On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,
a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed
many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,
were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,
a longing without end, fills them all:
first name in search of family name, date of death seeks
dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate
name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found
one another, they will not find a perfect rest.
Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”
But now the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness
by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,
photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor
in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,
one again: fragment to fragment,
like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,
a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.
Notes on the Poem
Yehuda Amichai takes us on an eye-opening journey by starting with a simple but potent object. As translated with care and respect by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, that object is given profound, talismanic meaning. From that broad sweep, it is then brought back to an intimate and resonant place among like objects. It's a powerful experience produced by a brief but unforgettable poem, well worth a revisit after it was previously featured as Poem of the Week.
We see the object first on Amichai's / the narrator's desk. We are swiftly assured that this is no mundane paperweight, although it is a tangible reminder of immense, weighty and tragic forces. The object is one piece of many that have been cruelly scattered.
The inventory of yearning that proceeds from that scattering is heart wrenching. Each broken connection, from
"first name in search of family name"
"date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace"
is a depiction of physical fragments tossed asunder as well as the vast devastation of many human lives torn apart.
At the mid-point of the poem, there is an echo of the serenity with which the poem commenced:
"Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”"
... and then ...
"the fragments are gathered up in lovingkindness
by a sad good man"
Amichai/Bloch/Kronfeld brings us full circle back to a type of peace and hope, by beautifully, subtly and simply bringing an object to life and imbuing it with both gravitas and the warmth of a collective human experience that is first tragic, and then transcendent. As the scattered fragments are reunited and restored, the phrase "Child's play" seems seems to be a gentle but telling rebuke, as if bringing things back together could ever really be that simple.
Everything becomes small
only the ocean makes the night’s leather clothes
open up the further out it spreads.
to the right is Tianjin
to the left is Beijing
two clusters of moths flinging themselves at fire.
Then the East China Sea suddenly moves
the wind brings silver bits that can’t be more shattered
and many thick wrinkles whip up
I see the face of the ocean
I see the aged seashore
trembling and hugging the world too tightly.
I have seen death
but never seen death come back to life like that.
Notes on the Poem
In "Seeing the Ocean from a Night Flight", Eleanor Goodman, translating from an original poem in Chinese by Wang Xiaoni, encapsulates an experience that many have had but few know how to express so beautifully. This poem, from the 2015 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Something Crosses My Mind, grows more haunting with every reading.
The poem depicts the breathtaking, somewhat bewildering and even unnerving feelings of an air traveller. Whether one is travelling by airplane for the first or the gazillionth (sigh) time, the miracle of air flight and what it presents for the traveller to see, take in and process is always fresh. It never becomes mundane that suddenly, knowing you're inexplicably far above the immensity of the world
"Everything becomes small"
... does it?
From this truly elevated place of dislocation, one's thoughts can roam in fascinating ways. The poem's closing couplet captures that in startling and sublime fashion.
I don’t want to see the city through
myself anymore. I imagine an open body
stuck with pins and flags ready
for labelling. The city is a city of constant
sidewalk repairs and household renovations.
If I could lay my hands on the interior walls
I would know enough to miss myself.
The city is a city of streets named
after saints and explorers. On the dock
I am cold. I imagine myself
at an art gallery looking at installations
and not pretending there can be
any sort of understanding.
But somewhere the water
may meet the unseen shore
and someone like you believes
it happens. There
is a line where they touch.
I would like to speak
to that line and have it speak
to me in return.
Notes on the Poem
The poems of The Certainty Dream by Kate Hall all have that clear-eyed, precise and utterly wacky conviction about what is right according to the opaque, hilarious and sometimes terrifying logic of dreams. This conviction, which could be the certainty of the collection’s title, permeates almost every poem in this collection, and “Dream in Which I Am Separated from Myself” is no exception. This poem from Hall's 2010 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book is definitely worth another visit.
“I don’t want to see the city through
You could interpret the opening line of this poem in a pretty straightforward fashion: the speaker doesn’t want to experience the city through her own senses and perceptions, but maybe through someone else’s. But wait. Maybe the speaker’s body had become transparent, and the city was literally visible through it … and somehow, this is making perfect sense in the context of a dream, which often juxtaposes the mundane with the bizarre, but treats the bizarre as the mundane. Then this follows:
“I imagine an open body
stuck with pins and flags ready
That line between the water and the “unseen shore” can mean the separation, or the bringing together, of many things. Sometimes, it’s only in a dream that the connection is made, and you get to speak to and understand that line. Kate Hall captures here and throughout The Certainty Dream the truths that are driven home to us through the whimsy and sudden clarity of the dream state.
So I will recount facts as best as I can, given limited resources and understanding.
Before Minnesota was a state, the Minnesota region, generally speaking, was the traditional homeland for Dakota, Anishnaabeg and Ho-Chunk people.
During the 1800s, when the US expanded territory, they “purchased” land from the Dakota people as well as the other tribes.
But another way to understand that sort of “purchase” is: Dakota leaders ceded land to the US government in exchange for money and goods, but most importantly, the safety of their people.
Some say that Dakota leaders did not understand the terms they were entering, or they never would have agreed.
Even others call the entire negotiation, “trickery.”
But to make whatever-it-was official and binding, the US government drew up an initial treaty.
This treaty was later replaced by another (more convenient) treaty, and then another.
I’ve had difficulty unraveling the terms of these treaties, given the legal speak and congressional language.
As treaties were abrogated (broken) and new treaties were drafted, one after another, the new treaties often referenced old defunct treaties and it is a muddy, switchback trail to follow.
Although I often feel lost on this trail, I know I am not alone.
However, as best as I can put the facts together, in 1851, Dakota territory was contained to a twelve-mile by one-hundred-fifty-mile long strip along the Minnesota River.
But just seven years later, in 1858, the northern portion was ceded (taken) and the southern portion was (conveniently) allotted, which reduced Dakota land to a stark ten-mile tract.
These amended and broken treaties are often referred to as the Minnesota Treaties.
The word Minnesota comes from mni which means water; sota which means turbid.
Synonyms for turbid include muddy, unclear, cloudy, confused and smoky.
Everything is in the language we use.
For example, a treaty is, essentially, a contract between two sovereign nations.
The US treaties with the Dakota Nation were legal contracts that promised money.
It could be said, this money was payment for the land the Dakota ceded; for living within assigned boundaries (a reservation); and for relinquishing rights to their vast hunting territory which, in turn, made Dakota people dependent on other means to survive: money.
The previous sentence is circular, which is akin to so many aspects of history.
As you may have guessed by now, the money promised in the turbid treaties did not make it into the hands of Dakota people.
In addition, local government traders would not offer credit to “Indians” to purchase food or goods.
Without money, store credit or rights to hunt beyond their ten-mile tract of land, Dakota people began to starve.
The Dakota people were starving.
The Dakota people starved.
In the preceding sentence, the word “starved” does not need italics for emphasis.
One should read, “The Dakota people starved,” as a straightforward and plainly stated fact.
As a result—and without other options but to continue to starve—Dakota people retaliated.
Dakota warriors organized, struck out and killed settlers and traders.
This revolt is called the Sioux Uprising.
Eventually, the US Cavalry came to Mnisota to confront the Uprising.
More than one thousand Dakota people were sent to prison.
As already mentioned, thirty-eight Dakota men were subsequently hanged.
After the hanging, those one thousand Dakota prisoners were released.
However, as further consequence, what remained of Dakota territory in Mnisota was dissolved (stolen).
The Dakota people had no land to return to.
This means they were exiled.
Homeless, the Dakota people of Mnisota were relocated (forced) onto reservations in South Dakota and Nebraska.
Now, every year, a group called the The Dakota 38 + 2 Riders conduct a memorial horse ride from Lower Brule, South Dakota to Mankato, Mnisota.
The Memorial Riders travel 325 miles on horseback for eighteen days, sometimes through sub-zero blizzards.
They conclude their journey on December 26th, the day of the hanging.
Memorials help focus our memory on particular people or events.
Often, memorials come in the forms of plaques, statues or gravestones.
The memorial for the Dakota 38 is not an object inscribed with words, but an act.
Yet, I started this piece because I was interested in writing about grasses.
So, there is one other event to include, although it’s not in chronological order and we must backtrack a little.
When the Dakota people were starving, as you may remember, government traders would not extend store credit to “Indians.”
One trader named Andrew Myrick is famous for his refusal to provide credit to Dakotas by saying, “If they are hungry, let them eat grass.”
There are variations of Myrick’s words, but they are all something to that effect.
When settlers and traders were killed during the Sioux Uprising, one of the first to be executed by the Dakota was Andrew Myrick.
When Myrick’s body was found,
his mouth was stuffed with grass.
I am inclined to call this act by the Dakota warriors a poem.
There’s irony in their poem.
There was no text.
“Real” poems do not “really” require words.
I have italicized the previous sentence to indicate inner dialogue; a revealing moment.
But, on second thought, the particular words “Let them eat grass,” click the gears of the poem into place.
So, we could also say, language and word choice are crucial to the poem’s work.
Things are circling back again.
Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.
And let the body
From the platform.
to the grasses.
Notes on the Poem
Layli Long Soldier's "38" from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Whereas is a potent centerpiece of, as the prize judges express it in their citation, "an intricate and urgent counter-history, a work of elegy, outrage and profound generosity", striving for interconnection in the present while grappling with the past. We are privileged to be able to see and hear Long Soldier present this complex work with startling and edifying clarity.
Long Soldier's presentation of "38", which was part of the 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist readings at Toronto's Koerner Hall on June 6, 2018, could be construed as commencing almost apologetically. She seems to caution:
"Keep in mind, I am not a historian."
From this ostensibly modest start, the poem and how she performs it build to a firm, resolute force for truth that stuns with its final, striking words. In the poem's closing crescendo, Long Soldier deftly deconstructs the very use of words to convey her message:
"“Real” poems do not “really” require words."
Long Soldier simultaneously reinforces her message, bolsters her poetic platform, yet also shines spotlights on the images - the grasses, the swinging bodies - that resonate long after the words have stopped reverberating.
How the poem's subtle, cumulative power and wisdom mount with each line - whether read quietly and with reverence, or taken in via Long Soldier's measured yet fierce delivery - is pure and palpable.
I live in a room named East
on the map of the West at the edge
near the door cedars and alders
mix and tower,
full of ravens first thing each morning,
whose song is
we quarrelled so
over the genius
of the heart whose voice is capable
they come on horseback
in the middle of the night,
two of them, with a horse for me,
and we ride, bareback
clinging to the white manes,
at the edge of the sea-splash,
to divine the hidden and forgotten source,
who is transparent
where the moon drops out of the fog
to bathe, but not to us
the retied heart
where the wind glitters
for Ellen Tallman
Notes on the Poem
Robin Blaser's "Suddenly," from his 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize winning collection The Holy Forest, fascinates in myriad ways and on many levels. Deceptively simple and arresting is how he wields word and line spacing to guide the reader and create haunting, subliminal effects. We think this previous Poem of the Week is worth a revisit.
We've remarked before how spacing in a poem's layout on the page (or screen, where the poem's print form can be rendered accurately) influences how a reader experiences a poem. This excerpt from C.D. Wright's Rising, Falling, Hovering is a great example. The images in Blaser's poem are already vivid, strung together with dream-like logic, and this is further emphasized by both spacing and punctuation, which even achieves intriguing and unexpectedly dramatic impact in the poem's title.
Jed Rasula, Professor of English at the University of Georgia, observes how beautifully Blaser arranges spacing in his poems:
"The poet's sensitivity to the tenuous grasp of words, reflected in the awesome grip of the hidden and "bitten" heart, is accentuated by the poem's spacing. The words are semantically informative, yet blank spaces are deployed where punctuation might customarily serve. Blaser's meticulous attention to spatial detail reinforces the rhythmic allure of the images. The pages of Image-nations 1–12 [also found in The Holy Forest] are choreographies, imprints of movement that return the emotions to their transitive order in motion."
My right hand is Nessie’s head,
her neck my dripping arm. How old
is the dinosaur? Forty
or fifty million years. Can the dinosaur sing? No,
too old; but likes to be soothed
by others singing.
I open her thumb-
at least to let her speak
in her quavery Triassic,
‘Take me to your leader!’
—to which you instantly, I haven’t got any leader.
What, meanwhile, are my own terms?
Suspicious argot I used to spy on.
Strange, that we dwell so much
sometimes, on self and such,
that we can spend an age without
a clear view out:
when, if I asked the mirror once
in the way of an old queen,
to frame how things might look
twenty or thirty visits thence,
all it reflected back was white
and unrefracted light, the mean
prophetics of a closed book.
Notes on the Poem
Scottish poet and editor Mick Imlah passed away at age 53 in January 2009. The following spring, his last poetry collection, The Lost Leader, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. "Iona" comes from that collection.
The poem excerpt captures a sweet exchange between gently doting parent and spritely, spirited child. The little game in which they're engaged ...
"My right hand is Nessie's head,
her neck my dripping arm"
evokes the Loch Ness monster, one of the many legends of Scotland referenced throughout the collection.
The child charmingly upends the game with her feisty reply:
"I haven't got any leader."
It's a comment that reinforces a recurring theme in the collection, as observed by the Griffin Poetry Prize judges:
"Haunted by forgotten figures, lost guides, the divided, leaderless, often feckless characters in Imlah’s poems have to make their own way, now that ‘the fire of belonging was out’."
Before the reader can even consider that the child has spoken unwittingly prescient words, Imlah swiftly answers with almost chilling awareness in the last stanza of this excerpt. A mirror reflecting back "white and unrefracted light" is an almost shocking image, especially on the heels of a scene of cozy domesticity. It's redeemed and vanquished, however, because holding Imlah's collection (or the Griffin Poetry Prize anthology that houses this and other selections from his work), the reader is amply reassured that he was determined to leave a powerful antidote to "the mean / prophetics of a closed book."
body parts, stories abound. So can you really blame
my neighbor for how, heading into the operation,
he wrote across his good knee NOT THIS KNEE?
The death of me: I’m never half so bold. You will feel, the doctor said, my hand and cold –
and I thought of the pub quiz question: which three
countries are entirely inside of other countries?
I bought the bound ONE THOUSAND NAMES
FOR BABY, made two lists: one if she’s born breathing,
one if not. The second list was longer. So much
that I might call her, if she were never to bear
the name, never turn to it, suffer shaming, mull its
range and implications, blame it, change it, move
away to San Marino, Vatican City, Lesotho.
Notes on the Poem
Natalie Shapero's "My Hand and Cold", from her 2018 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted collection Hard Child, keeps the reader feeling off kilter, even apprehensive, over the course of seven brief stanzas. Let's examine how she does it ... and why.
Shapero achieves much of the suspenseful sense of the poem by upending and fracturing expected sentence structures. She starts in right away.
the unnerving opening sentence amps up the alarm by throwing up frightening imagery - surgeons, knives, erroneous body parts, no less - right off the bat. Starting the sentence more conventionally, with the phrase "stories abound", would have softened or delayed that shocking effect. Clearly, that was not the intent.
We're so intrigued with parsing what the doctor says - which explains, but not entirely, the poem's title - that we're again out of sorts, a bit distracted. We're not necessarily paying attention to or wondering why the poem's narrator is having this interaction with the doctor. It starts to dawn on us when she asks the cryptic question (why is she thinking about a pub quiz at a time like this?)
countries are entirely inside of other countries?"
... and then is driven home, with a new intensity of shock, when the narrator posits her two lists and ponders one longer than the other. Has she been trying to distract us ... or herself?
Anne Carson continues to redefine what a book of poetry can be; this ambitious collection ranges from quatrains studded with uncanny images (‘Here lies the refugee breather/who drank a bowl of elsewhere’) to musing verse essays, personal laments, rigorous classical scholarship, and meditations on artists’ lives, caught in the carnage of history. All are burnished by Carson’s dialectical imagination, and her quizzical, stricken moral sense.
Notes on the Poem
We've noted before that when we consider each Poem of the Week, we often take as our cue the observations of our judges, beautifully encapsulated in the citations that accompany each shortlist announcement. We've also remarked on how those citations are often poetic works unto themselves, as they pay tribute to shortlisted works.
We marveled at how 2012 Griffin Poetry Prize judge Heather McHugh riffs on Ken Babstock's words and stylistic flourishes in Methodist Hatchet to offer her assessment and praise. very different in approach and style, but equally reverent of the work and celebratory of the poet's accomplishments, is Carolyn Forché's citation for Anne Carson's Men in the Off Hours, which won the inaugural Canadian Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001.
Forché's awe is conveyed in precise, succinct language, with a striking example of Carson's work as the citation's almost literal centrepiece. The concluding sentence is unforgettably resonant, with the elegant phrase "her quizzical, stricken moral sense" reverberating like the crisp peal of a bell.
This citation speaks tantalizing volumes about the work in just a few well-chosen words and sentences.
All me have just been milked. Teats all tingling still
from that dry toothless sucking by the chilly mouths
that gasp loudly in in in, and never breathe out.
All me standing on feed, move the feed inside me.
One me smells of needing the bull, that heavy urgent me,
the back-climber, who leaves me humped, straining, but light
and peaceful again, with crystalline moving inside me.
Standing on wet rock, being milked, assuages the calf-sorrow in me.
Now the me who needs mounts on me, hopping, to signal the bull.
The tractor comes trotting in its grumble; the heifer human
bounces on top of it, and cud comes with the tractor,
big rolls of tight dry feed: lucerne, clovers, buttercup, grass,
that’s been bitten but never swallowed, yet is cud.
She walks up over the tractor and down it comes, roll on roll
and all me following, eating it, and dropping the good pats.
The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals.
Me, facing every way, spreading out over feed.
One me is still in the yard, the place skinned of feed.
Me, old and sore-boned, little milk in that me now,
licks at the wood. The oldest bull human is coming.
Me in the peed yard. A stick goes out from the human
and cracks, like the whip. Me shivers and falls down
with the terrible, the blood of me, coming out behind an ear.
Me, that other me, down and dreaming in the bare yard.
All me come running. It’s like the Hot Part of the sky
that’s hard to look at, this that now happens behind wood
in the raw yard. A shining leaf, like off the bitter gum tree
is with the human. It works in the neck of me
and the terrible floods out, swamped and frothy. All me make the Roar,
some leaping stiff-kneed, trying to horn that worst horror.
The wolf-at-the-calves is the bull human. Horn the bull human!
But the dog and the heifer human drive away all me.
Looking back, the glistening leaf is still moving.
All of dry old me is crumpled, like the hills of feed,
and a slick me like a huge calf is coming out of me.
The carrion-stinking dog, who is calf of human and wolf,
is chasing and eating little blood things the humans scatter,
and all me run away, over smells, toward the sky.
"The signature quality of a Les Murray poem is anger — a visceral smoldering that freshly lights up the tired old landscape and turns conventional pieties inside out."
It's not there at the outset, but that anger does emerge partway through this poem:
"The heifer human smells of needing the bull human
and is angry. All me look nervously at her
as she chases the dog me dream of horning dead: our enemy
of the light loose tongue. Me’d jam him in his squeals."
"The Cows on Killing Day" an extremely harrowing poem to read, even more so to reread. But it's worth it, as Murray takes a horrifying subject and somehow resolves it in transcendent fashion. Therapy for the poet becomes good, if harsh, medicine for the reader. Do you agree?
Before I was sent to Little Sir Echo I had an imaginary friend who lived in our Buffalo mailbox. His name was Mr. Bickle. When we moved to Cambridge he vanished as transitional objects tend to do although his name lives on as a family anecdote.
Strange that one half-suffocated picnic in the course of life can disappear into Lake Armington’s hanging rock echo portals. Until the replication of love prevails in art and Periscope – one of Paul Thek’s late “picture-light” paintings, bubbles up from puddle blue depths
So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden. Lilting betwixt and between. Between what? Oh everything. Take your microphone. Cross your voice with the ocean.
I’m here, I’m still American
Notes on the Poem
Susan Howe is the winner of the 2018 International Griffin Poetry Prize, for her singular and intriguing poetry collection Debths. Let's celebrate this milestone in her distinguished career by revisiting our Poem of the Week look at "Epistolary Correspondences".
"Epistolary Correspondences" picks up from the very beginning of the Foreword section, where Howe reminisces, but in somewhat pointed fashion, about the summer camp her parents sent her to when seh was eight. "I hated the place." In one visit where she had a solemn picnic with her parents, "I begged them to ransom me" ... but they departed at the end of the day and left her at the camp.
Clearly, that incident still haunts her, not only raising the spectre of Mr. Bickle (although surely we think fondly about childhood imaginary friends, he's rather coldly referred to as a "transitional object") but earning the troubling adjective "half-suffocated" and other haunting analogies for that unfortunate picnic.
The leap from there to the paintings of Paul Threk - here is a gallery of them to capture the mood - is fascinating. Did Threk's images somehow disinter the unhappy summer camp and perceived parental insensitivity?
"So many things happen by bringing to light what has long been hidden."
That images - not words - provoked this unearthing of memories further intrigues. If Mr. Bickle lived in a mailbox, perhaps he would have witnessed some written missives petitioning for a summer camp reprieve ... but no, he had already transitioned and vanished, perhaps taking the power of words with him. As we delve into Howe's Debths, we see that images and text often battle it out on the page, deepening our curiosity and drawing us into her explorations.