A Fire Was In My Head

Trainyard in Morning
6 March 2009, 9:41 am
Filed under: New Poetry

It is possible to start at the end of the poem, then discover a beginning, then pencil in the in-between.  I wrote this piece in felt-tip and ballpoint around the edges of the front and back covers of CityPaper, the one with the cover story “Olney the Lonely.”

Trainyard in Morning

A hundred dummy cans adorning
the trainyard
in the morning
after a storm hit it hard.

The traders need to trade
in ballast
they have weighed.
It lost a layer of dust

last night and sits
clean in the mud. Any crow
who wants to gets
to come to the cargo

and drink
from puddles and make the rain
look more like ink.
We wait to load the train,

one crow and I,
the one who came
yesterday to take a drink and fly
in the storm. It drenched him lame

enough to keep
him close
to the puddles. Did he sleep
there as the puddles rose?

It rained all
night. He and I wait
for a train to haul
a hundred leaden boxes. It’s late.

To pass
the time I loop a memory
two hours old: just as
I arrived to see


a waste awash
in sunlight, the crow cooed
like one who, gaining ash,
forgets the wood.


An Exercise, A Slump
1 March 2009, 10:03 pm
Filed under: Draft

A few of my other poems have been forming as slowly as metamorphic rocks, so I took a break and some advice form Richard Hugo, whose book The Triggering Town is of extraordinary use to me as a poetry teacher.  (I have no idea if he is a good poet, but he writes plainly and strongly about helping others become good poets.)  I stopped thinking about layers of meanings.  I stopped thinking about rhyme.  I stopped thinking about stories I know I want to tell.  Instead, I took a factoid from my Dad’s life that he mentioned to me on the phone earlier today and ran with it.  (They called him “Cadillac” Stephens in high school on account of he got rides from a family friend who only drove Cadillacs.)  Here’s what happened:


Witness the Cadillacs
slide in like ice cream,
hubcaps angel’s skin bright.
The girls fall forever
into the creme-de-menthe
bucket seats.  The whole slick scene buzzes
over to the lakes kicking
up a Sahara cloud of gravel
that sticks in the cracks of our eyes
and makes our socks sag.
The kid on the mound
sweats so much he can’t throw
a strike.  I’m on deck thanking God
when ball four sails, cause there isn’t one of us
could hit a planet
when the Sahara cloud comes down.

Not a terrible slump busting activity. Just let the words come.

Rhythm Is Pre-Memory: Reading Yusef Komunyakaa
21 February 2009, 3:42 pm
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , , , ,

For nearly two months, I have lugged and guzzled a collection of poems within Neon Vernacular, a small anthology of Yusef Komunyakaa’s poetry.  I concentrated on the selections from I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head.

I Apologize reads like a city lives.  The whole, relatively contained mass is cordoned off inside strong borders, and due to a degree of isolation and density, adapts a distinct style.  Still, the distinct chunk retains its own sense of infinity, too, of the ever-presence of undiscovered spaces within an unchanging body.  For those of you literate in Russian novels: it is the claustrophobic definition of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) married to the expanses of Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1916).  James Joyce famously captured this urban characteristic in Ulysses (1922), isolating his work in time as well as place, showing the mountains of moments and things (and, more academically and satirically, literary genres) always present and interworking in even narrowly defined spaces.  Keita Takahashi’s video game Katamari Damacy (2004), which invites players to amass a stupendous variety of objects (including animals and people), explores the infinity-within-boundaries theme interestingly, as well, and its setting, too, is the city–eventually spreading to the planet as a mass of buildings and land.  And these few examples certainly do not represent a smidgen of the works on the subject. 

So the tradition apparent in I Apologize (1986) exists within a stable framework of antecedents and heirs.  However, unlike those works, and much more like the evolution of culture within a real city, these poems seem to have dipped into the theme quite by accident.  The variety in the collection stems from the story, not vice versa as implicit commentary.  One strong, multi-faceted narrative emerges, centralized around the figure of the Thorn Merchant.  Explicitly, the Thorn Merchant’s right-hand man, his wife, his mistress, and his son all star in poems auxiliary to that first.  The story tells of double- and triple-lives; crime, violence, and family; desire and love; and the seedy, often dreadful, sometimes sad fallout from the Thorn Merchant’s effort to manage all those aspects of himself.  Komunyakaa pens the tale episodically through time and character.

But there are others in this work, not explicitly a part of the story, who seem affected by it: is the boy’s late uncle in “Boy Wearing a Dead Man’s Clothes” a casualty of the Thorn Merchant’s violent streak?  Or did he offend the Thorn Merchant’s sense of lust or love?  Evidence later in the poems “When in Rome–Apologia” and “I Apologize” portrays men who have crossed the Thorn Merchant (or some like character) in love and business, respectively.  And women both abandoned and in the act of love ponder an irretrievable feeling.  Komunyakaa leaves much to the imagination, but his sketches, drawn-out and varied, remain suggestive.

Perhaps the binding force is the way most of the poems read: in contrast to the formal elegance in other modern poets (such as I have remarked on in my recent piece on Richard Wilbur) the pieces that make up I Apologize are stylized with the kinds of sultry details that belong in a 1920’s detective paperback, or in the, somewhat more literary, slick prose of authors like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett.  Even abstract pieces contain characters with wooden legs or silky voices, men and women as fluent in sex as illegitimate commerce, penny arcades, rusted ironwork, neglected architecture, and eyes everywhere.  It is both fantasy and reality–as the young man playing Asteroids in a 1980s video parlor while attempting to exude a tough facade in “Child’s Play,” trying simultaneously to enjoy a placid present and, through role-play, a seedy past.  I Apologize portrays the city organically, as a function of the limitless teeming cultures latent in a small space, competing, as well as in its own pop-culture self-stylized tradition.  And then there is the desperate dialogue between hands, genitals, hearts, ears, brains, and eyes that tug so uniquely in different directions inside one defined sector: a human body.

11 February 2009, 1:28 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , , , , ,


Coltrane slips from his speakers,
soft, to the trolley-pocked streets
like a blue moonlight bath,
and just-so his passage succumbs to
Her milky breath splatters the stark
silhouettes of the city:
black figures cast against walls housing
houses, the nuclear family commercials
colored by schoolchildren. Hearing,
his muscles are tensing.
She wrings him all over,
the saxophone twisting
the sax and the sex and the sweetness of sweat
in her bed.  The salt of the salt of the earth,
bodies slick with bodies’ work:
the building of bedrooms
where bodies will come to and come
from.  The music immures him, his rhapsody
mounting, careening, compelled
by the woman, her song, and her name, and her soul, and the sound of
Her brown hips
he’s helpless
to climax.

A couple exhales in his wake—not unworried—unheard.

An Idea
10 February 2009, 2:07 pm
Filed under: New Poetry | Tags: , ,

An Idea


that bass
Cut it kid.
Saw it in half.
No one’s watching.
Cept for little old me.

Let’s you and me
and that spruce upright
hop a trolley.
We’ll go station to station.

I can throw my hat on the ground.

The moon, and Kansas City,
too. We’ll do it all.
Everywhere we go we’ll be
some people.
The people
will throw money
at you, piper, and me–right into this hat
without even
knowing our names,

just like I don’t know your name.
I’m ready.
You just got to
get down off that stage
and keep cuttin it
the way you do.


QWERTY criticism
8 February 2009, 8:41 pm
Filed under: Draft | Tags: , , ,

You have been loyal readers, and I have been a negligent writer.  I owe all five of you an apology.  Unfortunately, the best I could muster at my little Suedoperuvian typewriter was this off-topic complaint:

QWERTY Criticism

Curse the proud mechanics
who were so vain of this peacock
array of hammers, its forest
arrangement of green keys spaced
to impede my liquid fingers, punishing
flight by metal bramble.
                                        If only they knew
the impossible lag, the network of gaps
and senseless dendrite thickets
these blocky fingers, already,
will never overcome.

Two Lines from Richard Wilbur
3 January 2009, 10:51 am
Filed under: Essay | Tags: , , , , , ,

I have admired Richard Wilbur’s poetry for some time now without ever truly having delved into it.  Recently, though, I found Mayflies, a collection of poems and translations at the Philadelphia Free Library, and for the last few weeks I have opened it without plan or regularity, seeing what I could see.  Yesterday, I saw this two-liner:

A Short History

Corn planted us; tamed cattle made us tame.

Thence hut and citadel and kingdom came.

Wilbur’s poetry maintains a right-angled elegance, a sophistication that rather hides itself in plainness; the above piece proves no exception.  Rather than dazzle his readers with visual tricks or funky punctuation, he presents this couplet in a very traditional mold (iambic pentameter) and in mostly common language.  (I argue that the “thence” construction has become the sort of pervasive cliché that can be called “common.”)  Instead he makes his anthropological point by tipping ordinary phrases backwards.  The line “we planted corn; we made the cattle tame” hardly makes any kind of point, but by inverting the subject/object structure, Wilbur forces us to re-examine the causal relationship of farming and modern human civilization.  (Correctly, I think, as I doubt “early man” aspired to a future parade of huts, citadels, and kingdoms.)

While the first line gives pause, opens up a space for consideration, the second is where Wilbur unleashes his magic.  In a poem so short, it is difficult to manage any real transition, but here Wilbur has managed an extremely subtle and important one.  The three-building list functions as it should, detailing a progression of architecture we may take as synechdoche for the progress of civilization.  The transition, however, comes from the word “came,” which Wilbur uses to maneuver his history into the realm of the tidy phrase “kingdom come.”  Suddenly, we have moved from this world to the next.

The expression, at least in its widely disseminated form, originates in the Lord’s Prayer–“Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”–which lends his short history the force of something incanted, spoken en masse to melt multiple individual spirits into one vociferous myth.  The poem uses that stock phrase in disguise, thereby lashing the common sentiment of humanity’s having arrived from its simpleton past to a paradise state of advancement to the Christian doctrine of eternal paradise.  I imagine that both Christians and Atheists easily understand the irony of that comparison, which calls into question a fundamental assumption of history that we have eternally advanced from a low state.    And he accomplishes the whole thing rhythmically, obliging the human ear, which craves order.  The second line, particularly, lilts.  It sounds like a lullaby.  In Richard Wilbur’s “A Short History,” human progress is the lullaby we use to convince ourselves that everything is alright.