20th century American poetry she recently taught, Lowell (like Gwendolyn Brooks and Elizabeth Bishop) was one of the post-WW II poets she looked at (the others were Allen Ginsberg and John Ashbery); is this the case elsewhere?

One of the poems we'll be looking at is one of my favorites by Lowell, from Life Studies, which captures his voice public stance and voice so perfectly, "Memories of West Street and Lepke." The poem recounts his reflection, from the vantage point of the 1950s in Boston, of the year he spent as a conscientious objector in a New York jail. Every beat and every image in the poem carries the charge of irony, of the deflation of middle age and unsettled retrospection that would blossom some years later in the even more candid lyrics of The Dolphin and similar books. (Of course there were certain things he would never confess, such as the fact that one of his most outrageous episodes of madness, at Yaddo, might have been provoked in part by his sleeping with a notable Black Chicago painter, Charles Sebree.)

I also think of Lowell's letters to Elizabeth Bishop (tomorrow!), which I taught several years ago in another class, and how dismissive and horrified he was of the "passionate" young poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, who paid a visit to his Boston home--they were, in their teeming filthiness and enthusiasm a bit much, a connection that could not fully occur, for the always-to-the-end haut bourgeois Brahmin. Now, the poem:

Memories of West Street and Lepke

Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.

These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections....

Copyright © Robert Lowell, 1959. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Poem: Gwendolyn Brooks

After a week and a half of fiction, we're back to poetry in my American literature class, and one of the poets we're reading next week is the one and only Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000; how could I not introduce students to her work?), so I thought I'd post one of the poems we'll be looking at is "downtown vaudeville," from Annie Allen, one of her marvelous collections and the first work by an African-American author to win the Pulitzer Prize.

Though I never forget how important she is and these poems are, and though I love to return to them for pleasure, I sometimes forget how radical they are, how sharp amd piquant Brooks's critiques, how rich and variegated her portraits of post-war black and white Chicago, wrapped as they are in traditional verse forms and prosody that, as in the case of one of my favorite poems in the book, "They love the little booths at Benvenuti's," are also charged with the cross-beats of jazz and soul. (Just read that poem aloud or listen to Brooks read it, and you'll get my drift.) Reggie H. posted it some months back when Bill O'Reilly spouted off about how the Negroes up in Harlem were actually civilized, proving how prescient Brooks was and how ignorant O'Reilly...well, I don't need to finish that thought.

Brooks gave one of the best poetry readings I attended, at the first Furious Flower Conference, which took place at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. She read with Rita Dove, who I believe either was still the Poet Laureate (one of the best we've had) or had just stepped down from the post. The hall was packed, and Rita gave a marvelous reading, as she always does. And then Brooks came on, and read some of her best known poems, including "we real cool," which, if you've ever heard her read it, differs from how most readers think it sounds. She brought the house down. I only wish I'd had the chance to meet her and get to know her personally!

At any rate: downtown vaudeville....

downtown vaudeville

What was not pleasant was the hush that coughed
When the Negro clown came on the stage and doffed
His broken hat. The hush, first. Then the soft

Concatenation of delight and lift,
And loud. The decked dismissal of his gift,
The sugared hoot and hauteur. Then, the rift

Where is magnificent, and heirloom, and deft
Leer at a Negro to the right, or left--
So joined to personal bleach, and so bereft:

Finding if that is locked, is blowed, or proud.
And what that is at all, spotting the crowd.

Copyright © Gwendolyn Brooks, 1949. All rights reserved.

Monday, April 21, 2008

RIP Toni Brown

Earlier today I saw the very sad news that Toni Brown (1952-2008), a sparkling poet who was a Cave Canem fellow with me in Esopus in 1998, just passed away. She had a ready laugh and smile, was as genuine and warm as your good friend, and could write her dreads off.

Reggie H. has a loving little tribute up to Toni at the Noctuary, so please drop by there if you can. It features links, a poem excerpt and photos, one of which I'm borrowing here.

Catching Up + Poem: Loren Goodman

I am trying to get back to posting, . The past two weeks have brought the usual saltmine's worth of work, projects, duties, and so forth, but things are going a lot more smoothly than last fall. First, the huge lecture class is turning out to be considerably more enjoyable than I imagined. The TAs are terrific, and the students are responding to the readings with what I register as real enthusiasm (and some bafflement, but we're talking about pre-Modernism and Modernism so far), they answer questions in class and sections, and pose good ones of their own. Some even chat after class about topics of interest or queries they have about my in-class lectures, so I know they're connecting with what's going on. And today, it appeared that nearly all of them submitted their first papers on time. So although the class is a lot of work and I am still waking up an hour before the alarm goes off, I am really enjoying it.

This morning I awoke with the pangs of what I recognized were kidney stones, which tormented me tremendously in the past, most recently in late 2001 and early 2002. In fact, I once rode back from Providence to New York City in extreme agony, barely able to sit down or stand, because I was passing a stone, which is one of the worst feelings I've ever experienced and, from what I can tell anecdotally, ranks high up there on the pain scale. This little bout seems to be under control, but I'm trying to manage it by following a specialist's recommendation from several years ago: drink lots of water, and especially lemon-water, and make sure I get enough calcium (ironically). I do wish I knew what caused them.

This weekend, however, was wonderful. C was in town, and on Friday we attended my cousin's wedding here in Chicago. She'd beautifully planned out every aspect of the ceremony, which was a joy to witness. Congratulations Raquel and Walter!

On Saturday, I attended the 17th Annual African American and Latino(a) Adult Education Research Symposium at Northeastern Illinois University, to participate on a panel organized by one of the graduate students I've worked with, author Wendy Musto. The panel also included playwright, author and activist Judy Veramendi. We discussed Wendy's short story "El Cruce" (The Crossing), which depicts the passage across the Rio Grande of an anxiety-ridden, undocumented Mexican migrant and his young family. At right is a photo from before the event that C took. Wendy's on the right.

I'd never met Judy before, though I'd heard of her work--she has a highly regarded play, The Empty Chalices, that was staged in Chicago and other cities several years ago--and it was a real pleasure to engage with the audience around Wendy's story and the larger issue of immigration.

I also replaced my old laptop, my iBookG4, because the screen was starting to fail. I didn't think I would get so attached to a piece of electronic hardware, but that little computer was a mainstay for several years. The new one, however, also a Mac, is quickly winning me over.

But on to poetry:

Loren GoodmanA poet whose first book I found incredibly charming was Loren Goodman. I can't recall how I came across it, but Famous Americans, one of the funner and more playful books of poetry you'll find out there, was selected by W.S. Merwin as the 2003 winner of the Yale Younger Poets' Prize. Some of Goodman's poems are like extended experiments, while others perhaps work best as conceptual projects, but throughout all there's a ludic quality that I think he captures in the following brief poems, "Ambition" and "Yeast." So take it away, Loren Goodman!


When music moves away
from dance, atrophy sets in

When poetry moves away
from music, atrophy sets in

I want one of those



I am Yeast, a great poet
I live in Ireland
Some say I am the greatest
Poet ever

My poetry makes bread grow
All over Ireland and the world
In glens and valleys, bread rising
In huts, clover paths, and fire wood

There will always be critics
Who deny Yeast
But you can see
The effect of my poetry
Through the potato fields
And the swell of the Liffey.
The amber coins and foaming black ale

Copyright © Loren Goodman, from Famous Americans, Yale, 2003. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Poems: Gertrude Stein

(One of the posts I couldn't post at first.) One of the first poets we looked at this quarter is one of my favorites, and her work remains as revolutionary today as it was when she was publishing. You know whom I'm talking about, right?

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946)!

The one and only. I won't recap my lecture, but let it suffice for me to say that the strangeness and difficulty of her work--and its exciting beauty--isn't lost on the students. I'd heard of Stein growing up, but it wasn't until I took a class--conned my way into it, to tell the truth--with Joel Porte that I encounted Tender Buttons, which worked like a charm on me. I couldn't put the book down. Now it's online, so everyone can enjoy it. I'll just say that when I read the first piece aloud to the students, I suggested that they substitute common words they knew for words that sounded like some of the words in the poem, and then see what they came up with. I think that was as useful as my larger discussion about how her work and vision related to and was in conversation with Cubism, how it deployed some of the ideas of William James, her teacher at Radcliffe, how it elevated the objects and elements of the domestic world to the realm of poetry, how she focused on the prosaic with her x-ray like vision, rethought and destabilized the patriarchal language and lyric that was her and every other poet of her era's inheritance, and so on.... But I also stressed the idea that we should luxuriate in the language itself, in the sensuous and delightful play of phonemes, and enjoy meanings and associations the words, the rhythms, the syntax, the concatenation of sounds and images produced.

About 2-3 years ago, a fellow poet asked why anyone would read Stein. I was a little taken aback, but tried to lay out some thoughts about why Stein is still so important. One could trace several different geneologies from her work, not only in poetry, but in prose, drama, nonfiction, performance, and so on, which would stack the decks in any argument for her importance, but I talked specifically about Tender Buttons, which prefigures so much of what was to come later by half a decade....

And so, two selections from Tender Buttons:'s first section, "Objects":


A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement
in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference
is spreading.



Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid
same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection
comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being
round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not,
it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely,
it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Poem: Imtiaz Dharker

Photo Imtiaz  Dharker © Image: (Finished post.) Recently, I came across a book by Imtiaz Dharker (b. 1954-), The Terrorist at My Table, at a local used bookstore I like to frequent, and after flipping through it I found it hard to put down, so I purchased it, and I've been looking around for some of her other books as well.

I don't know much about Dharker or her work, but according to the Poetry International website, from which I've taken this poem, I've learned she's also an artist and filmmaker, and was born in Lahore, grew up in Glasgow, and now shuttles between London and Mumbai. She's the author of three books, and, according to all I've found online, they take up themes of home, exile and displacement, freedom, citizenship, and gender politics, among other ever-salient topics.

Here's one poem from an earlier collection, entitled I Speak for the Devil, which I check out soon (when I have a free moment): "They'll Say: 'She Must Be From Another Country."


When I can’t comprehend
why they’re burning books
or slashing paintings,
when they can’t bear to look
at god’s own nakedness,
when they ban the film
and gut the seats to stop the play
and I ask why
they just smile and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’

When I speak on the phone
and the vowel sounds are off
when the consonants are hard
and they should be soft,
they’ll catch on at once
they’ll pin it down
they’ll explain it right away
to their own satisfaction,
they’ll cluck their tongues
and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’

When my mouth goes up
instead of down,
when I wear a tablecloth
to go to town,
when they suspect I’m black
or hear I’m gay
they won’t be surprised,
they’ll purse their lips
and say,
‘She must be
from another country.’

When I eat up the olives
and spit out the pits
when I yawn at the opera
in the tragic bits
when I pee in the vineyard
as if it were Bombay,
flaunting my bare ass
covering my face
laughing through my hands
they’ll turn away,
shake their heads quite sadly,
‘She doesn’t know any better,’
they’ll say,
‘She must be
from another country.’

Maybe there is a country
where all of us live,
all of us freaks
who aren’t able to give
our loyalty to fat old fools,
the crooks and thugs
who wear the uniform
that gives them the right
to wave a flag,
puff out their chests,
put their feet on our necks,
and break their own rules.

But from where we are
it doesn’t look like a country,
it’s more like the cracks
that grow between borders
behind their backs.
That’s where I live.
And I’ll be happy to say,
‘I never learned your customs.
I don’t remember your language
or know your ways.
I must be
from another country.’

© Imtiaz Dharker
From: I Speak for the Devil
Publisher: Penguin Books India, 2003
ISBN: 014-303089-2

Friday, April 18, 2008

Poem & RIP: Aimé Césaire

JPEG - 22.6 koIt's been a busier week than usual, so I haven't been able to complete the daily poetry posts I began, but I'll try to finish as many of them as I can so that I cover all 30 of April's slots. I also do want to post a squib on the Race Sex Power: New Directions in Black and Latino/a Sexualities conference at the University of Illinois-Chicago, which I attended and spoke at last weekend.

But today, let me note the passing of one of Martinique's greatest gifts to the world Aimé Césaire, one of the most important figures in 20th century Black Diasporic and francophone literature.

I wrote the following little blurb on the CC list:

Evie, many thanks to you and Reggie for posting on Césaire's passing, and on this excerpt from his masterpiece. He once said: «Je suis de la race de ceux qu'on opprime»--I am of the race of those who are oppressed--and he devoted his life and work to challenging that oppression through his art and civic activism, and to creating and celebrating black caribbean, translatlantic and diasporic culture.

Reggie H. sent the following obituary link, from the International Herald Tribune.

And Evie sent this snippet (originally from her partner Stéphane) from Césaire's Cahier d'un retour au pays natal:

and here at the end of this daybreak my virile prayer
that I hear neither the laughter nor the screams, my eyes
fixed on this town which I prophesy, beautiful,
grant me the savage faith of the sorcerer
grant my hands the power to mold
grant my soul the sword's temper
I won't flinch. Make my head into a figurehead
and as for me, my heart, do not make me into a father nor a brother
nor a son, but into the father, the brother, the son,
nor a husband, but the lover of this unique people.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Poem: Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge

Here's a fairly recent (2003) poem by a poet, Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge (1947-, photo, whom I was introduced to in college (via her book The Heat Bird, which might also have been the first time I saw a Burning Deck Press volume. I remain a huge fan of their list). Her work entranced me then as now. Many poets attempt the sorts of poems she writes, but none sound quite like her. A few years ago she came to the university and I finally had the chance to meet and gush like a schoolboy. We even walked over to the beach in Evanston, she, I and a colleague, though I sort of remember it being too cold to sit down or do much more than look out at the lake-that-is-like-an-ocean.

At any rate, there are various ways to write a poem that is more or less overtly political--well, all poems are political, so I should say, which places political issues and discussions, or political discourse, out front--and the poem below, "Audience," is one example.



People think, at the theatre, an audience is tricked into believing it's looking at life.

The film image is so large, it goes straight into your head.

There's no room to be aware of or interested in people around you.

Girls and cool devices draw audience, but unraveling the life of a real human brings the


I wrote before production began, "I want to include all of myself, a heartbroken person

who hasn't worked for years, who's simply not dead."

Many fans feel robbed and ask, "What kind of show's about one person's unresolved



There's sympathy for suffering, also artificiality.

Having limbs blown off is some person's reality, not mine.

I didn't want to use sympathy for others as a way through my problems.

There's a gap between an audience and particulars, but you can be satisfied by

particulars, on several levels: social commentary, sleazy fantasy.

Where my film runs into another's real life conditions seem problematic, but they don't

link with me.

The linking is the flow of images, thwarting a fan's transference.

If you have empathy to place yourself in my real situation of face-to-face intensity, then

there would be no mirror, not as here.


My story is about the human race in conflict with itself and nature.

An empathic princess negotiates peace between nations and huge creatures in the wild.

I grapple with the theme, again and again.

Impatience and frustration build among fans.

"She achieves a personal voice almost autistic in lack of affect, making ambiguous her

well-known power to communicate emotion, yet accusing a system that mistakes what

she says."

Sex, tech are portrayed with lightness, a lack of divisions that causes anxieties elsewhere.

When I find a gap, I don't fix it, don't intrude like a violent, stray dog, separating flow

and context, to conform what I say to what you see.

Time before the show was fabulous, blank.

When I return, as to an object in space, my experience is sweeter, not because of


The screen is a mirror where a butterfly tries so hard not to lose the sequence of the last


I thought my work should reflect society, like mirrors in a cafe, double-space.

There's limited time, but we feel through film media we've more.


When society deterritorialized our world with money, we managed our depressions via

many deterritorializations.

Feeling became vague, with impersonal, spectacular equivalents in film.

My animator draws beautifully, but can't read or write.

He has fears, which might become reality, but Godzilla is reality.

When I saw the real princess, I found her face inauspicious, ill-favored, but since I'd

heard she was lovely, I said, "Maybe, she's not photogenic today."

Compared to my boredom, I wondered if her life were not like looking into a stream at a

stone, while water rushed over me.

I told her to look at me, so her looking is what everything rushes around.

I don't care about story so much as, what do you think of her? Do you like her?

She's not representative, because of gaps in the emotion, only yummy parts, and dialogue

that repeats.

She pencils a black line down the back of her leg.

A gesture turns transparent and proliferates into thousands of us doing the same.

Acknowledging the potential of a fan club, she jokingly describes it as "suspect".

She means performance comes out through the noise.


At the bar, you see a man catch hold of a girl by the hair and kick her.

You could understand both points of view, but in reality, no.

You intervene, feeling shame for hoping someone else will.

It becomes an atmosphere, a situation, by which I mean, groups.

In school we're taught the world is round, and with our own eyes we confirmed a small

part of what we could imagine.

Because you're sitting in a dark place, and I'm illuminated, and a lot of eyes are directed

at me, I can be seen more clearly than if I mingled with you, as when we were in high


We were young girls wanting to describe love and to look at it from outer space.

From Nest by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge. Copyright © 2003 by Mei-mei Berssenbrugge and Kelsey St. Press. Special thanks to Conjunctions where the poem first appeared. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Poems: Kwame Dawes

Late in 2006 I posted about a reading poet Kwame Dawes gave at Naïeveté Studios, and also referenced him when I wrote about poet Uche Nduka, whom I finally got to meet at this year's AWP conference. Kwame (b. 1962-) whose site bills him as "the busiest man in literature today," is a remarkable figure on many levels, not least because he manages to do contribute a larger portion of his time to community-based activities, not only in South Carolina, where he lives and teaches, but also in Jamaica, where he grew up.

One of the important and extraordinary projects in Jamaica he's been involved with for several years now is Hope: Living & Loving with HIV Jamaica, commissioned by the Pulitzer Center, which describes its various components.

Poet and writer Kwame Dawes travels to Jamaica to explore the experience of people living with HIV/AIDS and to examine the ways in which the disease has shaped their lives. The journey brings him in touch with people who tell their stories, share their lives and teach him about resilience, hope and possibility in the face of despair. Some are living with the disease; others have committed their lives to HIV/AIDS care.

Hope: Living and Loving with HIV in Jamaica is a multi-media reporting project: an extended essay by Kwame Dawes for The Virginia Quarterly Review (Spring 2008), two short documentaries for the public-television program Foreign Exchange, a collection of poetry inspired by his reporting, a performance of the poems set to music by composer Kevin Simmonds, and, an interactive web presentation that synthesizes audio and text versions of the poems, the Foreign Exchange videos, additional video interviews, the music, and photography by Joshua Cogan.

I can't copy any of the poems directly, so please click on the image below to read them and also hear Kwame Dawes read them, see the accompanying photographs, and learn about the people, stories and experiences behind them.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Poem: Elizabeth Alexander

I'm feeling a little brain-spent tonight; I gave a talk that no one beforehand told me was limited to 15 minutes, so I wrote a 15-page paper--but I had the good sense to excerpt it extemporaneously, and did not come in over the clock. Actually, I'm glad I wrote the paper. Now I just need to clean it up and publish it. But since when I'm not reading creative work I work off notes (though I write out 7-8 pages of lecture notes twice a week) from which I talk/riff, I should have just gone to my usual default. It always does feel better to have written out a paper, though, strangely enough, even if it is in very rough form. (For several weeks before I had to give this talk/paper, my hip ached, and then this morning it felt fine, go figure.) It also made me realize that if you have a good research assistant (I don't) or two, you probably could write a lot of critical books!

Elizabeth AlexanderSo even though I'm tired, I am going to type out a poem by one of my favorite poets, Elizabeth Alexander. I have sung her praises more than once on this blog. The first time I met her and heard her read her work was when she came to the Dark Room in 1988 or 1989, and she sparkled, as she always does. I remember looking through her book afterwards--her first, Venus Hottentot--and just standing there with my mouth open in astonishment. How could someone so young have written poems so beautifully turned, so full of brilliance, so funky? And in volume after volume (and she also writes criticism), the poems never disappoint. (One thing I always look for in her poems is her use of epizeuxis; she's up there with Shakespeare on that account, good company if you ask me.) These days students at Yale get to partake of her expansive gifts as a teacher, her prodigious talents as a poet, and her incredible warmth as a person. Here's her "Ars Poetica #13: The Idea of Ancestry," from American Sublime (Graywolf, 2005).

Ars Poetica #13: The Idea of Ancestry

Ralph Ellison's house is underground
next door to my house. Somehow we
buried it during the renovation.
The stream of which he wrote, the lullaby
sung softly by its banks is the one
my children sing, in tongues.

Ralph Ellison had an outside child--
shh--it is whispered, but when
will someone tell me the full story?
We buried his house under cast-off
sheetrock, beams, and broken appliances.

Walk in my flowering peony bed
and you'll find it, a TV antenna
made from a bent wire hanger:
what's left of Ralph Ellison's house.
It picks up mysterious whispers.

Copyright © Elizabeth Alexander, 2005, 2008, from American Sublime, Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, all rights reserved.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Poem: Joseph Legaspi + Seismosis News

Joseph LegaspiToday, I'm featuring a poem I found online, in Shampoo (31), by a poet I've known and admired now for a little over a decade, Joseph Legaspi (at right, from Joseph and I were in graduate school together, though in different genre tracks, but Joseph is one of those down-to-earth people whose unaffected friendliness and kindness means that you look forward to running into them, and I often would, he, and fellow poets and classmates Jan Gill (now O'Neil) and the late Phebus Etienne, a lively and amiable trio, and I can say without hesitation that I never left them without a good though, good feeling, and a good sense that these were three writers to watch out for. Joseph published his first collection of poems, Imago, with CavanKerry Press earlier this year, so check it out, and enjoy this little philosophical "postcard" of a poem. Yes, it literally was a postcard (see below, from Shampoo), from an issue devoted to them!

The universe has no edge or center.
Yet we who traverse in it do so
along perimeters, always, man-made,
conceptual and defined. Try and pin-
point the center, and we go there. Or is
it where we are at a given moment?
We are bound by boundaries: arms length
or under the hot sun of a horizon.
Trace edges, visible and invisible; place me in a box as I walk around in
circles. Or is it equilibrium we seek: like the mallard bobbing on the Hudson
River, afloat, content, afloat.

Poem and image, Copyright © Joseph Legaspi, 2007, 2008, All rights reserved.


Some more good news about Seismosis: it received another very fine and perceptive review, by poet Frances Richard, in the most recent issue (March/April, I think) of the Poetry Project's Newsletter (the newest issue isn't up yet). I'll post the link to the new issue when they post it. received one of the 10 Fellowships for distinguished first poetry collection from the Pan African Literary Forum, which will hold its first conference this summer in Accra, Ghana, from July 3-July 18, 2008! I don't think either Mr. Stackhouse or I will be able to attend (sponsors, anyone? :-)), but this is a wonderful honor for the book, and we graciously thank the PALF's board of directors, who adjudged it worthy of this honor.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Poem: Abdel-ilah Salhi

I'm procrastinating about writing/finishing a talk I have to deliver later this week, so in my tours through the web, I came across this poem, by the Moroccan poet Abdel-ilah Salhi (1968-), amid Poetry International's online mini-anthology of Moroccan poetry, translated by Norddine Zouitni. The translator says this about Saleh:

Since 1987, Salhi has been published widely in several magazines. Two collections of his poems, one in French and the other in Arabic will be published shortly.

Although the poetry of Abdel-ilah Salhi has varied extensively over the past years, it has kept some of its main characteristics, such as the celebration of everyday experience, the tone of humor which turns desperate situations into brilliant poetic moments, and the narrative tendency which dominates most of his poems. Indeed, Salhi is a brilliant storyteller whose friendship and hospitality are highly recommended. He is considered by many as the mouthpiece of the Moroccan “new poetry” in France, and Europe as a whole.

Salhi earns his living as a journalist and radio correspondent in France.

Here's one that stood out. (You can go to this page, where the long lines aren't cut off.)


They were quoting you
Murmuring your name like a prophet coming from afar
From whose mouth a unique music issues

My own French was not good enough even to purchase
bread decently
But the ring of your name
In the sidewise discussions had a special magic
Which for long put my extreme ignorance to shame

Migration is a sacred right, you said once
Nobody said that before you, and no one dared say it after
In this country which we married for love
I, Mohamed, Abdelkader, and Fatima
And other Arabs whose dusty names this poem is too narrow
to contain.
Until now I haven’t met anyone who could explain the mysteries
of your obscure expression
Laws say the opposite from one government to the other
And the caretaker is French of Portuguese origin
Yet he looks down on philosophers

I was in the subway stealing glances at a newspaper
someone was reading
When I saw your name printed in bold, and the headline
your death
It seems you threw yourself from the window
But why all those who love you to blindness
Love life more than anything else
I felt ashamed of my ignorance once again
And hated myself in plain Arabic
Despite the grumblings of the coloured owner of the newspaper

Migration is a sacred right
An expression which is enough it was once said
For me every morning to pursue my own sacred right
Seeking your protection O Gilles Deleuze

© Translation: 2004, Norddine Zouitni

The Arabic:

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Poems: Sonia Sanchez

Let's try something different. Here are two pieces by Sonia Sanchez: the first is her reading a tribute list, a "calling on living and ago resisters," at an event in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal, in that way that only Sister Sonia can. The list is transformed into, becomes, is a poem.

The second is her reading her poem "Our Voice Is Our Vision," during Def Poetry Jam's 5th season. She ends the poem with the lines, "That's what we all need, courage." So true. One of my favorite people, thank the gods for her.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Junot Díaz Wins Pulitzer Prize + Poem: Forrest Hamer + Review: Dos Caras de Jano/Two Faces of Janus

What great news came down today: Junot Díaz was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, roughly a month after receiving the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. As I've said on here before, this one of the best novels I've read in some time, particularly one of the best contemporary novels, and it's also one of the important contemporary works on the issues of Dominicanidad, nation, history, Diaspora, immigration, class, race and, in particular, blackness, that I've come across. Many of the reviews I've read lose sight of this, but it's all there in this remarkable book. Díaz's articulation of Diasporic nerd-dom also is incredibly fresh, as is his use of a postmodern formal structure and his often plangent realism, which makes the stories of the characters so vivid that their sufferings break your heart, not just figuratively, but by the end of the book, literally. It took Díaz 11 years to complete this novel, and it's one of the best responses to the notion that any writers--poets, playwrights, fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers, anyone--should be churning out work like paper airplanes. Like any lover of great art, I'm grateful, very grateful, that he published this book when he and it were ready, and I'm delighted to be able to congratulate him on this extraordinary honor. As I wrote of the lovely and extremely talented Natasha Trethewey and her collection, The Native Guards last year, the honor went to a truly deserving writer and work.


Forrest Hamer's most recent collection Rift (Four Way Books, 2007), a past Book Choice here, is so full of great poems, possessed of tremendous lyric force and philosophical depth, that it's hard to choose one to feature this month. So I think I'll choose one of the ones that I keep coming back to, a poem written in a style I would venture is Forrest's own, which is to say, a poem whose title, highlighted, nests in the body of the poem. This small but substantial gesture reorients the eye and mind when reading the poem, making you think about, among other things, embodiment itself, the relation between the poem and how the poet names it, how it functions in terms of the body of the lyric. Forrest, who's a trained and practicing psychoanalyist, is very interested in and writes with great skill about the mind and body, bodies, his, others, ours, but also, without the freight of religion or an established metaphysics, about soul. He was on a panel at this year's AWP that I heard was great, and I wish I could have heard it, and him. He's a poet you don't want to miss. So here is one of several poems titled "Someone I Know." Enjoy!

A woman late in her eighties began once more to feel desire. She said a
fever came over her so strong at night she would not sleep: she would imagine
all sorts of men, and some women, and all of them left her the sense she
probably was dying, the flushes one last rally to keep her self intact.

Some people can feel full only when passion is strong, so they provoke
others into making them feel. Others can feel only themselves when feeling
is calmed or seems gone. And there are others whose sense of being comes
from not being selves at all.
Someone I know doesn't yet know what there
is to tell, and I spend hours with him waiting for the song there is when I hear
best: sung by me in a language I do not recognize, listening fills me with the
closest I have come to being satisfied.

I would not be beautiful, for that would be another curse; nor would I be on
fire. The first curse, of course, is knowing.

Copyright © Forrest Hamer, 2007, 2008, from Rift (New York: Four Way Books, 2007), all rights reserved.


On Saturday afternoon I eagerly traipsed down to the Chicago Latino Film Festival to catch Las Dos Caras de Jano (The Two Faces of Janus), Edmundo H. Rodríguez's film based on Puerto Rican anti-colonial activist and progressive author Wilfredo Mattos Cintrón's fourth novel of the same name. I'd first heard about the film's screening on Blabbeando (mg/ Andrés), and the plot, focusing on a serial killer of gay men in San Juan and a black Puerto Rican detective investigating them, or at least one, was enough to bring me to the theater.

So what's my verdict? Perhaps I should begin by filling in the plot a bit more. The film really comprises two storylines: the background one focuses on the grisly serial murders of gay, mostly middle-class men in San Juan, by an unknown but extremely disturbed "Angel of Bachelors," and the viewer learns about 3/4ths of the way through who the killer is, as he commits one of them, along with the likely motivations behind them. But the foreground story, which links to this larger, more disturbing narrative, centers on a formerly closeted and now openly gay man, whose murder also appears to be part of the serial spree. A friend of the murdered man asks handsome but often-frowning detective Isabelo Andújar Jr. (Modesto Lacén, above right, after the screening) to investigate, and he quickly homes in on the trio of close friends, from university days, of the murdered man. One is a wealthy, pompous, and unabashedly racist banker (who refers to Andújar at one point as "Buckwheat"); the second is a Marxist university professor; and the third is a DL architect. Andújar also looks at the boyfriend, a former student of the murdered man; a male hustler who, we learn, is servicing a powerful member of the Puerto Rican Senate; and the murdered man's ex-wife, who is a prime but not very convincing suspect. Along the way, Andújar also has a discussion on gay identity, being out, and self-hatred with a young gay male employee of the pharmacy where his girlfriend, a blonde Puerto Rican woman, works, that keys him in to the film's title and the idea behind it; for closeted men, their existence is like the two faces of Janus, one turned towards the light, the other one, hidden, towards the darkness. Ultimately, through a series of revelations, about the sorts of accommodations that married couples make and the nature of the closet in Puerto Rico's machismo society, Andújar identifies the killer, with even more tragic consequences.

I appreciated the many themes and topics the film addressed or attempted to address. It dealt with class, race and racism, sexual orientation, identification and gender roles, internalized violence and sexual repression and oppression, the power of social and political capital, failed political dreams and accommodation, and so much more. In the short space of the film, Rodríguez (and the screenwriter Gilberto Rodríguez, drawing from Mattos Cintrón's work), portrayed a fairly rich portrait of contemporary San Juan, showing it to be more diverse and cosmopolitan than I might have imagined, while also portraying some of the longstanding retrograde attitudes that still exist. The portrayal of Andújar captures this. While he evidently harbors residual homophobic attitudes--he cannot not bring himself to say the word "gay," choosing instead, as others in the film did, to say "homosexual," until he was corrected by a gay man--his general outlook was portrayed as somewhere between benign and indifferent. Even when he's being aggressively macked by the murdered gay man's boyfriend, his response is to deflect it, and not, as might be the case elsewhere, to go plumb loco. Ultimately, we see that he grasps the true sadness and sorrow at the core of the murderer's actions, but he doesn't grasp the despair, which tips over into sentimentalism and melodrama, that has led to the crime. It's also apparent that he, nor anyone else, for that matter, appears to care about the more extensive series of murders that have occurred; ultimately the film ends with a scene of domestic bliss, in which the black detective and his white girlfriend--both Puerto Rican, of course--can finally come together and find a place within this society, while gay men, we gather, will continue to be killed off, without any recourse to anything beyond partial acceptance and the threat of violence.

Rodríguez, following Mattos Cintrón, draws a parallel between the social hostility and actual and symbolic violence against gays and the various manifestations of racism. One of the film's running jokes is that some people, fellow Puerto Ricans, including some who are visibly of African descent, do see the very dark-skinned Andújar (Lacén at right, with Rebecca Hazlewood, as Chandra, photo from Rojo Tomate) but don't really seem him, except as an alien, an outsider, or a stereotype of one sort or another. But in the case of the latter, not the kinds we might first imagine. In one case, he's mistaken for a babalawayo (santero); in another, a child thinks he's the wise man and king Melchior; in yet another moment, he's thought to be a caddy, a scene that could easily appear in a mainstream US film. In yet another moment, a little boy is terrified just by the sight of this black man, something I've personally experienced in the US more than once, though thankfully it doesn't happen that much any more. Andújar mostly parries this racism, but in an argument with his girlfriend, he articulates his frustration, both with religion and Christmas, but also with the ignorance he has to deal with, noting that the black king he's been mistaken for is actually Balthazar, and that, when his girlfriend offers to celebrate Hannukah and even Kwanzaa if that will inspire some holiday spirit in him, he rejects both, citing the latter as an "American" invention, inauthentic and no remedy for the malaise in the heart and soul he's carrying around. Just as Andújar is the antithesis of racist stereotypes of blacks, the film's portrayal of gay men mostly avoids stereotypes as well, though the narrative of self-loathing resulting in violence and melodrama, though based on a real story, harkens back to deterministic, pre-liberation narratives of gay male life.

While the digital video cinematography is admirably crisp, the filmmaking itself feels little clumsy at times, with shots and effects not really adding up as they could and the editing not as tight as it could be. The gauzy flashbacks are a particular problem. Another issue is the acting: many of the actors over-emote, or act a bit more stagily than is necessary, which I take to be an issue of direction rather than anything else. One example is Mr. Tagore (Vik Kumar), the DL South Asian (see, I said the film showed San Juan as cosmopolitan) storeowner, who klieglights his closetedness fairly quickly, or rather his wife's obvious unhappiness, in combination with his theatricality, does so. Just a little more restraint would have gone a long way. Lacén unfortunately has to spend a good deal of the film trying to look and act as glum, disaffected and serious as is humanly possible, but when he's got something to work with, he's great, and he's a glory to look at, a force field of beauty at the center of the film. What I told C when I recounted my thoughts on the film was this: while there are some obvious faults with the acting, directing and script, the overall ideas and freshness of the story outweighed them for me, and I was glad I saw the film and suggest others do to if it comes through where you are. As one of the producers, Iván de Paz, who was present with Lacén after the screening noted, the film tackles issues that are still very controversial in Puerto Rico (not just homophobia, but also classicism, racism, and "interracial couples," to use his words), in a fairly direct way.

At the top of this review is a photo I took of Modesto Lacén, chatting with someone who was in the screening and afterwards was talking up black film festivals in California. If you want to see Lacén these days, catch the off-Broadway production of Celia: The Life and Story of Celia Cruz, in which I believe he said he plays the great salsera's husband, Pedro Knight (photo at left from the NY Post, Xiomara Laugart, at left, as Celia Cruz and Modesto Lacén, at right, as her husband.) I hope he gets on the Diasporic bandwagon and gets even more roles both in PR and on the mainland: he's a winner.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Poem: Zahra Yusri

A site I check out from time to time is Banipal, a British-based journal that features literature from across the Arab world in English translation. A few issues ago (Banipal 25, Spring 2006, the journal focused on New Writing from Egypt, and one of the poets featured was Zahra Yusri (1974-, at right). According to the journal bio, the Cairo native studied Arabic literature and language and has published four collections of poetry since 1997, the most recent being Hayat Iftiradhiya (Virtual life), published by Dar Sharqiyat of Cairo. Here is Yusri's poem from the issue, "It's Night." Its movement, imagery, and social commentary, on contemporary Egyptian society (the wars that are being fought but not being fought, etc.) drew me right in.


On one foot
like a humiliated beggar I limp
past all the swinging doors
and the flags that are taken down from their masts . . .
The sidewalk was never my friend
but it embraced me those times
when the crying was tough and bitter

In my country
soldiers go to a war
where they never fight
In every coffeehouse or square
under the feet of the sick, the sad and insane
you can glimpse the trace of a rose
thrown into the arms of nurses
in lonely rooms inhabited by wailing,
a rose drawn in blood.

I cannot believe the car has yet to stop
that I fell out of it
like a scream
I know the lift attendant
never jumps off the fences
and that rocks keep wounding me
even though I’ve roamed for too long.

On one foot
death will come
and raise its head
Facing it, I will embrace this man strongly
and strangle all the poems in his hands
I will crush my bones under his hot breaths
My lungs are becoming two tubes
my feet like a battlefield
my heart a noose.
Am I really dead?
Only a while ago
I was smelling that homeland.

* * *

In those empty streets
even dogs are afraid to cross
You will cross
with a shadow that doesn’t accompany you
and a backbreaking love
You will talk about your parents
the shock of sudden death
and the added light
which never lessens loneliness
When my eyes well up
and my pants are wet
as I stand before you
you will take a newspaper from your chest
and a mirror from your eyes
so that I may look into them
and know
that now I can go out.

* * *

Into one of those swamps
left by an old flood
the kind that drowns entire villages
I will jump like a bird
with broken wings –
a bird’s looking for a merciful killing

The bird which loved the behinds of every hen
can no longer fly
or spit
as is his wont every time he mounts
his eyes can neither close in sleep
nor let a tear fall
But all the birds agree
he does shut them every now and then
although no one knows for sure
if he does it out of pleasure or out of pain
for a sad bird like him
can only dream
of a long darkness

* * *

Every time I think of my own death
someone else dies
and the poem keeps
writing itself

* * *

I embrace no one
my steps pass without me
the hand of the house burns me
The one who sleeps in my history
never wakes
his steps crush me at night
In the morning
I wake up scared, on his chest
He tells me
what I was not

He smokes his cigarette
like a returnee from war
He knows the precise number of its victims
and I, between stolen looks
and the sounds of his breathing,
know there was a lost letter from him.

Translated by Sinan Antoon
from the author’s collection
Warda lil-Ayam al-Akhira (A Rose for the Last Days), Merit, 2003

Copyright © Zahra Yusri, Sinan Antoon, 2003, 2008, All rights reserved.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Poem : Aurora Levins Morales

Many years ago when I was working on a journal issue devoted to Puerto Rican women writers and their writings, I became acquainted with the work of Aurora Levins Morales (1954-), the daughter of a famous Nuyorican/Boricua poet and activist, Rosario Morales (1930-), whose work I also came to appreciate at that time. Levins Morales has been publishing her work for several decades, and one of its distinguishing traits in addition to its diverse stylistics and forms is its negotation between an overtly political public address and its exploration of Levins Morales's personal history, which entails all facets of her life and identifications as a Jewish Puertorriqueña Latina feminist progressive activist curandera.

Levins Morales has published several important volumes of poetry and work in other genres, including Getting Home Alive, with her mother Rosario Morales, (Firebrand Press, 1986), Medicine Stories (South End Press, 1998), Telling To Live: Latina Feminist Testimonios (Duke, 2001), and the multigenre Remedios: Stories of Earth and Iron from the History of Puertorriqueñas (Beacon Press, 1998, South End Press, 2001), which encompasses poetry, story, history, myth, metaphysics, and spirituality. Hers is a poetics of deep engagement, with the ills and possibilities of contemporary society, in PR, in the US, across the globe, and with the possibilities that a progressive, holistic perspective might offer in viewing our life-worlds clearly and making them anew and better for all of us.

I copied the following poem, "Baghdad Birthday," from a 2004 issue of Poetry Magazine (not Poetry, in which Levins Morales was the featured poet.

Baghdad Birthday

Someday a thousand children of Baghdad will ask
why they all have the same deadly birthday, why
they all came into the world on the last day of peace,
and their mothers will tell how they raced against the calendar of war,
how they crowded into hospitals demanding labor
demanding to start the clocks of their bodies
as the planes took off from bases half a world away.

The will say that they rode wave after wave of contractions
as the targeting systems honed in on everyday life,
how they bore down and pushed while nurses and doctors
rushed around trying to prepare, without supplies, without medicine,
for shrapnel wounds and broken bones,
for everything torn and shattered and burned
for the shocked and wailing people who would have the next turn
to lie these beds crowded into hallways,
how you crowned as the moon rose over the river.

You were born, they will tell them, into the last quiet hour
such a small chest, such little legs, arriving weeks before your time,
and I hid your tiny face in my swollen breast
so the terrible fire wouldn't scorch your tender eyes.
Your first lullabye, they will say, was when I sang you my grandmother's
and the second was the screaming of missiles ripping low across the city,
and then came the shockwaves and everything was falling.
My darling, my dove, you were born in the nick of time.

We left the hospital to the wounded who kept coming, the mothers will say,
to the little girl in her father's arms, blood leaking from her ears
to the woman clutching her boy, both of them full of metal splinters,
and we walked until we found our street with the houses still standing.
The walls shook around us, the windows shattered, the dreadful wind
knocked dishes from the shelves, and we covered your ears against the
roaring sky.
The first night of your lives we lay down in our beds and held you
a thousand moist sweet unfurling rosebuds forced into early bloom
a thousand passengers on a single train running on the timetable of death
set by criminals lusting for conquest in their air conditioned rooms.

A thousand roses opening just before dawn, a thousand babies born alive
in the teeth of invasion, a thousand thorny branches amidst the smoke
yes, we snatched you from the dark and the body counts
and pulled you into a world on fire and the smell of burning.
We were afraid and we were strong and we were trembling,
all around us Baghdad was dying
but remember this, when you crowned between our legs
we were singing.

Copyright © Aurora Levins Morales, 2004, 2008, from Poetry Magazine.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Poem: G. E. Patterson + Chicago Latino Film Festival + 40 Years Ago, MLK Jr.

G. E. PattersonOne of the many Cave Canem poets I haven't seen in a while but whose work I cherish is G. E. "Gar" Patterson. Gar's first book, Tug, received the Minnesota Book Prize, and his newest book, To and From (Ahsata Press, 2008) continues many of the concerns of that first volume, though in a strikingly different formal language.

The new book comprises quasi-sonnets crafted from a wide array of quotations, which Gar carefully culled and then shaped into a flexible lyric that embodies the (post-)post-modern even as the poems, in their openness and indeterminacy, evoke an intimacy, a personal and public sensibility, that is redolent of poetry from the pre-post eras. Here is one I basically copped directly from the Ahsata Press page, and its almost elegiac tone and pastoral imagery reminds me of John Ashbery's work (in The Double Dream of Spring) of the late 1960s and early 1970s, or Ralph Angel's poems, from Neither World. It's a lovely one.

“Here and there . . . .”
—T.S. Eliot

“ . . . for a particular point of view—”
—Lyn Hejinian

It May Happen
as though it doesn’t matter what is real

“ . . . something almost . . . with asking.”
—Brenda Hillman

According to their signs we’re in the country
Far off things are being put on the record
Where it may not matter to anyone
If the shadows hide themselves behind rain
The canal opening below the sky
Daytime moving in swirls the painted colors
Or the idea wind sometimes stops and starts
What we might more properly call nostalgia

If we wanted to we could follow later
Without giving up his place in the world
A color postcard folded in our pockets
The light informing us it’s afternoon
When what we feel is we remember feeling
Not long ago it was the time before

Copyright © 2008 by G.E. Patterson


Tonight the Chicago Latino Film Festival begins. The site seems a bit harder to search than in past years, but a bit of surfing around the calendar shows that there'll again be some unusual and compelling films screening at various sites across the city. Two I wished I'd caught today include Vanessa Goksch's 2006 feature Frekuensia Colombiana / Turning in to the Colombian Hip Hop Movement, a documentary on traditional forms Colombian music and its relation to Hip Hop, which won't be screening again, and Sanpachando (San Pacho es pa’l que lo goce) / Sanpachando (St. Pacho is for the revellers), a 2006 documentary by Daniel Mosquera and Sean Ferry on the afro-ethnic, religious, and cultural meaning of a festival honoring Saint Francis of Assisi, in Chocó, Colombian.

Two Faces of JanusI am planning to see, Edmundo H. Rodríguez's 2008 feature film, Las dos caras de Jano / The two faces of Janus (photo at right), which explores a serial killer amidst Puerto Rico's gay community. Another is Vinicius, Miguel de Faria Jr.'s 2005 documentary on the multitalented Brazilian cultural figure, Vinícius de Morães (1913-1980), the internationally famous lyricist of Bossa Nova hits like The Girl from Ipanema, and the playwright whose whose stage play became Marcel Camus's 1959 touchstone, Black Orpheus.

One I'm debating is José Enrique Pintor's 2007 film Sanky Panky, whose name rings familiar to anyone who's visited DR or dropped by the DR1. It naturally tells the story of a colmado owner who feels his life has become a cage and takes up the Sanky profession. The Chicago Reader appraises it like this:

This crass musical comedy from the Dominican Republic stars the annoying Fausto Mata as a loutish grocery-store owner whose desperate search for a sugar mommy takes him to a posh beach resort. Hired to entertain the guests’ children and forced to wear a chicken costume, he doesn’t have much luck with the ladies until he meets a sympathetic cutie from New Jersey. Writer-director Jose Pintor mines broad slapstick and class stereotypes for laughs but also relies heavily on Mata, who comes across like an extremely hostile Chris Tucker. Bring your earplugs.

"An extremely hostile Chris Tucker"? Yikes! Maybe I'll have to see it just to verify that comparison.


40 years ago....

And 41 years ago, his speech on the war in Vietnam:

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Poem: Brigit Pegeen Kelly

Last night at the university I heard the poet Brigit Pegeen Kelly (at right, © New York Times) read the following poem, and once I got home I checked online to see if she'd published it in a journal, since it doesn't appear in any of her books (which include the award-winning volumes To the Place of TrumpetsSong, and The Orchard. As a colleague noted, it turns out it appeared in one of the least likely places: The New York Times, as one of several poems in "Closing Time," a rare, full-page end-of-the-year collection of poetry. Other poets on the page included Yusef Komunyakaa, Carl Phillips, Seamus Heaney, and Sarah Arvio.

It is, to put it mildly, astonishing. Enjoy.


It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but
maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought
I said not “some sort of fish,” but a “scorpion fish,” a
request he would surely have granted, being a goodly
God, but then he forgot the “fish” attached to the
“scorpion” (because God, too, forgets, everything
forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish,
sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the
striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and
followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish;
instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar
prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part
bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a
disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or
even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly
does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in
mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling
backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail
doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a
venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of
Cleopatra’s asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite
the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men.
In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight
eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and
is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and
feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison
barb when backed against a wall — a thing like me,
but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or
design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the
curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step
softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many
years, have I been stung, both times because,
unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes
now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he
is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal
Book because of his strange organs of breath. His
lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And
inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged
like the pages of a book — imagine that! And when the
holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood
that circles through them touches the air, and by this
bath of air the blood is made pure . . . He is a house of
books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the
perishable manuscripts — a little mirror of the library
at Alexandria, which burned.

Copyright © Brigit Pegeen Kelly, 2005, 2008, all rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Poems: Tao Lin

I keep seeing this poet's name in online and print journals and in emails: Tao Lin (at right, PEELSeriesNYC). I know the brilliant Tan Lin, and Tan's work, pretty well, but not Tao. Then I see his book in the book store, and I ask myself, am I misreading or hallucinating that there's a Tao Lin? I pick it up ad it's clearly not Tan's book.

Then my friend and colleague Dorothy W. tells me I should read Tao Lin's book of stories, Bed, which is really good. So I decide to buy Bed, and almost buy the novel Eee Eee Eee, but hold off because I want to get out of Bed first. The Dorothy tells me that Tao Lin's also a poet, and she describes his work in such a way that I want to go out and read it right away. (That's called excellent description/criticism.) So I'm trolling the web and what do I find but his blog sites, which include You Are a Bit Happier Than I Am (the title of his first collection) and Reader of Depressing Books, which is the up-to-date one.

Here are, then, two poems by Tao Lin. I chose the first selected because it's wry and was filed under "jersey city guidebook" on his site. They both make me want to read a lot more of his poetry. And soon.

walking home in cold weather

i give money to a homeless man
there is another homeless man
i give him money
there are two homeless people and i give them money
the street has snow
i cannot play; or build an igloo
there are enough homeless men to have a snowfight
i am not charismatic enough to organize a snowfight
it is january
it is raining not snowing
i am not a little boy afraid of sharks when gurgling salt water
i am detached from whatever i am about to think
inside my room i walk to my bed
i should have cartwheeled to it
i dream that people who get speeding tickets are irresponsible
i am detaching the cop's arm from his body
he was punching me in the face
i will kill anyone who hurts my emotions
'i will kill you!' i scream at a scared little boy
i will monitor his email for the rest of his life

And here is "a stoic philosophy based on the scientific fact that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors," which is such a good title I had to post it as today's poem. It originally appeared in coconut nine.

a stoic philosophy based on the scientific fact
that our thoughts cause our feelings and behaviors

we have our undesirable situations whether we are upset about them or not

if we are upset about our problems we have two problems: the problem

and our being upset about it; with thoughts as the cause of emotions

rather than the outcome the causal order is reversed

the benefit of this is that we can change our thoughts

to feel or act differently regardless of the situation

i need to win a major prize to shove in people's faces

note the similarities with buddhism

a buddhist who has achieved nirvana is not sad

primarily because it does not know the concept

of sad; the sole problem of an undesirable situation

is the absence of a philosophy allowing it to be desirable

the cessation of desire in western civilizations

often coincides with the onset of severe depression

a cessation or increase of suffering in relationships

often effects increased focus on work or art

let's compare the person shot with a rifle

who worries about who manufactured the bullets

rather than staunching the wound

with the person shot with a rifle

who distances himself from the situation

until the focus is on the distance itself

turn to page forty-eight of your workbook and read it aloud in a quiet monotone

focusing intensely on the meaning of each word, phrase, sentence, and paragraph

based on the historical fact that after i express anger, frustration, or disappointment

you treat me more considerately, then gradually less considerately

until again i am 'triggered' to express anger, frustration

or disappointment i think we may have achieved something

like the buddhist concept of the cycle of birth and rebirth

let me conceive a temporary philosophy to justify

my behavior involving the dissemination of literature

while maintaining and strengthening our identities

we should be aware that identity is a preconception

the purpose of that is yet unknown at this point

i felt a little sad this morning but was able to block it out

and now i feel better; implicitly we trust that once we discover what it is we are doing

we will return to let ourselves know; the realization of what we are actually achieving

will manifest from an as yet unoccupied perspective, a perspective with no metaphysical

temporal, or physical connection to our current situation

with the understanding that thoughts are the cause

of emotions, pain, and the experience of time

and that thoughts can be extinguished

with other thoughts or states of thoughtlessness

we become wholly irrelevant to what already exists in the universe

all of which can be valuable tools in recovery
Copyright © Tao Lin, 2006, 2007, 2008, All rights reserved.