My Poem Without Me in It

Sharon Olds

copyright ©2019 by Sharon Olds

My poem without me in it – would it be like
my room when I had returned to it
after my mother was done with me.
Under my bed, only the outer
space balls, of dust, only
the asteroids of hair, no bent-legs
spider drawstring purse, no fly, no
I. My poem without me in it, would it
be like her house before I was granted
the right to close my door – it had been one
hive, one queen five times my size, her
long stomach lolling like a tucker-bag.
My poem without me – like the mahogany
bookcase, with its spiral pillars,
without a book by a woman in it.
My poem without
a simile in it.
My poem like my head, as a child, when I learned
how not to have
a thought in it,
in case it were a thought one would burn for.
My poem without this ordinary female
in it – like the body politic
of a teenage woman without her special
blood in it. This old girl’s
poem without a girl in it.
I have been a child without a soul.
The poem is a vale of soul-making.

Notes on the Poem

We actually cannot imagine a poem by Sharon Olds minus her strong and singular presence, in the spotlight, offering vibrant commentary or at very least hovering unmistakeably in the near background. Let's take a look at "My Poem Without Me in It" from Olds' 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Arias, confirm that she's there ... and try to understand why she would even suggest such a thing as a Sharon Olds-less poem. Maybe Olds (or the narrator with Olds' voice) really considered for a brief moment a poem without her presence, something expressed at arm's length. But only one line in, she is illustrating the impossibility of such a piece issuing from her pen. As the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize judges observed, "there is the heft of heavy lifting, of difficult emotional material moving like magma under enormous pressure to issue volcanically, irrupting into the moment of the poem." "would it be like my room when I had returned to it after my mother was done with me." is the simple, poignant, heart-searing comparison Olds uses to reconcile the poem's title with the lifelong burden of childhood trauma she bears, that emotional material that has so swiftly burst into the poem. Self-abasement and self-deprecation are interwoven through the balance of the poem, including the alternately sad and menacing "My poem like my head, as a child, when I learned how not to have a thought in it, in case it were a thought one would burn for." But also slyly slid into the poem is criticism of her oppressor ... "one queen five times my size, her long stomach lolling like a tucker-bag" and, in acknowledging the damage done "I have been a child without a soul" further acknowledgement that she has the tools to mend herself: "The poem is a vale of soul-making." A vale or valley might, on one hand, be a low point in the terrain but is perhaps a place of sanctuary where the soul is truly forged. Throughout the poem, Olds refers to containers and repositories, including a drawstring purse, a tucker-bag, a bookcase and even the suggestion of one's own body. With these, she can both hold and preserve what is precious to her, and with the portability of many of them, she can travel or escape. Olds' narrator is very much in her poem. That affirmation is a gift for all who are very much in the starring and central roles in their own respective lives' poems, and should feel justifiably proud of how they have travelled and survived.

Now Rough, Now Gentle

Carl Phillips

copyright ©2013 by Carl Phillips

Never mind the parts that came later, with all
the uselessness, as usual, of hindsight: regret’s
what it has to be, in the end, in which way it is
like death, any bowl of sliced-fresh-from-the-tree
stolen pears, this body that stirs
                                            or fails to, as I
turn away, meaning Make it yours, or Hold tight,
or I begin to think maybe you were rightthat
there’s nothing, after … thought whether or not like
one of those moments just past having woken to
yet another stranger,
                          how the world can seem
to have completely stopped when, finally, it’s just
a stillness – who can say? First I envied them,
then I ame to love them for it, how the stars each
day become again invisible, while going nowhere.

Notes on the Poem

"Carl Phillips is a poet of the line and a poet of the sentence, both at once," declares the judges' citation for Phillips' 2014 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted poetry collection Silverchest. The poem "Now Rough, Now Gentle" is an emphatic example of the poet's prowess. The poem's opening line is brisk, verging on rough in tone - you're commanded to "never mind". Hindsight is damned as rife with uselessness, regret and death are blithely paired, the only thing that is fresh or lovely here is also stolen, something is stirring, but maybe failing to stir ... all of it sounds more than tinged with bitterness, and that is rough. That is, the dictionary meaning of "rough" as in harsh or, referencing the poem's title, not gentle. "Rough" can also mean preliminary, not finished in form. As the poem's first sentence unspools, containing within it fragments of other sentences, much is posited as the words tumble forth, but the final phrase "who can say?" leaves things unfinished, not concluded. Wending through that sentence, the reader comes to understand that "rough" and "gentle" can denote and connote so many types of qualities, forms of interaction and so on. The poem's closing sentence, covering two and one-half lines, is tender, decidedly gentle even as its wistfulness retains a hint of the poem's initial bitterness. In fact, this 16-line poem is only comprised of two sentences. Indeed, what the Griffin Poetry Prize judges zeroed in on first and foremost in their commentary on Phillips' work is displayed perfectly in this poem, as it runs the gamut from sardonic to transcendent. There is, by the way, an interesting echo of the poem's title in this description of part of Phillips' artistic process, where he reveals that he reads his work in progress aloud.
“I do read the poems aloud, yes — not while writing, as much, but in the revision stage. I want to test for where things are too rough, or aren’t rough enough, where they fall into patterns of sound and whether or not those are meaningful or distracting patterns.”
Whichever meaning or meanings of "rough" he's referring to, the poet is clearly conscious of the rough and the gentle as he crafts his poetry.

Shebutnoy (trans. Salmon-fisher)

Abigail Chabitnoy

copyright ©2019 Abigail Kerstetter

(Michael) Chabitnoy. Aleut.

Because they were “of the water.”
Because they were given Russian names.
He was born with hushed words.
Because his mother had a bad heart and his father was traumatized.
They took him from the sea.

Because he came to the school charitably, before.
Because there is only one photo, after.
They told the skeptics, yes, it can be done.

Because it could be done.
Because “Indian Marries White Girl.”
Because he died of consumption.
There are words I can’t say.

Because he was survived by two sons.
Because they were called half-breed.
Because that second son took to drink.
I’ve always been afraid of the sea.

Because it doesn’t mean salmon-fisher.
Because I need to know I can say these words.
Because it means “mischievous, energetic.”
Mischievous men (and women) fish for salmon energetically.

Because he was an orphan.
Because in summer, my skin turns redder than my father’s.
Because they asked my mother, Is she adopted?

Because I too am of the water.
Because I hear these words.
I will split my bones and fit my skin to the sea.
I will shape my mouth to angle these words with the wind.

Notes on the Poem

The hypnotic refrains of the poem "Shebutnoy" from Abigail Chabitnoy's 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection How to Dress a Fish lend a driving rhythm to the poet's excavation and scrutiny of her family's history. This poem dedicated to and showing dedication to her great-grandfather reveals equally what he endured and her unwavering determination to reveal it. The repeated chant of "Because" punctuates an almost blunt laying out of Chabitnoy's great-grandfather's life and what he went through in that comparatively short span. (He died of consumption at the age of 34, shortly after the poet's grandfather was born.) Simultaneously, that forceful itemization delineates how she takes his personal story and uses it as an entry point into a deeper examination of Native American identity and how it struggled to survive against generations and layer upon layer of oppressions. Chabitnoy offers detailed and heartfelt background on how she researched and pieced together Michael Chabitnoy's story in a February, 2020 interview with Jennifer Elise Foerster of Poetry Northwest. Of paramount importance was holding onto the essence of the story, amidst all of what had to be at times emotionally daunting work:
"The more research I did, the more questions I had, the more the narrative was complicated, the waters muddied. I’d never liked learning history in school—too many exercises in rote memorization, too many names, dates, and facts to be recited. But what I realized when I was free to learn history on my own was that history too is subjective, and what often gets lost in the curriculum is the story. I wanted to make these stories accessible outside of Kodiak, both for others who had been displaced, and to draw attention to the wider narrative of our national understanding of history and its flaws. There are so many historical narratives we hold as sacred and beyond questioning that we forget they’re just that—narratives, told from one perspective."
Connecting the research back to her poetic practice, she observes:
"I’m realizing that this research isn’t a short-term task to be completed. Like reading poetry, it is a space in which to dwell. My poetic practice can be described as one of accretion, of finding patterns. And it can be overwhelming at times, but I’ve found the trick is to just keep working, and to dwell, to be present, in the work, rather than let oneself look too far ahead at the “bigger picture.” I’m searching for the whole through the pieces."
The repetition of "Because" is a simple pattern. Movingly, that pattern makes way for a new one with the two occurrences of "I will" - the narrator, the poet, the great-grandchild, the descendant speaking with commitment of how she will take forward what she has researched and gleaned. This poem is but one example of an entire collection of steadfast poetic explorations of family, history and legacy. Those explorations take unique and haunting - visually and sonically - approaches to gathering and presenting what is found in the archives and assembling it in commemorative and memorable fashion.


Denise Riley

copyright ©Denise Riley, 2016

I’ve lived here dead for decades – now you
pitch up gaily among us shades, with your
freshly dead face all lit up, beaming – but
after my long years without you, don’t think
it will be easy. It’s we dead who should run
whispering at the heels of the living, yet you
you’d put the frighteners on me, ruining
the remains of your looks on bewailing me
not handling your own last days with spirit.
Next you’ll expect me to take you around
introducing some starry goners. So mother
do me proud and hold your white head high.
On earth you tried, try once again in Hades.

Notes on the Poem

Denise Riley deftly turns the tables on what we typically expect - if we expect anything - about where the dead go and what they expect after they've left this life. The poem "Orphic" from her 2017 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Say Something Back leaves us almost shocked, yet almost on the verge of chuckling, too. Riley's poem refers to the myth of Orpheus, a poet, musician and prophet in ancient Greek religion who purportedly made the journey to the underworld to retrieve his wife and managed to return. The narrator of "Orphic" is a long-dead (well, "for decades") occupant of Hades, both the god of death and the name of where the dead reside. Although he seems established in his residency there, the narrator is now clearly rattled by the arrival of someone newly deceased - and "So mother" reveals their relationship. In his review of Say Something Back, Dave Coates remarks that he is "drawn to moments where Riley allows herself to be boldly declarative, gothically dramatic, or more openly parabolic" - and "Orphic" fits those criteria perfectly. "don't think it will be easy" the narrator declares at his mother's arrival. "It's we dead who should run whispering at the heels of the living" and what follows is decidedly gothic and dramatic. Within the context of these reversed roles - the child preceding the parent, the long-dead feeling haunted by the newly deceased - the meaning of words like "shades", "remains", "spirit" and even "goners" take on skewed connotations. And all of this shifting of shape and meaning gives readers - even those who expect nothing at this juncture of life and death - pause.


Sarah Tolmie

copyright ©Sarah Tolmie 2018

In memoriam Tennyson said
Nine years of things about his friend
Who’d died. He brought him back by slow
Degrees, from sunsets, wind in the trees,

Gathering pieces painstakingly.
Tennyson, in his purity,
He never lied, never missed his line.
Grief became him metrically.

It made him blind. All he could see
Was Hallam’s absence: the whole world
A cancelled cheque, crumpled and furled,
Unspent inside his pocketbook.

There its yellowing edges curled
Until his friend crept out, imbued
Everything and made it new.
At second look, he saw it through

Lost eyes, and it was dearer far
Than it had been before. A borrowed
Death does that for you. Your own cannot.
We each will miss the lesson that

We’ve taught. Compassion is what we learn
From those who die and don’t return.
Grief gives us that hitch in the eye,
Catching on things as they pass by.

Notes on the Poem

In the 74th poem of the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection The Art of Dying, poet Sarah Tolmie examines a well-known and revered meditation on grief. In the process, she reconsiders it with simple and elucidating compassion. Tolmie casts her sights on "In Memoriam A.H.H." by Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Tennyson's poem struggles with his particular and acute grief at the sudden demise of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, who died of a brain hemorrhage at the age of 22. The work, comprised of 133 cantos in total, was completed in 1849, 16 years after Hallam's death. Read it and learn more about it here. A lament like this can overwhelm as you try to take it in fully, yet somehow Tolmie manages to encapsulate Tennyson's piercing and copious sorrow in six comparatively brief stanzas without giving it short shrift. She strikes notes of concern for poor, stricken Tennyson ... "It made him blind. All he could see Was Hallam’s absence: the whole world A cancelled cheque, crumpled and furled, Unspent inside his pocketbook." ... that are caring and motherly, consistent with the Griffin Poetry Prize judges' observation in their citation about the ways in which she establishes intimacy in her poems. That said, Tolmie is clear-eyed here, as she is throughout this collection that is faithful to the themes denoted and connoted by the book's title. In the Wikipedia article about Tennyson's poem, someone poses this question about the poem's form:
"In Memoriam" is written in four-line ABBA stanzas of iambic tetrameter, and such stanzas are now called In Memoriam Stanzas. Though not metrically unusual, given the length of the work, the metre creates a tonal effect that often divides readers – is it the natural sound of mourning and grief, or merely monotonous?
and Tolmie firmly takes on this very question with this stanza of her own: "Gathering pieces painstakingly. Tennyson, in his purity, He never lied, never missed his line. Grief became him metrically." By incorporating one of the iconic reflections on death with the overall charter of her collection, Tolmie offers up a wide range of tones, voices and approaches to the contemplation of mortality. While this one lends particular thematic heft to the exercise, the poet does not shy away from putting in perspective what it achieves from how it achieves it, and whether that gave the original poet or readers of the work suitable solace. At the same time, she doesn't sacrifice poignance or empathy in the process of providing a succinct but still sensitive assessment.

The Adorable Little Boy

Matthew Rohrer

copyright ©2004 by Verse Press

Today my ski boots disintegrated on my feet.
It is getting more difficult to play
the role of The Adorable Little Boy
now, and I will confirm what most of you
have suspected: I am ill,
I have the distinct sensation that my head
is donut-shaped. But don’t let that
stop me from wriggling my way
into your hearts, those of you
who are not empty blue suits.
I am still very aware, I am hyper-aware.
A beautiful ass makes me sneeze and cough!
But now I suspect you are looking for something
and here it is: Pliny described trees that speak.

Notes on the Poem

So striking is this poem from Matthew Rohrer's 2005 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection A Green Light that the judges singled it out in their citation of the work. To be precise, they singled out the character who stars in this eponymous poem, and whose presence is felt throughout the collection. Rohrer has adopted a persona in "The Adorable Little Boy" that, judged by that character's words, offered directly and with no overt editorial intervention, might or might not strike the reader as endearing or appealing. The Academy of American Poets explains the use of persona in poetry:
"A persona poem is a poem in which the poet speaks through an assumed voice. Also known as a dramatic monologue, this form shares many characteristics with a theatrical monologue: an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet takes on the voice of a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. Because a dramatic monologue is by definition one person’s speech, it is offered without overt analysis or commentary, placing emphasis on subjective qualities that are left to the audience to interpret."
The Academy of American Poets goes on to present some interesting examples. We've touched on the use of persona in other Poem of the Week selections, including "Microscopic Surgery" by David W. McFadden, "Homage to Pessoa" by Frederick Seidel, "67" by Sarah Tolmie and "He thinks I should be glad because they" by Aisha Sasha John. Taken a face value, then, we have before us an "Adorable Little Boy" with wrecked footwear, who is apparently tired of playing whatever this charming role is or was, and is now ready to drop the facade and admit sickness, cynicism and defeat. He wraps up his tenure in the role with some parting insults and insolence. Then he closes with the unexpectedly erudite "Pliny described trees that speak." Non sequitur or not, he still wants us to admire him, doesn't he?

from Baalbeck

Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan

copyright ©2019 by Etel Adnan / English translation © 2019 by Sarah Riggs


I am not going to sing.
A temple existed for real,
its stairs are solid

the gods, unwilling to
let go of it,
then decided to die …

leaving behind
although barbaric,
a sun that we loved.

In the sealed obscurity of the brain
plants grow,
and fish swim,
while we think we’re seeing
landscapes, and looking
at the sea.

we will not know if life is reversible
but written in the pain
a joy that hurts

even more,
as in the heart’s desertion
memory’s fingerprint.

Notes on the Poem

Just as we did last week, let's continue celebrating our freshly announced 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize winners by savouring another selection from Time, Sarah Rigg's translation of the poetry written in French by Etel Adnan. This is an excerpt from the section of the collection entitled "Baalbeck". What an odd, yet oddly compelling dynamic draws us into this poem. "I am not going to sing" is a refusal tinged with weariness, perhaps stubbornness, that bewilders. It's as if a celebration was in the offing, then abruptly cancelled. Astute reviewer Patrick James Dunagan fastens on that abrupt declaration, opening a poem entitled with the name of a city from the country of Adnan's childhood, Lebanon. In his review, Dunagan points out:
"At the opening line we are greeted with a first person speaker announcing “I am not going to sing” yet who at the close of the second section [not shown in this Poem of the Week selection] confesses “vibrations of Orpheus, | he, mirror of my soul.” A singer who won’t sing is nonetheless filled by song."
Similarly perplexing and contradictory, "the gods ... / danced, / then decided to die ..." What does this juxtaposition of energy and enervation signify? Even the lower case letters at the start of new sentences have an undercurrent of weariness. It's as if the narrator doesn't even have enough vigour to herald a new thought or observation with a capital letter. The "sealed obscurity of the brain" suggests that the engine for those new thoughts or observations is blocked and deprived of oxygen, anyhow - although, paradoxically, "plants grown / and fish swim" in its confines. The 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize judges offer this insight:
"What is astonishing here is how she manages to give weariness its own relentless energy. We are pulled quickly through this collection – each poem, only a breath, a small measure of the time that Adnan is counting."
With the "time that Adnan is counting", "we will not know if life is reversible" ... is that wry comfort or something else? It fascinates endlessly.

from alterity

Kaie Kellough

copyright ©2019 by Kaie Kellough

… a two-day bus ride to the northern border where the family crossed into Canada, suitcases in hand.”
CBC News, September 13, 2017

welcome turning selves in, selves traveling through space, turning being in to paper
flesh becomes white fiber for deliberation, legality in question, self a question mark
welcome signatures, boxes checked on forms welcome dossiers deconstructed
sequences of numbers queued up to be filed, sorted, detained, catalogued, welcome,
interrogated, archived, speculated upon in the news, counted, and either welcome,
accepted, rejected, re-counted, queued up again, filed into a different queue, chased,
fled, welcome, or stalked in limbo in borgesian bureacratic labyrinths, trash-talked
by pundits, welcome, whispered about in polite living rooms, opined on from the
middle class on down, welcome, debated in wood-paneled parliament encircled by
welcome, by words, invoked to stoke fear, vilified as terror, as other, welcome, now
tossing on narrow army cots chrome and canvas reality, minimal without aesthetic,
the furniture of state aid of newsflash

Notes on the Poem

Let's continue celebrating newly announced 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize winner Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough by immersing ourselves in another selection from the collection. This is an excerpt from the section of the book entitled "alterity". The poem excerpt's epigraph is taken from the news story "Haitian family fleeing Donald Trump's America tries to find footing in Montreal", as recounted by CBC News reporter Simon Nakonechny. The story traces the family's fraught arrival in Canada, their hopes to start a new life and what lies ahead in order to fulfill that dream. The flow of words in Kellough's poem seem to flood the spaces of that sparely told story on the CBC web site. While emotions well up in the account ... "There they were met by RCMP officers and detained. "I cried," Kiwanna says. "They said Dad was going to get arrested, and that made Mommy cry."" ... it is a news report and therefore presumably, theoretically dry and strictly factual. Some of the words from the news story do slide into the poem and take on new forms. In the poem, as one phrase hands off steadily to the next, individual words seem to subtly morph in meaning. There is a sense of slipping, slippage, slipperiness to how "welcome" loses its meaning and any sense of warmth or inclusiveness, and becomes lost in a bewildering sequence of bureaucratic mysteries and barriers ("borgesian bureacratic labyrinths" indeed), something threatening, a word rendered both meaningless and malevolent. In that relentless flow, human beings - selves - morph too, as "flesh becomes white fiber" in the dehumanizing process of being processed. From beginning to end, the poem excerpt comes full circle, from the news story reference to the dismissive "newsflash". The family's story and what they are going through or soon to be going through is reduced to something ephemeral and soon out of mind, even as the phrase "furniture of state aid" (where "furniture" connects uncomfortably with previous metntions of "polite living rooms" and "wood-paneled parliament") connotes something formidable, enduring, even if detrimental. Caught in the current of this poem excerpt, you are then reminded that it is part of an entire piece entitled "alterity", meaning the state of being other or different, otherness. With that in mind, the poem and the news story that sparks it are shown in stark relief ... and the words "as other" break from that current and glint with pointed ferocity.

Time by Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan and Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough Win the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize

TORONTO – Tuesday, May 19, 2020 – Time by Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan (Nightboat Books) and Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough (McClelland & Stewart) are the International and Canadian winners of the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize, each receiving C$65,000 in prize money. The other shortlist finalists will be awarded $10,000 each.

Continue readingTime by Sarah Riggs, translated from the French written by Etel Adnan and Magnetic Equator by Kaie Kellough Win the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize”

We Were Never Meant to Break Like This

Billy-Ray Belcourt

copyright ©2017 by Billy-Ray Belcourt

1. follow me out of the backdoor of the world.

2. how do you tell someone that they are helping you stay tuned into life?

3. what does it mean that her first breath was also her last?

4. i am so sad that i burrow into the absence of every boy who has held me.

5. i kiss him knowing that when i wake up i will be in a body differently.

6. the future is already over, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have anywhere else to go.

Notes on the Poem

The poem "We Were Never Meant to Break Like This" from Billy-Ray Belcourt's 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection This Wound is a World is presented as a numbered list. Does this structure guide the poem's readers ... or lead them, with intent, in some unexpected direction? Let's revisit this poem from a Griffin Poetry Prize winner while we await the news of two new Griffin Poetry Prize winners for 2020, to be announced May 19, 2020. As this consideration of the list poem form observes, "Lists are part of life ... used throughout the centuries to make an inventory of things." We assemble lists to classify or contain a set of items with common elements - or, perhaps, to hold together as a reminder disparate items that only have in common that they are on that list, such as groceries. A numbered list might suggest hierarchy or chronology, an arrangement of priorities or rankings, or a sequence of steps or instructions. What is Billy-Ray Belcourt doing with this modest numbered list? Does the title suggest what each entry has in common with the others? Do the numbers suggest that each entry happens in some order or sequence? #1 and #2 might be linked, but then #3 veers tragically, #4 remains in a depressed slough, #5 hints at a redemptive turn, #6 is pragmatic but oddly hopeful. In its use of the list poem form, "We Were Never Meant to Break Like This" also seems to lightly employ the rhetorical device expeditio, whereby numbers of alternatives are put forward but then narrowed down to just one. If the numbered list is a sequence or set of steps to be worked through, then #6 is the ultimate, the final, the arrived-at conclusion and solution. Interestingly, that final line item seems to strike a note of rueful optimism as it declares "the future is already over".