Poems I’ve Loved This Month: October 2017

“Indigo” by Ellen Bass.

This poem immediately struck me with the whoosh of needing to re-read—not because it’s overly complex or difficult to understand, but because of the simplicity of its narrative, the longing so many of us have for some other life, granted “it’s a miracle to have a life. Any life at all.” Desire for a tattooed dad turns into desire of a totally different sort (or maybe not a different sort at all, but the desire behind the desire, behind the cobweb and the window and its screen, the thing itself, outside and wild, but also suburban, typical, banal aching. I especially love the way she describes what sets this man apart—what his tattoos, which include the indigo of a title, represent to her:

“I want to have married a man who wanted
to be in a body, who wanted to live in it so much
that he marked it up like a book, underlining,
highlighting, writing in the margins, I was here.

Then there’s the title, kind of an Yves Klein monochrome print thing happening, “a kind of obsession,” as Bass might put it. I listened to an episode Abbi Jacobson’s podcast all about Klein’s work with ultramarine blue, how he was fascinated by it and wanted to exactly replicate it on canvas; he found it irresistible and mentioned wanting to “impregnate” viewers with the color. (Oh men.) Klein also composed “The Monotone Symphony,” which is about 20 minutes of an orchestra playing one note followed by about 20 minutes of silence. (Jacobson reveals this after a conversation with QuestLove about the B-flat quality he attributes to Klein’s Blue Monochrome.)

One great thing about language is how its user, like a musician, chooses to wield silence. What’s not in a poem often feels as present as what is. In “Indigo,” there’s a great transition, a turn toward the end, between the speaker/mother and her daughter:

“And now there’s everything that we can’t talk about.
We love—but cannot take
too much of each other.”

What the silence holds for this speaker can’t be kept silent.

I think of Bass and her indigo; despite the many things happening in this poem, doesn’t she offer a compelling monochrome print here, one moment washed in one color that transfixes? Within this indigo, there’s humor, dress shopping, jealousy, “radiance,” BBQ, “carnelian,” even the reds tinged blue. And oddly, like Klein’s ultramarine wish, the poem has much to do with pregnancy—literal and figurative, the speaker’s birth and her daughter’s birth and what comes to fruition in life.

I read recently that a beech tree puts out 1.8 million* beechnuts over the course of its lifetime and only one of those will grow to maturation. In one color, so many ways to strike the same note; what returns to us (repeat desires, images, conversations) returns tired and fresh, old and new, something borrowed, something blue.

*I originally had the incorrect number here.

“Sunshower” by Natalie Shapero.*

This poem contends with the devil we know.

In the midst of a barrage of sexual harassment and assault news, this poem is a beacon. Playing on the old wives’ tale explaining a sunshower (“Some people say the devil is beating / his wife”), the poem morphs the devil again and again into something less and less easy to distance ourselves from, making him both more familiar and more sinister.

This is a great example of a poem that deploys anaphora to build a poem’s complexity. It adds a sing-song musicality that lifts the folktale aspect up and undercuts the rhetoric we’ve all heard before while enhancing it and adding humor.

The anaphora may also point to the culprit; ultimately, the poem doesn’t end with the devil we call devil but with “some people … having a fair.”

“… Some people
say calm down; this is commonplace.
Some people say calm down;
this is very rare. Some people say
the sun is washing her face. Some
people say in Hell, they’re having a fair.”

“Nashville” by Tiana Clark.

At a concert I was at, the singer began with “This is a song about gentrification.” I could hardly keep my eyes from rolling out of my head; in my experience when a writer (of songs or of anything) has to tell you what something is about, it’s no bueno. But then that person wound up being Courtney Marie Andrews, and I’ve listened to her album Honest Life almost every day since.

“Nashville” begins as a poem about gentrification: what changes and what doesn’t. I’d say which history is lost, but this poem keeps history alive, refuses to bury it. It begins with Hot Chicken, which may seem trivial to non-Tennesseeans; but at a time when the South is conversely being identified with a stereotyped white Southerner and appropriated in culture (from dress to cuisine to music), Hot Chicken’s popularity is on the rise, and in this “farm-to-table” migration, it’s been whitewashed, not recalling:

“the history of Jefferson Street or Hell’s
Half Acre, north of downtown. Where freed slaves lived

on the fringe of Union camps, built their own new country.
Where its golden age brought the Silver Streak, a ballroom
bringing Basie, Ellington, and Fitzgerald.”

In the city’s recent boom, Clark razes the past, a brief racial history of Nashville, and the speaker’s more personal history, her great-grandmother Freelove, her grandmother Toy, and her husband being called an epithet in present day. This poem talks about what “bisects” the city, the speaker, and ultimately America: I-40, I-65, “the boomerang shape of the Niger River,” the white faces in a photo of a  black person being lynched. It explores the violence and violations of making lines and of redrawing and crossing them. Maybe the most amazing part of the poem is when the speaker imagines (or sees) the crossing of an uncrossable line—the past entering its future, the present, backwards through the lens:

“…black-and-white lynching photographs,
mute faces, red finger pointing up at my dead, some smiling,

some with hats and ties—all business, as one needlelike lady
is looking at the camera, as if looking through the camera, at me,
in the way I am looking at my lover now—halcyon and constant.”

The speaker “search[es] the OED for soot-covered roots” and yet the epithet hurled at her family from a passerby, a part of the Nashville scene, leaves her hunting, “the breath / of Apollo panting at the back of Daphne’s hair, chasing words”, rootless, “kissing all the trees,” what to ground her but history, her knowledge, maybe love, repeating “Who said it?

I’m grateful for this poem for a number of reasons, but particularly as a person relatively new to Tennessee (though I’ve been in “herds of squealing pink bachelorette parties” and had “sour to balance prismatic, flame-colored spice / for white people”) who knows little of its history and is learning how and where to look for it. Her work consistently teaches me this and so much else.

“Guerilla Theory” by Kien Lam.

“The largest primate in the world
is the white man’s ego.”

Simply put, I love this poem. It’s hard for me to talk about because it moves so quickly, deftly, shapeshifting imperceptibly until one recognizes a new name must enter in, more like clouds that look like monkeys than a gorilla. It’s form, the skinny single stanza, adds to this rush; its effect is a feeling of unstoppability. Once the first line is read, it’s as though something heavy’s been dropped down a chute.

As in Clark’s poem, Babel makes an appearance. “Guerilla Theory” deals in naming and how to name an identity, how to shape an identity when names have been stripped by “letters … dropped / out of bombers”, and maybe what remains of a person who has lost part of himself.

“… I saw
a monkey’s face when I looked
at a cloud, but my mother couldn’t
even make out the head. Someone
looked at a tree and called it a tree.
Someone else looked at a tree
and called it whatever the word
for tree is in Vietnamese,
which I don’t remember anymore.
And the word for that loss
is too big to fit into a single

Colonialism kills the ability to name, steals language, makes for a speaker “full / of holes and dormant landmines.” And despite the violence, despite the quicksilver movement of the mind at work in this poem, the quiet is what most moves me. It feels right that in a poem about absence quiet works so well; the ending the kind that makes me pay attention in the way a friend who doesn’t often interject catches my attention when he mumbles something; what sticks to the speaker at the end of this poem has stuck with me. I guess I’m Lavar Burton-ing you: Read it.

“The Moon and the Yew Tree” by Sylvia Plath.

This month I was able to spend a day at the Lilly Library at Indiana University where some of Plath’s manuscripts and artwork are archived. (More on this later.) One thing I especially enjoyed and made me think “Drats!” was that the stunner at the opening of this poem was always there and always the opener, at least in the drafts at Lilly: “This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.”

Though favorites change, this has often been my favorite of her poems.

Originally written in a huge monolith of a stanza, she drew brackets to create separate stanzas on the first draft (or maybe lacking paper she did this as she went). She reworked the final stanza the most; lots of abstraction (and Socrates) fell away. Eventually she cut a penultimate stanza. What I wrote in my notebook while there: “It seems she (like me & [I] imagine many others) best revises in a fury—not gradually over time, but more like triage.”

October 27th is her birthday. She would have been 85 this year. This month also saw the release of Volume 1 of her collected letters. I think of her as one of the best Scorpios, best being best of its kind: physical, sensual, sharp (as in smart and as in all elbows, unsparing), grudge-holding, and talented. I’m in the midst of an essay about her and Flannery O’Connor, so I’ll spare you my love letter for Plath and leave you instead with a Plath fact: she loved avocados and red lipstick.

“The Country of Marriage (Part V)” by Wendell Berry.

Yes, more Wendell Berry. This poem is the title poem of a most beautiful chapbook that I advise purchasing posthaste, unless I know you and you’re planning on getting married in the near future because then you will have spoiled my wedding gift to you.

I’ve just reprinted my favorite section (Part V) here:


Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are—
that puts it in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen time and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

“We are more together / than we know, how else could we keep on discovering / we are more together than we thought?” Low whistle.

I also highly recommend watching Look & See, about Wendell Berry’s work off the page on Netflix.