My mother was a white sheet drying on the line

Eve Joseph



MY MOTHER WAS A WHITE SHEET DRYING ON THE LINE. Wooden clothespins held her tight as she lifted and snapped and filled like a sail. At night, when she covered me, I inhaled lily of the valley, burning leaves, the starched collar of a nurse’s uniform and the stillness of a recently abandoned room. She taught me how to iron the creases out of a man’s shirt after all the men had disappeared. My mother played piano by ear in the basement. A long line of hungry people gathered outside to hear her play. They wanted news from home. Overhead, handkerchiefs fluttered in the breeze. Little telegrams sent but never delivered.

Notes on the Poem

While we await the announcement of the 2020 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist on April 7, 2020, let's explore again the intriguing emotional effects of another of the softly surreal prose poems from the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winning poetry collection Quarrels by Eve Joseph. Personification is a literary device that imbues a inanimate or non-human entities - objects, creatures, ideas or concepts - with human qualities. As this author's resource explains, using the device "connects readers with the object that is personified. Personification can make descriptions of non-human entities more vivid, or can help readers understand, sympathize with, or react emotionally to non-human characters." That's not the literary device Joseph is using in this poem, where the narrator's mother is depicted initially as a white bedsheet. Chremamorphism gives the attributes of an inanimate object to a person (and zoomorphism attributes animal qualities to a person). As Joseph's narrator's mother is "chremamorphed", what effect is the poet creating? If personification deepens sympathy or human connection, does chremamorphism achieve the opposite? In this case, is the mother being held at arm's length, made impersonal, unsympathetic? On the contrary, the bedsheet seems to be a formidable and enveloping force. When the mother becomes a person again midway through the poem, she continues to be a source of instruction, wonderment and solace. The narrator's mother is clearly extraordinary. The emotional effect of seeing her take different forms is both comforting and powerful.

Mimi

Gerald Stern

copyright ©Gerald Stern, 2002



I had to see La Bohème again just to
make sure for there was a little part of
me that kept the regret though when I tried
the argument again I used both hands
in order to explain and I was especially
sensitive to the landlord for I lived
both inside and outside even when I was angry
I paid my debts for I have listened to
and lived with grasshoppers and they bore me, but
Mimi, Mimi, when your hand dropped every
woman in my row was weeping and I
gave in too instead of gripping the armrest
or rubbing the back of my head; I loved it the most that
you lived inside and outside too, the snowdrop
was what you thought of, wasn’t it? You were
the one who came back, three times, it was your stubbornness,
your loyalty. One time I stood in the street
and watched a moon so thin the clouds went through it
as if there were no body, as if the cold
was so relentless nothing could live there, you with
the blackened cancle, you who stitched the lily.

Notes on the Poem

Gerald Stern is obviously fascinated with the opera La Bohème, especially the main character whose name forms the title of this poem from his 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection American Sonnets: Poems. It appears that fascination even predates the poem that appears in this collection ... and we also know that his abiding interest in this classic is shared by many others. Composed in the 1890's, Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème's libretto is based on Scènes de la vie de bohème by Henri Murger. The story takes place in Paris around 1830, depicting the Bohemian lifestyle of a poor seamstress named Mimi and the closest of her artist friends. The story is told in more detail, corresponding act by act to the operatic rendition, here. Stern weaves thematic and dramatic aspects of La Bohème into "Mimi", from: "I was especially sensitive to the landlord for I lived both inside and outside" to the touching: "Mimi, Mimi, when your hand dropped every woman in my row was weeping and I gave in too" Before American Sonnets: Poems was published in 2002, Stern had a previous poem with the same title published in the June, 1994 edition of Poetry magazine, which was subsequently included in his 1995 collection Odd Mercy. It's a wholly different poem from the "Mimi" found in American Sonnets: Poems and the 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize anthology, but it too ponders La Bohème, as it moves somewhat abruptly from contemplating grackles and other urban wildlife to: "I'm listening to La Bohème. It gives me a second history. My grandfather heard it in Poland. Puccini was more a hawk than a grackle; he hunted larks." ... and, like the 2002 "Mimi", the narrator pauses to consider her tragic death. Take some time to read both poems. Can you see other points of connection between them, apart from the specific references to the opera and the character of Mimi? Clearly, Stern wends up and down many ruminative paths inspired by La Bohème, and produces his own unique pieces of art inspired by it. The same is true of other artists working from the same source. Learn here how a small theatre troupe built on the story of Mimi and her friends, and then mounted this singular production: Go ahead, enjoy - you've got time to take this all in. The production was presented, by the way, at the Tranzac Club in Toronto's Annex neighbourhood, a venue that often hosts poetry readings and book launches. It's a place to which many Canadian poets are likely hoping to return when the world returns to a semblance of normal.

The Banal

Elaine Equi

copyright ©2007 Elaine Equi



Even with its shitload of artifacts, the everyday
is radiant, while the banal is opaque and often
obscure. I prefer the latter, with its murky
agate, mushroom, ochre background music –
its corridor of lurk. One hardly knows where
one stands with/in the banal. Walls come
together with hardly a seam. Wherever we are, we
feel we have always been. Poe, for all his special
effects, is rather banal in his approach to the
supernatural, i.e. overly familiar. Against the
inarticulate velvet of this mood, one grasps at
the everyday for relief. Thus any object can
bring us back with the fast-acting power of
aspirin. Any object shines.

Notes on the Poem

Not unlike our previous Poem of the Week, this week's poem, "The Banal" from Elaine Equi's 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Ripple Effect takes as its starting point the differences or perceived differences between two words that signify similar things. Equi's poem scrutinizes the words "everyday" and "banal". Let's quickly consult some dictionary definitions as we proceed. The Cambridge Dictionary defines "everyday" as "ordinary, typical, or usual" with synonyms such as "quotidian", "unremarkable" and "workaday". The same dictionary defines "banal" as "boring, ordinary, and not original" with synonyms such as "commonplace" and "trite". Both words share the sense of the ordinary. At a glance, however, "everyday" looks neutral or benign, with the worst said about it that it might describe or denote something as "unremarkable". By contrast, "banal" looks like the more derogatory term, as its definition and synonyms could be taken as dismissive and insulting. Equi's poem's narrator is perhaps being contrarian then, by expressing a preference for "banal" ... "with its murky agate, mushroom, ochre background music - its corridor of lurk. One hardly knows where one stands with/in the banal." Whatever your preference - if you even have one - it's interesting to see where this contemplation of the ordinary goes. Added to that is how a contemplation of the ordinary - its neutral presence, but maybe also its constancy and in a way, comfort - can change as circumstances change, personally and in the world. When circumstances change, especially dramatically, poetry that entertains, amuses, challenges or holds us in good stead might shift in meaning, but still ground us. Somehow, the words and forms of good poetry have both strength and flexibility that move with us and still have significance for us. At a time other than the present, a poem such as "The Banal" might resonate with our more personal and specific experiences. We might chuckle or be ruefully aware of a minor failing with a phrase like "shitload of artifacts", for example. When a broader calamity forces many more of us, or all of us, into the same circumstances - feeling fear, isolation, uncertainty - that same poem does not fail or abandon us. Phrases such as: "one grasps at the everyday for relief" scale to the scope of that new, even if perilous situation or condition. "Any object shines." is not just a commercial jingle purveying "fast-acting power". It simply and powerfully brings comfort. Equi not only manages this robustness in long established work on the page that we can return to again and again, but in the comparative ephemerality of contemporary social media. Her occasional poetry on Twitter captures strikingly what we are all feeling right now. Take a look and take a breath.

Announcement re: upcoming Griffin Poetry Prize dates

Poets, Publishers and Media,

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) continues to evolve and The Griffin Trust For Excellence In Poetry, following official guidance from the federal Public Health Agency of Canada, and Toronto Public Health, has decided to cancel the 2020 Shortlist Readings scheduled to take place on Monday, June 8, and the Awards Evening dinner on Tuesday, June 9.

Continue reading “Announcement re: upcoming Griffin Poetry Prize dates”

Kingdom Come

Rowan Ricardo Phillips

copyright ©2015 by Rowan Ricardo Phillips



Not knowing the difference between Heaven
And Paradise, he called them both Heaven.
So when he shrugged at the thought of a god
Blanched in the lights of implausible heights,
Thumbing the armrests of a throne, that was
Heaven. And when he stared out at the sea,
Feeling familiar to himself at last,
He called that Heaven, too. And nothing changed
About either Paradise or Heaven
For it: Paradise retained its earthen
Glamour; and Heaven, because it can’t stand
For anything on its own, like the color
Of rice or a bomb, was happy to play
Along, was happy just to be happy
For once, and not an excuse for mayhem.

Notes on the Poem

How wonderful that "Kingdom Come", a poem from Rowan Ricardo Phillips' 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Heaven considers the differences - if any - between Heaven and Paradise. This discussion of English language and usage boils it down to Paradise referring to a perfect earthly world, while Heaven is "where good people go when they die." Phillips hints at that same distinction with: "the thought of a god Blanched in the lights of implausible heights, Thumbing the armrests of a throne" versus "Paradise retained its earthen Glamour" However, several Bible study online resources point out that Luke 23:39-43 includes this exchange between Jesus and one of the thieves when they were hanging on the cross:
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Paradise could be where Jesus is and would be, because Jesus told the thief he was going to be there with him. It might also must be a place that those who have faith in the Lord will enter immediately upon death - which, by the previous discussion, would be Heaven. Or is it some middle terrain, such as what some refer to as purgatory? Phillips concludes wisely that however you want to see it, with whatever measure of religious or spiritual interpretations applied, we can take a cue from Heaven itself, which "was happy to play Along, was happy just to be happy For once, and not an excuse for mayhem." Maybe you've pondered this, maybe not ... but maybe it is a good and comforting thing to meditate upon, especially at times when neither Heaven nor Paradise seem to be in reach.

Citation for Raymond Antrobus’ The Perseverance

the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize judges



‘The truth is I’m not /a fist fighter,’ writes Raymond Antrobus, ‘I’m all heart, no technique.’ Readers who fall for this streetwise feint may miss out on the subtle technique – from the pantoum and sestina to dramatic monologue and erasure – of The Perseverance. But this literary debut is all heart, too. Heart plus technique. All delivered in a voice that resists over-simple categorization. As a poet of d/Deaf experience, his verse gestures toward a world beyond sound. As a Jamaican/British poet, he deconstructs the racialized empire of signs from within. Perhaps that slash between verses and signs is where the truth is.

Notes on the Poem

If you've followed the Griffin Poetry Prize Poem of the Week feature for any amount of time (this is week 422 in our uninterrupted presentation of work from or associated with the prize's shortlists), we regularly take as our cue the observations of our judges about the collections from which these poems came. These citations are thoughtful, well-crafted tributes that are regularly creative and poetic mini works unto themselves. The citation for Raymond Antrobus' 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection The Perseverance opens with a brief, memorable quotation from the poem "After Being Called a Fucking Foreigner in London Fields". From that quotation, the citation plays off its fighting metaphor with the phrase "streetwise feint". It then segues to a counter-argument to the poem's claim that the narrator (and by extension Antrobus) has "no technique" and praises his indeed subtle and formidable technique. It considers, as well, the immensity of the heart in this collection. A small but significant element in the citation's opening is the use of the slash (/) to delineate the line breaks in the layout of the poem from which the excerpt is taken. In this first of three uses of the slash in this citation, it is used to separate, a convention that is explained here. Interestingly, this same slight symbol is used for the exact opposite purpose - to bring together - in the following two instances. The slash is used again in the adjective "d/Deaf", which we confirmed is pronounced "deaf" when we prepared the audio version of this citation: The adjective "deaf" (with a lower-case "d") is a medical term referring to people who have little or no functional hearing. The adjective "Deaf" (with a capital "D") is, as explained by the Canadian Association of the Deaf, "a sociological term referring to those individuals who are medically deaf or hard of hearing who identify with and participate in the culture, society, and language of Deaf people, which is based on Sign language." The slash draws both worlds together with the same subtlety with which the citation praises Antrobus' stirring work. The slash appears again in "Jamaican/British", describing other worlds and cultures the poet has navigated and reflected and reflected on in his work. In this and the previous instance, the slash is a unifying element. The citation wraps that up magnificently as it concludes: "Perhaps that slash between verses and signs is where the truth is." The following are other selected judges' citations that present Griffin Poetry Prize winning and shortlisted works in particularly beautiful and at times provocative fashion.
  • Men in the Off Hours by Anne Carson Griffin Poetry Prize 2001 - Canadian Winner (Judges: Carolyn Forche, Dennis Lee, Paul Muldoon)
  • Born to Slow Horses by Kamau Brathwaite Griffin Poetry Prize 2006 - International Winner (Judges: Lavinia Greenlaw, Lisa Robertson, Eliot Weinberger)
  • Methodist Hatchet by Ken Babstock Griffin Poetry Prize 2012 - Canadian Winner (Judges: Heather McHugh, David O'Meara, Fiona Sampson)
  • Ocean by Sue Goyette Griffin Poetry Prize 2014 - Canadian Shortlist (Judges: Robert Bringhurst, Jo Shapcott, CD Wright)
  • Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings by Joy Harjo Griffin Poetry Prize 2016 - International Shortlist (Judges: Alice Oswald, Tracy K Smith, Adam Sol)
You can find citations for all works associated with the Griffin Poetry Prize shortlists on the pages showcasing the works and poets.

Beagles

Paul Muldoon

copyright ©Paul Muldoon, 2002



That Boxing Day morning, I would hear the familiar, far-off gowls and
                    gulders

over Keenaghan and Aughanlig
of a pack of beagles, old dogs disinclined to chase a car suddenly quite
                    unlike

themselves, pups coming helter-skelter
across the plowlands with all the chutzpah of veterans
of the trenches, their slate-grays, cinnamons, liver-browns, lemons, rusts,
                    and violets

turning and twisting, unseen, across the fields,
their gowls and gulders turning and twisting after the twists and turns
of the great hare who had just now sauntered into the yard where I stodd
                    on tiptoe

astride my new Raleigh cycle,
his demeanor somewhat louche, somewhat lackadaisical
under the circumstances, what with him standing on tiptoe
as if to mimic me, standing almost as tall as I, looking as if he might for a
                    moment put
himself in my place, thinking better of it, sloping off behind the lorry bed.

Notes on the Poem

You're left smiling at the end (every time, because you're sure to reread it) of Paul Muldoon's poem "Beagles", from his 2003 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Moy sand and gravel. What elements combine to make this poem so pleasing? For starters, how about the mouthfuls of chewy, delicious words, wonderful to speak aloud and relish, even if you don't know but can imagine their meanings? There's "helter-skelter", there's "chutzpah" ... there are our favourites, "gowls and gulders". They all lend a pell-mell sense to the opening of the poem, capturing the surprisingly uncharacteristic activity of the titular beasts "suddenly quite unlike themselves." Then, there's the contrast of that tumble of motion, cacophony and even colour ... "their slate-grays, cinnamons, liver-browns, lemons, rusts,                     and violets" brought up against the stillness of the sauntering great hare. It brings you up short in glorious, comic, skidding fashion, as if you've just put the brakes on your "new Raleigh cycle". And then there's a moment or two to just sink into that stillness, a stillness that, in a somewhat different but relevant context, actor Ben Kingsley explained in a 2018 interview:
"[Stillness is] a vital part of my currency as an actor. I liken it to grace notes in music. In the course of a performance, it may be in that moment of stillness that the viewer gets a view into whatever process is going on inside the character," he said. "I think those spaces in movies are precious. They invite the audience to come in and rest in the space created by it, to appreciate the story being told.""
From there, the touch of comic anthropomorphism that ping-pongs between the hare and the youthful narrator is a final grand touch ... and then you smile, go back, and read it all again.

Winter’s Smile / DAY NINETEEN

Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon

copyright ©Copyright © 2016 by Kim Hyesoon Copyright © 2018 by Don Mee Choi



It’s cold, for you’ve come out from a warm body
It’s bright, for you’ve come out from a dark body
It’s lonely, for you’ve lost your shadow

Icy, like soil dug out from a flower pot
Sunny, like the sunlight fish stare at beneath the sheet of ice
Hot, like when lips touch a frozen door knob
Cold again, a bulb-like heart is half frozen

Cold again, as if zero is divided by zero
                  a glass divided by glass

It’s alright, alright
for you’re already dead

The place where you’ve shed yourself, the cold arrived, drained of all the
        red from your body

Notes on the Poem

Starting from the title, the poem "Winter's Smile" sends a chill through the reader. Where does it go from there in this beautiful but unsettling selection from the 2019 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Autobiography of Death by Don Mee Choi, translated from the Korean written by Kim Hyesoon? Part of a sequence of forty-nine related poems in this collection, "Winter's Smile" makes striking use of the literary device of antithesis, where words, phrases or sentences with contrasting meanings are placed in close proximity to one another to usually powerful effect. According to this definition "an antithesis plays on the complementary property of opposites to create one vivid picture ... to create a balance between opposite qualities and lend a greater insight into the subject." Even if the subject does not seem specific as we advance through this poem, the almost shocking juxtapositions make a strong and pervasive impression. But while "icy" / "sunny" and "hot" / "cold" are clearly opposites, nothing feels balanced. Everything seems unremittingly bleak, harsh and abruptly terminal. For example, the "sunny" of "the sunlight fish stare at beneath the sheet of ice" is harrowingly confining. And then we're brought up short by: "Cold again, as if zero is divided by zero" The possibilities of meaning of zero divided by zero are dizzyingly bewildering. Depending how you want to parse it, it can mean no value and every value, it can mean infinity ... Is this suggesting that the terrifying states captured here could be interminable, unceasing? In the series of poems of which "Winter's Smile" is part, each poem represents a single day during which the spirit roams after death before it enters the cycle of reincarnation. At the point reached in this poem, is the spirit somewhere in limbo between these contrasting conditions and places? Is this neutral? Is it purgatory? At this stage, is there a sense of hopelessness or maybe a sense of emerging freedom, however harsh and uncharted?

from Strange Birds; Twitching Birds

Sylvia Legris

copyright ©Sylvia Legris, 2005



5

Unshakable birds! (Being followed? Being watched?) Run run but never escape the flutter of wings in your chest.

Demon-faced birds stare daggers from building ledges and at every corner you turn (every corner you turn!) … Twitching birds (nit-crawling catastrophe carriers), Tourettic birds (odious-odious-odious), birds skulking in turrets (Stone-Feathered Gargoyles, your cries for help

just so much sputtering).

Featherless. Hopeless! Overwhelmed with bird urges and the compulsion to tic the compulsion to tic the compulsion …

Are you dreaming? Are you sleeping? (Dormez-vous? Dormez-cheep-cheep …)

Notes on the Poem

In a previous Poem of the Week examination, we have marveled at the methods Sylvia Legris uses to pack so much meaning and intensity into her poems. We are now pondering another section from the poem "Strange Birds; Twitching Birds" from Legris' 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection Nerve Squall ... and are marveling anew. In just a few crisp, jittery lines, Legris captures with unsettling accuracy the mental and physical symptoms and manifestations of anxiety. "Run run but never escape the flutter of wings in your chest." captures precisely feelings of nervousness, restlessness and/or tension, doesn't it? "(Being followed? Being watched?)" is equally spot on at conveying a sense of impending danger, panic or doom. The poem's staccato repetitions mimic, if not induce, an increased heart rate and rapid breathing. Having trouble sleeping? The poem touches on that, too: "Are you dreaming? Are you sleeping? (Dormez-vous? Dormez-cheep-cheep ...)" So, can we possibly enjoy absorbing a poem that can make us feel so authentically, almost viscerally uncomfortable? (In fact, could such a poem be distressing to the point of being triggering?) As one Goodreads contributor comments on Nerve Squall: "I'm getting a headache. I think that's the point."

from Hawk

Kamau Brathwaite

copyright ©2005 by Kamau Brathwaite



I was standin on the steps of City Hall … in all that dust

and I knew that Terry [her husband the Captain of Rescue 11] wd have been

on one of the highest floors that he cd get to … in that building

for that’s what his Company does … and when I saw the building come down
I knew that he had no chance

Sometimes I start to worry that he was afraid … but … knowing him
I think he was completely focussed on the job at hand … sometimes it makes me angry

[she gives here a little laugh of pain]

but I don’t think that he

I think in the back of his mind … he was more concerned about where
I was? and the fact that I was far-enough-away … from the trouble?
But I don’t think that he considered … his not-coming-home

and sometimes that makes me angry … S’almost as if he didn’t choose me …?
But I can’t fault him for that he was doin his job … That’s who he was
and why I loved him so much

So I can’t blame him for that

His friend Tim told me he saw Terry going in and Terry said to him
We may not be seeing each other again
and kissed him on the cheek … and ran … upstairs [into the North Tower]

Notes on the Poem

Upon the very sad news of the passing of revered poet and academic Kamau Brathwaite, we turn again to some of the powerful poetry from his 2006 Griffin Poetry Prize collection Born to Slow Horses. In 2005, Kamau Brathwaite took subject matter that was still too fresh a wound for many to look at, and made that subject intimate and accessible without diminishing its fearsome power. In "Hawk" , he gazed unflinchingly at what the Griffin judges called "what may well be the first enduring poem on the disaster of 9/11." How he achieved that intimacy was in part by transcribing the voices of witnesses and survivors. How he made those transcriptions truly riveting was in part by employing a singular type treatment that makes the words, heartwrenching as they are on their own, even more startling. In this collection and previous works, Brathwaite has worked with a typeface of his own devising called "Sycorax Video Style" (which he explains in some detail here). Note the difference between the first stanza (rendered with the alignment of the original, but the default typeface of this web site) and the second (an image scanned from the book). The unique typeface seems to jump off the screen or page ... like a ragged shout of anguish. As the Griffin judges also noted: "Brathwaite’s world even has its own orthography and typography, demanding total attention to the poem, forbidding casual glances." He has indeed achieved that here. View some more examples of the unique melding of Brathwaite's words and type here.